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PIAA Class 3A Girls Championship Preview: Neumann-Goretti vs. Freedom Area

03/24/2022, 1:00am EDT
By Joseph Santoliquito

Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)

Andrea Peterson likes to keep it quiet. The Neumann-Goretti coach would prefer it that way. 

Too bad. 

In her young coaching career, Peterson is on the brink of winning five PIAA state championships in eight years. Getting to this one may have been her finest coaching job yet. Using a small rotation, for a very small-sized team, Peterson has managed to guide the Saints through the insanely rugged Philadelphia Catholic League and has the western half of Pennsylvania calling her munchkins “Goliaths.”

D'Ayzha Atkinson (above) is the Saints' top rebounder and one of the leading scorers on the season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

What is true is that Neumann-Goretti (16-9) will be going for a fifth state championship, after winning four-straight state titles (2015, 2016, 2017, 2018) in the last eight years. What is also true is other than Peterson, who’s 4-0 in state title games, 29-2 in the state playoffs and 159-45 overall in eight years, none of her players have ever previously appeared in a state championship game.

The Saints will be in good company for the PIAA Class 3A girls state championship on Saturday, at 12-noon at Hershey’s Giant Center, when tiny Neumann-Goretti meets a team making its first-ever appearance in the state championship, Freedom Area (22-5), under coach John Kaercher.

The Saints are tiny, and young—though their exceptional speed sets them apart. Sharp-shooting 5-3 senior guard Mihjae Hayes has played den mother all year to a team that thrives on defensive pressure and throws up a ton of shots. Hayes has received support from a pair of 5-9 junior forwards Amirah Hackney and Saneaj Tyler, 5-9 sophomore forward Brooke Barnes and 5-9 senior D’Ayzha Atkinson. Peterson has also watched a pair of dynamic 5-3 freshmen guards, Carryn Easley and Amaya Scott, develop, especially Easley, who looks like a future star.

“I have a bunch of young kids, a bunch of dogs who go hard who have become what I envisioned at the start of the season,” Peterson said. “Mih is the heart and soul of our team, but Carryn has really emerged as a freshman, and Amaya, too. This is the first year where I wasn’t afraid to put the ball in my freshmen’s hands.”

Neumann-Goretti topped Imhotep Charter in the semifinals, Hayes leading the way with 16 points. The Saints previously beat Brandywine Heights (72-25), Bloomsburg (61-39) and Conwell-Egan (72-47) to reach the Final Four.

“I told my team if we can defend for 32 minutes, we can win," Peterson said. "We’ve learned to defend. We’re getting whatever shot we want; we just have to put the ball in the basket more consistently.

Mihjae Hayes (above) is the engine that drives Neumann-Goretti's girls' squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“Mih wants to go out a champion and she’s been a great leader. The other thing is this group gets along. They love each other and we’re one great big family. The Freedom coach (Kaercher) does a really good job, from what I’ve seen of them. They’re going to try and slow it down, and we’re used to playing different styles. My girls know how to defend. We’re going to hope to get our hands on some steals and get out and run.”

Hayes averages 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game, while Atkinson is averaging 12.3 points and 9.6 rebounds. However, it’s more than Hayes and Atkinson. In the Saints’ 53-46 loss to Catholic League powerhouse Archbishop Carroll last month, a game in which the Saints were leading, 42-35, with 6:14 to play, it was Barnes and Hackney who played major roles, with Easley stirring problems with her quickness on the defensive end.

Kaercher will probably deploy a 1-3-1 zone, as he did in the Bulldogs’ 46-39 victory over WPIAL Class 3A champion North Catholic in the state semifinals, or a 2-3 matchup. They scored previous state wins over Westmont (44-31), Greenville (56-28) and River Valley (56-50).

“What I know about Neumann-Goretti is what I’ve seen on film, and I know everything is deceiving on film as I’ve learned throughout this entire process,” Kaercher said. “We’re going to prepare for a little of everything. We know that they have speed and quickness, and we know that they’re pretty aggressive on the defensive end. They’re also aggressive on the offensive side.”

The Bulldogs are led by 5-7 senior Renae Mohrbacher, 5-10 junior Julz Mohrbacher, and 5-7 sophomore guard Shaye Bailey, 5-11 senior forward Olivia Evans and 5-6 senior guard Cadence Gorajewski.

“What I like about my team right now is that we’re having fun, and we’re loose, and I’ve been saying since we made the WPIAL run that if we don’t know what we’re doing by now, there’s nothing we can do,” said Kaercher, who’s done a great job in getting the Bulldogs by Pittsburgh-area power North Catholic, which previously beat Freedom three times this season, twice in sectional play and again in the WPIAL championship. “I like the way we’ve come together as a team. We’re unselfish and having fun in the process.

“Neumann-Goretti’s speed is a big concern of ours. We were averaging 55, 56 points a game right now. I like the way we’re playing on both sides of the ball. We have the size advantage and we’re going to have to play to that. Their speed on tape is hard to simulate in practice, but if we stay true to what has gotten us to this point, it’s going to be a heck of a ball game. 

“This has been an historic season and I tell the girls after practice that we have one more chapter to write.”

Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.

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