Andrew Robinson (@ADrobinson3)
HERSHEY — No matter how good a team is, it doesn't just go 34-0 by simply showing up.
Start adding up every accomplishment or note Plymouth Whitemarsh accomplished this season and it starts getting overwhelming very quickly. The list of titles is impressive, the caliber of opponents undeniable and the results now immortalized with the Colonials having loaded their PIAA 6A trophy on their coach bus for the drive home Sunday morning but they weren't handed that trophy and the accompanying giant chocolate bar on merit.
The Colonials were a team for the ages because they worked for it.
Abby Sharpe (20) and Angelina Balcer embrace after the Colonials' win. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
"I think it comes from our preparedness," guard Abby Sharpe said. "We've said all year our confidence doesn't come from the fact we may be 33-0, it comes from the fact we know how much work we put into this game. We felt prepared, we knew their plays and which players like to do what, so it all came from the defensive end and being prepared."
Sharpe could define that message as well as anyone on PW's roster. The junior was a bench player last season, used mainly as a spot-up shooter and only in specific situations and instead of getting upset about it, put in so much work this past summer that she turned into the team's leading postseason scorer.
Mt. Lebanon might have had no answers for senior point guard Kaitlyn Flanagan on Saturday night, but the Blue Devils also just couldn't stop Sharpe. The 5-foot-11 guard, who has parlayed that work into a handful of Division I college offers, scored a game and career-high 26 points, blistering the usually unforgiving Giant Center backdrop on 10-of-13 shooting that included a 7-of-7 second effort and 3-of-3 showing behind the arc.
As for Flanagan, who had the defining sequence of the game where she played a version of yo-yo with the entire Mt. Lebanon defense giving up the ball, getting it back, giving it up, getting it back and on and on until she put the Devils out of their misery by finding Lainey Allen for a layup, Saturday night was completely fulfilling.
"It's like, honestly, the best game I've ever been a part of," Flanagan, who dissected Mt. Lebanon with seven assists, said. "This has been the goal, not even since I've been in high school, winning a state championship is something where if you're an athlete, every kid dreams about for a really long time.
"To do it like this, with this group, it's hard to put into words. It's such an amazing feeling that I don't think it's fully hit half of us yet."
PW won the SOL Liberty division unblemished, the team's third straight outright league title. They swept through the SOL tournament, retaining the same laser-focus regardless if their opponent was at full strength or not. In 34 games, the only time the Colonials trailed in the fourth quarter came in the District 1 quarterfinals against Haverford and even that wasn't enough to stop them.
As the top seed in the District 1 playoffs, the Colonials kept the table clear of any obstacles and got to Temple where they got an extra bit of sweetener on their district title by winning it over the Spring-Ford program that had ended their season in 2021.
During the 2021-22 season, the Colonials beat the Delaware state champion, another semifinalist from the First State, the PCL and PIAA 5A champion in Cardinal O'Hara, the PCL regular season champion in Archbishop Carroll, 6A state qualifiers in Upper Dublin, Abington and Pennsbury multiple times and everyone else who faced them. It is a resume of "earned, not given."
"What sticks out is just the time together," Sharpe said. "This team, we're just so close so being together, riding around all weekend in a coach bus is great, going out together to these meals is great and being with this team out on the court celebrating, it's moments and memories I'm not going to forget."
Playing the "what if?" game can be dangerous, but it's compelling to think about what might have happened had Flanagan not missed a game late last season against CB East where the Colonials collapsed late, costing them the top seed and home court for the district title game. Would that have mattered enough? Could they have stopped Spring-Ford's Lucy Olsen no matter where the game was played?
Those questions won't get answered but what can be explained is what that loss did for this team. It became a motivation, a lesson in the value of team over individual and a pledge that no one player, no matter how talented, was ever going to beat them again.
Saturday night wasn't just a state final, it was a final exam. All season, coach Dan Dougherty talked about his team - a roster full of excellent students by the way - taking certain games as quizzes or tests and Mt. Lebanon was the one they had been studying all year for with the Devils boasting one of those standalone talents in senior Ashleigh Connor.
"Ashleigh Connor is a really, really good player but we had an experience in the district championship last year with Lucy Olsen and a lot of us, after watching the Central Dauphin film, started having flashbacks," Flanagan said. "We decided we're not going to let one girl beat us."
Connor didn't. Erin Daley, with some help from Flanagan, limited the Devils' senior to 12 points on 5-of-13 shooting, 10 below her season average and less than half of the 27 she had buried Central Dauphin under in the state semifinal round.
Instead, PW was the one putting Mt. Lebanon to rest at every opportunity. The Colonials closed the first quarter out 8-0, the second 6-0 and the third 9-0 with the last coming under a barrage of Sharpe points with the guard sinking 10 of her 26 in the frame.
"We said it was going to be a four-quarter game and all we could do was focus on one quarter at a time," Sharpe said. "They may have their runs but we just had to come back with our own runs and being able to end those first three quarters with our own runs, it just kept the momentum for us, which I think was really important.
"I think we came in hot at halftime, which just really pushed us going in for the end of the game."
The Colonials hit 23 shots on Saturday and assisted on 18 of them, which wasn't a playoff high for percentage of baskets assisted. They collectively shot 23-of-36 overall and 5-of-9 from distance while the defense held Mt. Lebanon to 15-of-52 shooting and PW's defensive plan of forcing the Blue Devils' role players to have to make threes for four quarters played out perfectly as the WPIAL champions were just 7-of-28 from deep.
Their most influential player, Flanagan, scored two points yet utterly frustrated a very good defensive team. Jordyn Thomas missed the last two games, returned and played more minutes than anyone else on the Colonials roster.
"It's just a reflection of how well we play together and how prepared our coaches make us," Thomas said. "The amount of film we watch, the amount of plays we study, the time we spend as a group going over plans or ways to stay focused, it all shows out on the court.
"It's the moments in the locker room, or this weekend in our hotel rooms, where we ask questions and motivate each other, that's more important, taking that time to realize we're here together, doing it together and we can help each other get there."
With 39 seconds to go, Dougherty sent a wave of subs to the table. The horn sounded and all five starters came off the floor, together.
The perfect ending.
"It was hard work but looking up and seeing we were winning by 20, I was almost in disbelief," Allen said. "I thought 'wow, we're really about to win states' and that's just a really great feeling to have out on the court with my team. I'm almost in shock, but we also worked hard and we deserved it."
Erin Daley would do anything for her team.
The Plymouth Whitemarsh junior had been told not to, but Daley's devotion to her team was so strong that she sat on her bed last weekend pouring over film preparing for the state title game it was going to try and win. Having emerged as the team's defensive stopper this season, Daley knew she'd be tasked to stop Mt. Lebanon's dynamic senior Ashleigh Connor and wanted to get a start on the assignment.
Unlike the Terminator, Daley did take out her target Connor as the junior turned in a brilliant double-double effort to help PW finish the perfect season with a 60-40 trouncing of Mt. Lebanon in the PIAA Class 6A title game Saturday night in Hershey.
Erin Daley (above) had a double-double in PW's state championship win on Saturday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
"We are a family, not only is our team a family but we have this huge community that has done so, so much for us," Daley said after posting 17 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocks. "Our teachers and staff, we were getting something every morning, it felt like every corner I turned, I saw a picture of my face. It was getting a little overwhelming, but we know how much support we have.
"No matter what happened, everyone was going to be so proud of us but we knew we deserved it and we were going to go out and work so hard for it."
In her eyes, Daley owed her team nothing less than her absolute best. The compilation of several factors, including her grandfather Ed Givnish passing away just before Christmas in 2020 and a difficult AAU summer, had drained the fun out of basketball and Daley had even considered walking away from the game prior to this season.
Daley felt like she hadn't really shown who she is as a person or player in that AAU season and worse, she saw the drain it was having on her parents and friends including Abby Sharpe, her PW teammate and one of her best friends.
She found the resolve to give it one more go and through coach Dan Dougherty, assistants TJ DeLucia and Bridgette McKnight and most importantly through her teammates, Daley fell back in love with the game. When the Colonials had to endure a difficult slate of games in Delaware right around Christmas without Sharpe and got through it undefeated, Daley felt the fire re-ignite.
"I had a couple rough practices this week but I told my coaches not to give up on me, I was going to come in here and give everything I had today," Daley said. "Coach D kind of put us on the spot and we were all going to have a little heart-to-heart. We all went around the table and said something and I kind of got a little emotional, I kind of broke down but I just shared how these girls have brought me through so much."
The timing of her resurgence coming right as a year passed from her grandfather's passing didn't escape Daley. Just as an extra reminder, Daley's mom Courtney sent Erin a message on Saturday morning.
"He was a basketball legend, I think he's the reason I'm here, it's in my genes," Daley said. "My aunt put one of our PW shirts on his grave this morning and when I saw that, I said 'I'm going to go out there and do this for you.'"
When Jordyn Thomas missed the last two games with a non-COVID illness, Daley was the one stepping in to fill her teammate's defensive responsibilities. If her scoring dropped a little as a result, it certainly didn't bother Daley as she continued to give every little bit she had to make sure the Colonials saw another game together.
So even in the first few moments after securing a spot in Hershey, she already started thinking about how she was going to stop the Blue Devils' best player in Connor and prevent a repeat of last year's season-ending loss.
"We heard about this girl dropping 27 points on a team we knew she would be the one that was going to hurt us if we let her," Daley said. "Last year, Lucy Olsen completely dominated us in the district championship and that was our No. 1 goal in practice all week, not to let that happen again.
"I figured they were going to put me on her and honestly, I was in my bed all day Saturday trying not to watch film on her but I just couldn't wait, i wanted to get to work on her and show not only can I be this offensive player on the court but that defense is what I care about, defense is all heart and if I have an off-night I can still play defense."
Erin Daley (15) drives while Lainey Allen (33) sets a screen. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Daley didn't have to worry about the off-night part. She scored the first points of the game and was seemingly everywhere in the first eight minutes with eight points, seven rebounds, terrific defense and even chipped in another key play by drawing Connor's second foul with 1:20 left in the quarter.
Her first quarter set the tone early and her 3-pointer off an assist from Thomas with 1:49 left in the second quarter effectively buried Mt. Lebanon in a 25-11 halftime deficit. The combination of her and Kaitlyn Flanagan's defense had all but taken Connor out of the game offensively and the Blue Devils couldn't shoot well enough to hope to keep up as Flanagan took over in a virtuoso second half effort passing the ball.
Between the two of them, they helped hold Connor to 12 points - a full 10 off her season average - on just 5-of-13 shooting.
"Erin Daley and Flanagan just shut Connor down," Dougherty said. "We talked about it, that's a kid that plays like she wants to foul out. She's overly aggressive, so we said let her to play to foul out."
Flanagan looks to be the team's leader on the floor, but the Holy Cross-bound point guard had nothing but adulation for Daley's efforts not only on Saturday, but the entire time they've known each other.
"I think it's just the closeness we have that we're able to support each other, but it's truly 100 percent her," Flanagan said. "She is honestly the strongest person I know and for her to go through what she went through and to come back and have a season like this, it's incredible. I have so much respect for her as a person, no one knows how much she went through and it's inspiring honestly to all of us to see her come out and play like that and work so hard.
"She's such a leader, she's younger than me and I still try to learn leadership skills from her. Inspiring, that's the word I would use to describe her."
Daley had some great individual plays, including a block on a Connor 3-point attempt, but when pressed on what memory will stick out from the entire weekend, she chose the pep rally the school held Friday morning. It was meant to send the basketball team off to Hershey right, but it was what happened when the bus passed Colonial Elementary School located adjacent to the high school that struck Daley most.
"Seeing all these little kids that look up to you and how many people we really inspire, it was so heart-warming and I think made all of us feel so good," Daley said. "Getting that amazing send-off made us ready to get into this game. There were so many people we didn't want to let down and that's why we played the way that we did."
Erin Daley, like any of her teammates, will never claim to be perfect on their own. But as a group this season, there's no denying that they were just that, perfect.
"Nobody can say we walked onto the court every game and got it handed to us," Daley said. "We worked so hard for it. It is just insane and I feel like we've made so many people proud, which is a nice feeling as well and you can't get much better than what we did."