Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2022-23 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
It was an injury that changed the course of not one but two seasons for Springfield (Delco.) girls’ basketball. When junior guard Lexi Aaron went down with a torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in the fifth game of the 2021-22 season, the Cougars were left short-handed and without their leading scorer, a significant disadvantage for a team that didn’t have a single senior on the roster.
But instead of folding, Ky McNichol’s team rallied. The Cougars ripped off seven straight wins to begin 2022, went 13-3 in the Central League, won 19 games overall and made it to the PIAA Class 5A quarterfinals, where they ran into Catholic League powerhouse and eventual state champs Cardinal O’Hara.
“I think we all grew a lot last year as players and coaches,” said McNichol, in her ninth season coaching the Cougars. “We had to make an adjustment on the fly, we figured it out, how we were going to win basketball games [...] We had a bunch of kids step up, fill some roles that we needed to fill, and they figured out a way to win.”
Springfield-Delco senior Mia Valerio is one of a number of returners. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Cougars know, however, that last year could have been better. A pair of overtime losses, to Marple Newtown in the Central League semifinals and to Bishop Shanahan in the District 1 5A semifinals, kept them from playing for any titles.
There’s plenty to reflect on, like 10 missed free-throws in the second half against Shanahan, which cost Springfield an appearance at the Liacouras Center. They’re lessons learned now, the mark of an inexperienced group a year ago that’s back and better for it.
“Both of those games [...] we had a tough ending,” senior Mia Valerio said. “I think both of those games share the element of we couldn’t really make foul shots, and that’s something we’re working really hard on and focusing on, knowing that a game could come down to those.
“I definitely think there’s a difference when it comes to, last year we got a season under our belt of what it was like and we had to step into that leadership role at a younger place than we would have instead of senior year. So having that under our belt is going to help us.”
Now, the entire Cougars starting lineup is back. And they return Aaron, a 5-foot-7 guard and Towson lacrosse signee, who’s ready for one last go-around with some girls she’s called teammates for a long time.
Aaron, Valerio and their classmate Anabel Kreydt first met on the courts as not-yet-four-year-olds in the Briarcliffe League, almost instantly forming a bond as two sports-obsessed girls, playing basketball and lacrosse together all through their early years, whether that was at the YMCA, in youth leagues, or eventually for their school.
“I think that it sets us apart in a way that we know each other’s strengths and we know each other’s weaknesses,” Valerio said. “We know how to make each other look good.”
“We grew up playing sports together, we don’t really know what it’s like not to have each other on the court,” Aaron said. “It’s definitely sentimental…we know going into the season it’s our last. We’re going to make the best of it, we’re going to get stuff done.”
Springfield-Delco senior Kaitlyn Kearney is headed to Widener next season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Aaron’s got no doubt that her knee is ready for the basketball season. She made her return from the injury late in her junior lacrosse season after five months of intense rehab, then played lacrosse all summer and soccer in the fall, giving her plenty of live-game experience to test the brace and ligament when she plants, runs, and cuts.
Valerio, a 5-6 point guard who’ll be playing lacrosse at Richmond last year, became the Cougars’ leader last year after Aaron’s injury, but she had plenty of help. Kreydt, a 5-10 forward, and fellow seniors Kaitlyn Kearney (5-7 SG) — a Widener basketball commit — Taylor Hunyet (5-9 F) and Sophia Ward (5-5 G) all started the vast majority of last season, giving McNichol the good problem of having six potential starters to choose from this fall.
Last year, Springfield’s rotation didn’t go too much deeper than those six; a handful of freshmen and sophomores saw reserve minutes, but most of the production came from the juniors. This year, McNichols expects to go deeper, with a quartet of juniors and trio of sophomores all making a bid to be in the rotation; both Valerio and Aaron singled out junior guard Cora Fattori as one who’d made a particularly strong impression during offseason events.
That improved and increased depth should allow Springfield to try and push the tempo a little more this year after playing most of their games in the high 30s or low 40s last season, a style especially useful after Aaron’s injury.
“Last year was different,” McNichol said. “We’re going to look to play fast, play a transition game. We’ve got a deep bench, we’ve got a lot of girls that can contribute, and we’re going to play at pace.”
While Springfield’s regular season won’t look too different from a year ago, February and March will bring quite a change. The Cougars have bumped up from 5A into the 6A classification, where they’ll go up against the biggest high schools in the district and state. Instead of facing the likes of Bishop Shanahan and Marple Newtown in district playoffs, it’ll be the likes of Perk Valley, Spring-Ford, Plymouth Whitemarsh, Souderton and more.
“We understand that we have a big challenge in 6A this year, but I think that if we all buy in and work hard, anything is possible,” Valerio said. “I am really confident that we can do great things and really excited to end my basketball career with a great group of people.”