Elevating for a shot during last Tuesday’s Inter-Ac finale, GA senior Cat Polisano learned later in the week that she’d been named the MVP of the league for the 2017-18 season. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Over the first seven minutes of last Tuesday’s Inter-Ac League basketball team, visiting Episcopal Academy outscored Germantown Academy, 17-6. Over the last 25 minutes, the host Patriots outpointed the Churchwomen, 46-13.

The abrupt turnaround and the resulting 52-30 victory allowed GA to finish the league schedule with a flawless 12-0 record, after having won the championship outright the previous Friday.

GA head coach Sherri Retif, nearing the end of her 20th season piloting the Patriots, has always felt that players tend to be a little too charged up at the start of a game which is part of a special occasion or celebration.

Last Tuesday’s contest was to be followed by the official public presentation of Germantown Academy’s 2008-2018 All-Decade Team in girls’ basketball, and the Pats did appear to have a little too much adrenaline pumping through much of the opening period.

In addition, the Patriots had learned before the game that senior forward Alexa Naessens would not be playing. She had injured a wrist in the previous day’s game against the Academy of Notre Dame, a 44-31 Patriots victory that got the team to 11-0 in the Inter-Ac. Taking her place in the starting line-up would be Maddie Burns, a 5’11” sophomore guard out of Norwood Fontbonne Academy.

“We made the decision about Alexa a little earlier in the day,” explained GA head coach Sherri Retif. “She hadn’t been to the doctor yet and we didn’t want to risk any further injury. We had also just played the number two team in the Inter-Ac the day before, so it took us a little time to really get our motors going.”

Episcopal was also taking the court without one of its senior stand-outs, who was home sick. Seanna McNamara had been the only player for the Churchwomen to score in double figures in the first meeting between the teams, putting up 15 points in the January 30 encounter at EA.

GA had won that contest, 61-35, overcoming a 7-5 edge Episcopal enjoyed in the middle of the first quarter. Last Tuesday, the Churchwomen made a much stronger start than that. The Patriots’ Cat Polisano, a senior guard, opened the scoring with a drive down the lane, but after that, GA would be limited to one field goal (by sophomore Maddie Vizza) and two free throws (from sophomore Elle Stauffer) until the final minute of the opening period.

EA senior forward Luca Mamula (daughter of former Philadelphia Eagle Mike Mamula) scored a couple buckets from the paint, while junior Olivia Dirks and sophomore Cara Harty each popped in a three-pointer. Episcopal ran the floor well, while the Patriots missed shots they normally make and looked disjointed overall.

Retif called a time-out with two minutes left in the quarter, but when the action resumed, a lay-up in transition by visiting sophomore Raeleen Keffer-Scharpf put the Churchwomen up by 11 points, 17-6. With 35 seconds remaining in the opening quarter, GA started the climb back with a score off of an offensive rebound by Becca Booth, a 6’2″ freshman forward who is rapidly becoming an impact player for her team. Stauffer, already a force to be reckoned with, stole the ball back and scored to get the Pats up to double digits on the scoreboard, which showed a 17-10 Episcopal lead for the start of the second stanza.

Members of GA’s All-Decade Team (2008-2018) who were present at last Tuesday’s recognition ceremony were (from left) Alexa Naessens, Cat Polisano, Jesse Carey, Coach Sherri Retif, Maggie Lucas, Fran Sweeney, Kiernan McCloskey. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

A second trey by EA’s Harty started the quarter, but GA’s Vizza answered in kind, and a reverse lay-up by Stauffer and two free throws by Polisano followed. Episcopal’s Dirks and GA’s Booth traded field goals as the visitors still retained the lead, 22-19. Back-to-back baskets by Burns gave the Patriots the lead for the first time since the opening minute, and the half ended with the hosts ahead, 23-22.

The second half, like the first, began with GA’s Polisano making a successful drive to the hoop, and this time Episcopal did not respond right away. The Patriots strengthened their position with a field goal by Haynes, a free throw by Polisano and two foul shots by Stauffer.

In a collision on the court, Haynes had another player fall on her leg, suffering what was later deemed a sprained ankle. Her output was below her usual standard, but she remained the team’s leading scorer.

“She’s a quiet warrior – she’s so tough, she’ll play through things like that,” Coach Retif said. “After she broke into the starting line-up last year as a freshman, we’ve continued to see her show up in the stat line every game, in one way or another. She gets it done day in and day out.”

With a little over three minutes left in the third quarter, Episcopal was still close behind, 27-30. The period ended with a 10-0 Germantown run that featured scoring by Stauffer, Booth and Haynes, and finally a three-pointer from the left wing by junior Rachel Balzer.

Episcopal, which had scored five points in each of the previous two quarters, would manage only three in the fourth round. GA was able to add another dozen even while subbing in players from far down the bench.

“This bench is the best group of teammates we’ve seen in a long time,” Retif stated. “They cheer and support their teammates, and they’re always ready to go in. During the last few weeks they’ve really been coming on for us, and every week that goes by Cat Polisano [back this season after ACL surgery] gets stronger and closer to her old self.”

When the team clinched the 2018 Inter-Ac title four days earlier (which actually came through a Springside Chestnut Hill Academy victory over second-place Notre Dame while GA was idle), Retif won her 18th league championship. With that, she moved to the top of the list for most Inter-Ac basketball championships captured by any coach, male or female, positioned just ahead of GA’s own boys’ hoops guru, Jim Fenerty, who’s won 17 titles.

“It’s never about me; I don’t pay much attention to those things,” she commented. “It’s really about the girls reaching their potential and sharing the joy of being in this program.”

Some of the premier players who’d been part of that legacy were honored after Tuesday’s game with the official announcement of the Patriots’ All-Decade Team. Two members of the current team were included; Naessens, who will play for Colgate University, and Polisano, who’ll join the squad at Fordham University.

The list also features an assistant coach on the GA staff, Maggie Lucas. Graduating in 2010, the sharpshooting guard had gone on to become a Division I star at Penn State and then continued into the WNBA. Lucas recently signed to play for the Atlanta Dream in the upcoming WNBA season.
The other members of the honorary team are Lilly Bolen ’17 (Tufts), Kendall Grasela ’16 (Penn), Erin Lindahl ’16 (Emory), Olivia Gorman ’15 (Wesleyan), Margaret Anne Hubbell ’14 (U.S. Military Academy), Kiernan McCloskey ’13 (Lehigh), Fran Sweeney ’13 (Emory), Jaryn Garner ’12 (Virginia/St. Joseph’s), Alexa Gallgher ’11 (DePaul), Tory Thierolf ’10 (Drexel) and Jesse Carey ’09 (Villanova).

Coach Retif clearly enjoyed seeing her former stars mingle with today’s Patriots.

“It was great watching Alexa and Cat Interacting with players like Jesse and Maggie, sharing their stories,” she remarked. “I think the consistent theme running through these generations of players is that they’re all passionate about GA, and they’re all passionate about basketball.”

UPDATE – In the middle of last week, the All-Inter-Ac League teams were announced. In addition to having Polisano honored as the Inter-Ac MVP, GA had Haynes and Stauffer picked for the all-league First Team, while Balzer and Naessens were named to the Second Team.

Having earned a first-round bye in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament as the number one seed, GA began play on Saturday with a 60-44 quarterfinal win over eighth-seeded Penn Charter. Balzer rang up 18 points on six three-pointers for the winners, who received 17 points from Stauffer and 12 from Haynes. Polisano posted seven points and four rebounds, and Naessens had two points and seven boards.