by Tom Utescher

During the last week of the 2012-2013 basketball season, SCH senior Maddi Hinchey (right) attempts to block a shot by GFS freshman Lizzie Becker. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

The girls basketball teams at Germantown Friends School and Springside Chestnut Hill Academy were each dealing with some significant changes coming into the 2012-2013 campaign, but both the Tigers and Lions ended the season with reason to be encouraged about their future.

With a new head coach and new supporting staff, GFS significantly improved its regular-season record in the Friends Schools League, going from a team that had not qualified for the league playoffs to an FSL semifinalist. SCH graduated four starters from the previous year, but the Lions surprised many observers by improving their standing in the final Inter-Ac League rankings, and by recording the first victory over Germantown Academy in the history of the Springside School/SCH program.

When she went to work at Germantown Friends at the start of the current school year, even rookie coach Ashley Webster admitted that the basketball culture at the school needed to be revitalized. Under her leadership, that already started to occur this season.

A year ago, the Tigers were not in the running for a berth in their league playoffs, finishing up the FSL regular season with a 3-5 record.

This year GFS went 7-2, falling only to the eventual FSL champion, Shipley School, and the league runner-up, Abington Friends.

Securing the third seed for the Friends League tournament, the Tigers (11-10 overall) were only down by five points at the three-quarter mark in their semifinal against Abington before losing 42-25.

“The girls improved a lot in their confidence out on the floor, and in their overall basketball knowledge and awareness,” said Webster, who attended GFS up through 10th grade and is now back on Coulter St. teaching in the lower school. “By the end of the season, they no longer needed me to tell them every little thing. They were more independent and they knew what their responsibilities were on the court.”

Two starters, guard Sophie Mercuris and forward Katherine Walden are graduating this year, but that means that Webster will have the majority of this year’s varsity returning.

“I’m expecting a lot of growth from the girls who were our bench players this year,” she said. “They need to play more in the off-season so that they’re ready to take on a larger role on the varsity team.”

Two young guards, sophomore Imani Ross and freshman Lizzie Becker, have both been participating in AAU basketball programs for some time, and Webster hopes to see more Tigers with a basketball in-hand outside of the three months or so of the winter school season. She said that younger players will get a chance to compete together in a spring league in Cheltenham Township, and she’s also looking for a summer league for her varsity squad.

In addition, there is extra-curricular hoops activity happening right on campus, such as the “Early Risers” program that has middle school students coming in one day a week to train before school starts. There have been some clinics conducted on weekends, as well.

“I’ve also had a chance to sit in on some eighth-grade practices at school, and I’ll catch a game when I can,” Webster related. “I want them to know that we’re supporting them and that we’re aware that they’re the future of our varsity program.”

Over at Springside Chestnut Hill, the Lions were coming off of a successful 2011-2012 campaign. After coping with injuries to key players in the first round of Girls Inter-Ac League games, the team had regrouped and gone 5-1 in the second round, securing a tie for fourth place in the final standings. In their final game in the Pa. Independent Schools Tournament, the Lions lost by a single point to the eventual champion, Shipley School.

However, a few months later four starters from the squad graduated, three who would go on to play basketball at the next level, and a fourth who is now a collegiate softball player. Some people felt a letdown was inevitable for the SCH squad, but second-year head coach Steve

Purcell didn’t want his players to buy into that way of thinking.

He recalled, “I told them that we took a step forward last year and had a nice season, and just because people think you can’t do that well again, you can’t stop believing in yourselves. You have to go out on the court thinking you can win.”

Purcell’s squad recently wrapped up the season with a record very similar to the one last year’s more experienced team produced. A year ago the Lions finished 14 and 14 overall, and this time around they went 13-14, playing tough non-league games against New Jersey’s star-studded Life Center Academy (twice), Shipley, Suburban One American Conference champion Upper Dublin, and Archbishop Ryan and St. Hubert’s from the Philadelphia Catholic League.

As Purcell observed, “If you don’t play good teams before you get into the league, you’re not going to get any better, and you’re not going to do well in the Inter-Ac. We had some clunkers, but we had a lot of games where we really played well.”

Both this year and last, SCH posted a 7-5 mark within the Girls Inter-Ac, but this year that figure was good enough to earn fourth place outright, while last year the team shared that spot with Penn Charter.

The lone returning starter, Gianna Pownall, was a team co-captain this winter, along with fellow senior guard Maddi Hinchey.

“They were good captains, even though they weren’t the rah-rah type,” said Purcell. “They practiced hard and played hard and set the example, and the other girls followed.”

NOTE: Recently, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy decided that the girls’ varsity sports teams would abandon their old Lion mascot and go by the nickname of Blue Devils, used by the boys’ teams at SCH and, prior to that, at the former Chestnut Hill Academy. The LOCAL referred to the SCH girls teams as the Lions for the duration of the winter season, but henceforth they will be known here as the Blue Devils. For now, the large “Lions” logo and paw print still appear in the middle of the basketball court in the school’s Lois Fernley Gymnasium.