by Tom Utescher
In their first Inter-Ac League encounter this season, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy gave the league-leading Germantown Academy Patriots an unexpected workout. On January 17 in Fort Washington, the visiting Blue Devils were up at halftime and led by four points at the three-quarter mark before GA went ahead in the final frame and won, 53-43.
Last Friday’s rematch at SCH followed a different scenario, with GA attaining a double-digit lead in the first quarter and then cruising to a 75-49 victory. With that outcome, the Patriots (26-1 overall) lifted their league record to 11-0 with only one Inter-Ac contest left on the schedule, clinching the 2019 league title outright.
The two teams likely to tie for second place could no longer catch the Patriots; the Academy of Notre Dame has lost twice to GA and once to Penn Charter, while the PC Quakers have lost once to each of the other two teams.
In another Friday contest, Penn Charter built a substantial lead over Episcopal Academy and then weathered a late run by the Churchwomen to win, 55-49. Climbing to 21-5, the PC squad set a new school record for wins in a single season. This week the Quakers (8-2 league) take on last-place Agnes Irwin on Tuesday before hosting Germantown Academy on Thursday afternoon.
Notre Dame finishes its league schedule at home on Tuesday against SCH, then the Blue Devils return to Chestnut Hill for a Senior Day finale against Episcopal on Wednesday. GA and PC have been seeded first and second, respectively, for the Pa. Independent Schools tournament and will enjoy byes in the first round, while 12th-seeded SCH travels to play number five Westtown School on Friday.
In last Friday’s league contest, Germantown was literally off and running at the outset, with junior Elle Stauffer scoring back-to-back lay-ups in transition off of passes from senior Rachel Balzer. Later, Balzer and junior Maddie Vizza got going from the three-point line, and although the Blue Devils received field goals from senior Kara Kniezewski and freshman Layla Sawyer along with a couple of free throws, they trailed 17-6 at the end of the first quarter.
A little over a minute into the second round, the Patriots were up 22-7. Springside Chestnut Hill pushed back with offense from Mo’ne Davis and fellow senior Caroline Clark, as well as from Kniezewski. Two minutes before halftime, the Blue Devils were on the verge of bringing their deficit down into single figures, trailing 29-19.
GA finished with a flourish, though. Stauffer snatched a defensive rebound and went coast-to-coast to score, and then junior Jaye Haynes bagged a pair of free throws. With eight seconds left, Balzer stuck a “three” from the top of the key, sending the teams into their locker rooms with a 36-19 tally on the board.
This season GA has a strong and experienced junior class consisting of Haynes, Stauffer, Vizza, Norwood Fontbonne Academy grad Maddie Burns, Sarah DiLello and Lindsay Putnam. A seventh junior, 5’11” Caitlyn Priore, has been sidelined while recovering from knee surgery. Becca Booth, a 6’3” sophomore, earned a starting spot this year, and talented forward Jessica Moore, another 10th grader, sees a good deal of time coming off the bench.
Balzer, however, is the only senior, and must shoulder that mantle of responsibility alone.
“It’s been tough, but I think I’ve grown as a leader,” she said after GA clinched the league title outright last Friday. “Coach Retif challenged me to become a more verbal leader and I was able to do that. We have seven juniors who are the core of our team, and after last year, I knew we had a special team coming into this season. Everybody’s continued to improve, and we’re a team that practices hard and plays hard.”
Balzer, a shooting guard, had first played with the varsity in summer league competition between her seventh and eighth-grade years at GA. She’s been part of the regular varsity squad since her freshman year, but at the beginning of her senior season, she was just coming off of a long period of recovery and rehabilitation after undergoing two hip surgeries last March.
“I was back in seventh months for the start of our season,” she related. “It was a lot of hard work, but I had the support of my family, my coaches and my teammates. I’d been doing some running, but I had to get back into real basketball shape and my shot was a little off.”
She engaged in some one-on-one training with veteran GA assistant coach Andre Strothers.
“When I was recovering I worked a lot with Coach Andre,” she related. “We tried to change my mindset from just being a three-point shooter to being more willing to drive to the basket or take a mid-range shot. We also worked on communicating more on the court.”
After her team led by 17 points at halftime last Friday at Springside Chestnut Hill, Balzer bagged three three-point field goals during the third quarter as the Patriots pulled away to lead 61-29 at the three-quarter mark. In the fourth quarter SCH had its most productive period of the game, outscoring it guest 20-14.
The Blue Devils’ Davis deposited nine of her team-high 15 points after halftime, which was also when Clark scored six of her 10 points and Sawyer logged six of her nine.
Balzer booked a game-high 19 points, Vizza chalked up an even dozen and Moore scored eight points. Stauffer balanced 14 points with 14 rebounds, and Booth matched seven points with seven boards.
Back in November, Balzer signed with George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. after making a verbal commitment as a junior.
“I fell in love with the school when I visited,” she said. “I liked the whole atmosphere when I was around the coaches and the players, and the women’s basketball team gets a lot of support there.”
She’s still deciding between going into a pre-physical therapy curriculum or pursuing elementary education, and she likes the fact that she could major in either one at George Mason. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the university’s sports teams are called the Patriots, like Germantown Academy’s.
Balzer is already ramping up her weight lifting and other conditioning work to prepare for college ball, since she’ll already be seeing a lot of action with George Mason this summer.
“I go down there five days after graduation,” she explained. “After that I come back home for a week or two, and then the whole team is going over to play in Italy.”