The Mount’s Kelly Rothenberg (left) is ready to lend a hand as fellow junior Taylor Sistrunk (right) battles Villa Maria’s Julia Samar for a rebound. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Seeded 12th for the District 1 Class 5A basketball playoffs, Mount St. Joseph Academy surprised three higher-seeded squads to reach the tournament championship game last Saturday afternoon.

It’s hard to surprise a team in your own league that you’ve already played three times, though, and in their weekend match-up at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, second-seeded Villa Maria Academy was prepared for the Mount Magic. Taking a 13-1 lead before the Mounties scored their first field goal, the Hurricanes (24-4) were up 21-3 at the quarter and proceeded to a 61-37 victory.

Nevertheless, Mount St. Joe (14-14) surpassed almost everyone’s expectations and has earned a favorable draw for the start of the PIAA state tournament this Saturday.

The bracket matches the Mount up with the fourth seed out of District 3, Solanco (Southern Lancaster County) High School. Prior to losing the third-place playoff in their district by six points, the Golden Mules took their semifinal game into overtime before falling to eventual champ Palmyra, the same school that ended Mount St. Joseph’s field hockey season last fall.

Two weeks ago, the Mount moved through the first two rounds of the District 1 tourney by taking down fifth-seeded Pottsgrove (61-46) and number four Radnor (51-47). On Tuesday of last week, the Magic toppled top-seeded Springfield (Delco) High School in the semifinals, 52-42.

The last time the Mounties appeared in the district championship game they were beaten at Villanova University by Springfield in 2017. Last year, Mount St. Joe edged the Cougars in the quarterfinal round before eventually placing third.

Back then, the Mount was only seeded one spot below Springfield, so this year’s 12-versus-one win was a more significant upset. Sophomore Grace Niekelski scored 15 points to lead the Magic, who got a dozen from senior Lauren Cunningham and 10 from junior Lauren Vesey.

During the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies regular season, Villa Maria had swept the home/away series against the Mount, walloping the Magic by 40 points the first time. After changing up a few things for a third meeting between the teams in the AACA tournament semifinals, Mount St. Joe lost again to the Hurricanes, but only by four points this time.

MSJ sophomore Grace Niekelski elevates above Villa Maria’s Jackie Ford (#15) to get off a shot. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Villa would lose in the Catholic Academies title game to St. Basil (a Class 3A team in the PIAA), but then the Hurricanes stormed through the first three rounds of the District 1 playoffs, with none of their victory margins smaller than 17 points. They’d seen about everything the Mount could throw at them by the time they faced one another last weekend on North Broad Street.

A three-pointer from the right wing would account for the only points that Villa junior Myla Warley scored in the game, but her perimeter shot in the opening minute gave the Hurricanes a lead they never lost. An 11th-grader from the Mount, Taylor Sistrunk, got her team on the board by making the second of two free throws two-and-a-half minutes into the contest, then the numbers on Villa’s side of the scoreboard started to climb steadily. Field goals by Hurricane senior Abby Walheim and free throws by junior Maddie Ryan helped power Villa to a 13-1 lead and forced an MSJ timeout with 3:21 remaining in the opening round.

The Magic missed a layup when play resumed, then when Villa was coming back up the floor, Niekelski stole the ball and passed it ahead to Vesey, who scored the Mount’s first field goal of the game. The ‘Canes posted the last eight points of the period to lead 21-3.

Individually, eight points were already in the book out of an eventual game-high 25 for Walheim. Going on to Villanova University, she’ll be playing lacrosse under head coach Julie (Shaner) Young, a 1997 graduate of Germantown Academy.

Two minutes into the second quarter, the gap between the teams reached 20 points, at 25-5. The Magic were a little more productive on offense, with Niekelski scoring six points in the period, but Villa still won the second stanza 17-10 for a 38-13 halftime lead.

The most points that the Mount was able to score in succession came in a 7-0 spurt early in the fourth quarter, when a free throw by Vesey was sandwiched in between three-pointers by junior Kelly Rothenberg and Cunningham. This got the Mount back within 21 points of the leaders, at 51-30.

Much of the time, though, even luck seemed to desert the Magic. Often, shots by the Mounties would appear to be going in when the ball found a way to twist itself outside of the rim. They did manage to make a net gain of four points in the fourth quarter, losing 61-37.

Leading the Magic in scoring, Rothenberg scored 10 of her 12 points in the second half. Niekelski finished with seven points, and Sistrunk had five.

On the Hurricanes’ side of the scorebook, the 5’11” Walheim was followed by 6’1” Paige Lauder with 14 points, and the 6’0” Ryan with 10.

The final disappointment aside, the Mounties had an encouraging run through Districts, and will advance into the state tournament well-positioned as a number two seed.