Mount freshman Georgia Pickett (left) wrestles Henderson’s Molly Nanni for control of the ball on a rebound. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Mount St. Joseph Academy’s basketball players dispersed for Christmas after recording significant victories in and out of the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies.

On December 19, the Magic defeated AACA rival Villa Maria Academy for the first time in several seasons, winning on their home court against the Hurricanes, 69-59. Hosting a non-league game last Monday, the Mount overwhelmed Henderson High School from West Chester, 63-36, going into the holiday break with a record of 3-1 in the AACA and 6-1 overall.

Until the middle of December, Mount St. Joe was playing mostly on the road, opening the season in Chester County by winning Twin Valley High School’s tip-off tournament. Next they made their Catholic Academies debut at home against defending champ St. Basil’s, falling 67-30. The Panthers, who also won the 2019 PIAA District 1 Class 3A title, have most of their roster returning from last season.

The Mount quickly pushed their AACA record into winning territory with victories on the road at Villa Joseph Marie in Newtown and at Merion Mercy Academy.

On the 19th, the Magic faced a visiting Villa Maria squad that had made a serious fourth-quarter run against St. Basil five days earlier. The ‘Canes came up two points short to lose 47-45.

How would the Mount, which had lost to St. Basil by 37 points, approach the Villa game?

First-year coach Matt Feeney related, “We’d seen Villa on film, but we didn’t put in anything special for them. All we did was ask the girls to compete; I don’t think we did a great job competing against Basil’s.”

Falling behind 15-11 in the first quarter, the Magic roared back to outscore their guests 28-16 in the second period for a 39-31 halftime lead. Junior guard/forward Grace Niekelski attacked the basket, scoring twice and also forcing the Hurricanes to foul frequently. She shot six-for-seven from the line in the second frame.

Magic senior Taylor Sistrunk is just about to seize a loose ball at midcourt. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Guard Lauren Vesey and forward Kelly Rothenberg, both seniors, each put in one three-point bucket and scored eight points apiece during the quarter. Niekelski led all scorers at the half, with 15 points.

The Hurricanes crept two points closer in a 9-11 third quarter, but the Mounties added four points to their margin in the fourth period, with four points coming from freshman forward Georgia Pickett. Senior forward Taylor Sistrunk also scored four in the final frame to help Mount St. Joseph maintain control.

Niekelski put up a game-high 24 points, with Rothenberg and Vesey finishing with 15 and 12 points, respectively. Joining the four returning Mount starters from last year is senior forward Audrey Bryce. She raised her game last winter, and has continued to do so this season, posting 10 points in the Villa victory.

As Coach Feeney maintained, “We didn’t do anything new technically, we just did the same things harder, did them quicker.”

In recent years Henderson High and the Mount have had some fierce battles in the District 1 tournament, one contest even going into overtime. This year, though, the Warriors are feeling the effects of graduating several strong classes in a row. They would leave the Mount with a 2-5 mark.

In the first four minutes of last Monday’s meeting Henderson called two time-outs, first trailing 8-0 and then 14-0. Seven different Mounties scored in a 23-0 opening quarter. Senior guard Maura Scanlon, who’d tacked on the final point of the first period from the free throw line, struck twice from the three-point loop early in the second round.

Junior guard Danielle Dodaro hit a free throw to make it 30-0, then Henderson finally got on the board more than 10 minutes into the game with a lay-up by junior Molly Nanni. As all the MSJ starters left the floor, Nanni scored six more points in succession.

The only addition to the home side of the board came on a midrange jumper by freshman guard Kiersten Pumilia, while Nanni and Warriors classmate Molly Manion each had eight points by halftime. The tally was 32-16.

The Mount St. Joseph starters appeared at the beginning of the third quarter, but were soon withdrawn. When senior guard/forward Grace Morrow scored in the fourth quarter, every member of the Mount roster had contributed to a relaxing 27-point win.

The lone double-digit scorer for the victors, Bryce, registered 10 points, and was followed by Scanlon, with nine, Niekelski, with eight, and Rothenberg, with seven. Sistrunk, Vesey, Pickett and Pumilia each scored six points, with Dodaro putting up three points and Morrow adding two.

Now that he’s been working with his new charges for a month, Feeney was asked how he would describe the group.

“We have a very athletic team,” he said. “These kids can all get up and down the basketball floor, they can all run and shoot.

“They had to get used to me, and I had to get used to them,” he continued. “They’re learning to run a different system, so I expect improvement all season long as they get more and more accustomed to what we’re trying to do.”