---- — By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
SUNBURY -- Anyone who watched Kayla Kline and Julia McArdle-Coe play this season would conclude Mifflinburg's girls basketball team will be set for the next couple of years.
Both sophomores have skill beyond their years, rare ability that will someday establish them among the best players in the program's history.
Sara Stauffer couldn't wait a few years. She and the Wildcats' other seniors needed Kline and McArdle-Coe to be those transcendent players this season.
Immediately, if not sooner.
"We really wanted to help Sara accomplish her goals," said Kline, "and I know her goals have always been to make it to districts and even to states."
As a three-year starter (and four-year varsity player), Stauffer endured several trying seasons. Mifflinburg won 11 games and went to districts in her freshman year, but then won just six total games over the last two seasons.
So regardless of how good Kline and McArdle-Coe were destined to become in two years, Stauffer was on the "right-now" plan.
"It was difficult (going 6-38). We had a lot of talented players over those years, but this year we had more heart than all the other years combined," said Stauffer. "We just had great chemistry, right from the start, and we knew that we had a lot of potential this year.
"We made it happen."
A season that began with eight wins in 10 games closed with eight straight wins and the program's first district championship. Mifflinburg upset top-seeded Danville in the District 4 Class AAA title game, and earned a berth in the state tournament.
"Sara has worked so hard and she's been that player that everyone looks up to," said McArdle-Coe. "We just wanted to win it for her, and to help give that to her just makes it 10 times better."
The Wildcats (20-5) face Holy Redeemer, the District 2 third-place team, 6 p.m. Saturday at Shikellamy H.S.
Five other Valley girls teams are in action this weekend. Mount Carmel and Warrior Run play first-round games Friday, while Danville, Halifax and Upper Dauphin play Saturday.
Mifflinburg was a safe bet to improve last season's 4-18 record, but less likely to attain the .500 record needed to reach the postseason. Of course, that was before the Wildcats emerged from the holiday break with a 6-2 mark.
"We only had four wins last year, but we played tough and we played people tough. We just didn't pull out the wins," said Wildcats coach Kelly Griffith. "This year they believed in themselves."
The 'Cats qualified for districts in just 15 games, doing so with an emphatic, 22-point win over perennial contender Shamokin. They scored points in bunches, often putting three scorers in double-figures, and at no point during the season did they lose consecutive games.
"I think after the regular season was over and we were 17-5," said Kline, "I think that was when we felt we had a chance to go into districts and win games."
With a favorable draw as the district's No. 3 seed, Mifflinburg knocked off Jersey Shore and defending champion (and second-seeded) Athens with a fourth-quarter rally to reach the final.
"When we won against Athens it kind of opened our eyes," said McArdle-Coe, "like, Just because we lost to Danville two times before does not mean anything."
The 'Cats trailed Danville 17-8 after one quarter but turned the tables in the second period and didn't look back, beating the Ironmen by the widest margin of any team this season, 48-36.
"We played close with all the good teams in the district, and we knew we had the potential to beat them," said Stauffer. "We believed that we could get this far, and we made it count."
Kline leads Mifflinburg at 15.0 points per game, while McArdle-Coe (12.4) and Stauffer (9.8) also have healthy scoring averages. Against a taller Danville team in the district final, the trio combined for 25 rebounds to pace a 37-24 advantage on the boards.
"They have learned that our defense fuels our offense," said Griffith. "How well we play on defense carries over to the offensive end."
As proof of how far the program has come in a relatively short period of time, Griffith called time early in the fourth quarter to quell a slight Danville momentum. Using timeouts strategically to dictate tempo was a far cry from burning them to address the 'Cats' own issues or mistakes as in years past.
Or, as McArdle-Coe said, "It just shows people that just because you start at the bottom doesn't mean you can't get to the top."