By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
When they emerged from the locker room after Saturday’s game, the Mifflinburg girls went their separate ways, meandering around the court and ultimately lingering in small pockets of family or friends.
Curiously there was no mass exodus, no rush to leave the gym and claim as much of the weekend that remained following the rare afternoon game.
Maybe it was force of habit, but that alone wouldn’t explain the number of watery eyes and palpable disappointment.
No, losing has its bite back within the program. It clearly stings, and, truth be told, that’s almost as promising a sign as the Wildcats’ surprising start.
“It’s just the desire and the competitiveness in them,” Mifflinburg coach Kelly Griffith explained. “They have grown in that way. They have a lot more heart this year and know that they can do it. I think they all just really want it.”
An 18-loss season packs a serious punch.
Think about it, failing four out of every five times you do something. How would that affect your confidence and ambition over 22 attempts?
How long would it take for basketball to become another mundane school assignment, like a book report, rather than a rewarding extracurricular activity? How many post-practice pep talks would echo classroom lectures?
The Wildcats went 4-18 last year, the kind of season that can have a crippling effect on a program, such as persuading multi-sport athletes to specialize or discouraging girls from making the commitment to play in the first place.
Fortunately (or unfortunately, as it would have seemed), Griffith brought back virtually that entire team, a year older if nothing else. After doubling last year’s win total in just 10 games, it’s obvious their ages are among the Wildcats’ least significant changes.
“We actually have confidence and we believe in ourselves,” said sophomore Julia McArdle-Coe. “If we miss a shot or two, we miss a shot or two. We brush it off, pick each other up and we keep going. I think that helps a lot because last year we dwelled on everything we did wrong.
“This year, I really think we’re just playing hard, playing together and keeping each other up.”
The team that lost 18 games certainly improved as the season evolved, but it had several flaws that are typical of any young squad (inconsistent scoring, high turnovers, defensive lapses).
Still, the near-misses at season’s end and promise of freshmen such as McArdle-Coe and HAC-I all-star Kayla Kline made Griffith’s state of the program speech easier to swallow.
“At the end of last year we were like, ‘Look, we have a lot of talent. Let’s put the time in and work. We have a good team here.’ You could tell from the look in their eyes that they got it,” Griffith recalled. “You could just tell they were hungry for wins, and once we got a couple good wins and played some good games, they started to believe more in themselves. With each win they’re getting more confidence.”
The Wildcats matched last year’s win total after six games, notching impressive victories over Milton and Lewisburg in that stretch. They dominated the Penns Valley holiday tournament, and then blistered HAC-II contender Central Columbia.
“I heard a couple girls say they knew some other girls from some schools and their coaches said, ‘We’ve got to watch out for Mifflinburg,’ (or) ‘We can’t take Mifflinburg lightly” said McArdle-Coe, who at 11.3 ppg. raised her game significantly from last season. She is behind only Kline (15.2 ppg.) in scoring, and, like Kline, a good bet to average a double-double in the near future.
Sara Stauffer (8.5) plays with the win-now urgency you would expect from a senior, but she also brings a leader’s focus and a pitbull’s tenacity to the court. Junior Emily Hess (6.4) has an invaluable willingness to mix it up inside.
“Emily Hess is one of the toughest kids I know. Last year she broke two or three fingers and played through them. She gets beat up and goes back in there and plays hard every time,” said Griffith. “Jackie Beck doesn’t get a lot of points, but she always plays tough defense and she’s always working hard at practice. She pushes everyone else to be better.
“Emily Weeder, another senior ... all of them know they can do something on the court to help the team. We have so many kids that can do so much, and I think they all see that.”
Saturday’s 45-40 loss to Shikellamy (with leading scorer Kline absent) snapped a six-game win streak and left Mifflinburg 8-3 (2-2 HAC-I) entering play Wednesday. The Wildcats will almost certainly qualify for the district playoffs by month’s end, and the week of games beginning Jan. 22 (vs. Danville, vs. Milton, at Shamokin) will define their HAC-I standing.
“Our goal this year was we wanted to make it to districts, and I think we’ll be able to do that,” said McArdle-Coe with a smile. “A lot of the seniors we’re like, ‘We’ve worked hard, girls. Let’s get to districts and show people we aren’t the same team as we were last year.’”
“Now looking at it, we’re in contention for the league,” said Griffith. “Our goal has changed from simply playing well to ‘We’re a really good team. Let’s step it up and see what we can accompish.’”
n Scott Dudinskie covers girls basketball for The Daily Item. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @ScottDudinskie.