By Scott Dudinskie
The Daily Item
Ali Varano had seen it before.
It was into the second half of Mount Carmel’s state playoff opener Friday, and Wilkes-Barre GAR wouldn’t go away.
The Grenadiers didn’t go cold shooting the ball; they weren’t committing turnovers to fuel the Red Tornadoes’ fastbreak.
Mount Carmel had to make them to go away.
It started with Varano, the junior guard and daughter of Red Tornadoes coach Lisa Varano.
She lunged for a particularly long rebound behind the backboard as though the game depended on it when she had no realistic chance of pulling it.
Moments later she was on the low left block to snare an awkward rebound that forced her into a fall-away putback for two.
On the next trip, she fearlessly drove at imposing GAR center Marie Skrepanek (a concept that would require a fair amount of convincing and reassurance for most players) and was rewarded for her bravery with a bucket and foul that became a three-point play.
Three possessions, three plays that were a result of desire and will more than a whiteboard and skill.
And the rout was on.
“I just come out and play and do everything that I can do,” Ali Varano said with a shrug after Mount Carmel’s 80-70 win that wasn’t that close.
Varano played two seasons under the tutelage of Kim Andruscavage and Ranotta Ahrensfield, two ultra-competitive girls who became 1,000-point scorers because of their drive and determination as much as their considerable athletic ability. Varano has Andruscavage’s knack for finishing in transition; Ahrensfield’s tenacity on the boards, even when outsized; and former point guard Heather Bolick’s motor for pushing the ball up the floor. Plus, no one in the area is better at creating offense from defense.
As it turns out, she inherited the leadership mantle from those former Tornadoes.
“She was a little vocal in the locker room at halftime (Friday), like, ’C’mon, girls! We can do this! We’ve got to pick this up!’ That’s just her personality,” said Lisa Varano. “I think it kind of showed in the third quarter (as Mount Carmel outscored GAR 29-12). We were letting them hang around too much. They’re a good team, and if you let a good team hang around you could lose.
“It’s sometimes uncomfortable for me to speak about my daughter (but) ... she has that drive. She wants to win and she’s going to do whatever it takes.”
The Red Tornadoes (23-4) play District 11 runner-up Pine Grove (23-4) in the second round of the Class AA Tournament 7:30 p.m. tonight at Pottsville’s Martz Hall. It’s the 14th state playoff game in program history, half of which have been played in the last four years.
The winner advances to Friday’s quarterfinals against either District 3 champion York Catholic or District 2 champ Dunmore. Pine Grove handily defeated North Schuylkill (twice) and Marian Catholic, two teams that have beaten Mount Carmel.
A year ago, during the most successful season in the near 100-year history of Mount Carmel girls basketball, the team lost a thrilling state quarterfinal to York Catholic, 70-67, its only loss of the season. They brought back just two players with extensive varsity experience, holdover starters Varano and junior forward Ana Raybuck. Then Christina Perles transferred from a Lourdes Regional program she helped win three consecutive district championships (in a string of five) and expectations returned to 2011-12 levels.
The Tornadoes matched last year’s team with league and district championships, and are a win from matching them.
“The first quarter of the season, maybe a third of the season, they were living in last year’s shadow,” said Lisa Varano. “Last year’s team, I mean, it speaks for itself. We talked about putting our own footprint on this season, and then they started realizing, Hey, we can do this too.
“I think the expectations were so high that they didn’t know if we could get there. I think they’ve realized they can.”