The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

December 20, 2012

Scott Dudinskie's girls basketball column: HAC-II teams brace for impact


— They all say the same politically correct things about their revamped division, but you just know their better judgment holds the coaches’ tongues.

We bet the truth would sound something along the lines of: Really? No, I mean ... REALLY!?

There were two subtle changes made to the Heartland Athletic Conference’s girls basketball divisions this season. Subtle, that is, if your team plays in either the big (HAC-I) or small (HAC-III) division; as subtle as a drop-kick if it plays in HAC-II.

A one-for-one switch was made between HAC-II and each of the other two divisions. In HAC-I, Montoursville was moved down and replaced by Mifflinburg. In HAC-III, Southern Columbia was moved up and replaced by South Williamsport.

Neither move should cause more than a ripple in the HAC’s bookend divisions. The impact on HAC-II, though, could be seismic.

“Everyone knows Division II’s harder than any other division,” said Warrior Run coach Jon Weaver, who’s held the same belief for several years, long before the realignment. “It’s going to be challenging.”

Here’s what makes the changes so significant: As Weaver alluded, HAC-II was already loaded with the likes of two-time defending champion Mount Carmel, Loyalsock, Lewisburg, Central Columbia and Warrior Run. Perennial contenders all, at the league, if not the district, level.

To that group was added Montoursville, a team flush with young talent that may have contended in the wide-open HAC-I this season, and Southern Columbia, which simply put has owned HAC-III to the point of deserving naming rights.

“I’d say good luck trying to predict HAC-II,” said Lewisburg’s Phil Stamm, who (at eight seasons) is the dean of the division’s coaches. “I don’t see a dominant team, although it’s possible one could emerge. I’m worried about everybody.”

The other side of the HAC-II realignment coin is the departing teams. Neither Mifflinburg nor South Williamsport could have been considered serious challengers in the middle division as both had significant graduation losses.

The Wildcats, with just one senior left on their roster, were a good year away from making noise in the HAC-II and now they’re back in the big school division. They were swapped out of HAC-I for Danville prior to the 2010-11 season.

“Honestly I think there’s tough teams, tough competition, in either (division),” said fourth-year Mifflinburg coach Kelly Griffith. “It doesn’t really matter either way, I don’t think. We play who we play.”

South Williamsport, of course, graduated four-time all-state phenom Tierney Pfirman, who has moved into the starting lineup at Maryland and was recently named ACC Rookie of the Week.

“Some people would probably like to get back at (South Williamsport) just for the years of beatings they put on us,” Weaver said with a laugh.

HAC-II, as it stands, is no joke.

When The Daily Item chose its annual preseason all-star team, it had to be expanded by one slot to accommodate all the deserving players. Five of the seven girls recognized play in HAC-II.

“It’s absolutely a strong division,” said Mount Carmel coach Lisa Varano, whose team was unbeaten in HAC-II last year. “The teams that are gone are going to be down a little bit, that’s no secret, and they were replaced with two really different teams. The way I look at it is everyone has to play them, but, no, (the league) didn’t do us any favors.”

“What’s neat,” said Weaver, “is every night — night in, night out — it’s a ballgame. There are no pushovers. To me, personally, I kinda like it.”

While there’s nothing wrong with tough competition, HAC-II promises to be unforgiving to the point of keeping some worthy teams home for the postseason. They’ll each play 14 of their maximum 22 games within the division, or almost two-thirds of the season against that home-and-away gauntlet – which is to say nothing of their nonleague opponents.

For example, the schedule-maker gave Lewisburg consecutive games against Warrior Run and Mount Carmel this week. When those two teams show up again on the Green Dragons’ slate a month from now Milton is between them, a daunting three-game stretch over four days.

Not to mention any team that sustains a significant injury has no real hope of treading water until that player can return.

“I think it’s daunting from the perspective that a lot of teams want to try to qualify for playoffs, and if you have to find a way to play .500 in the division that’s tough,” said Stamm. “From top to bottom it’s so competitive every night out; there’s not going to be a breather. But if a team does get into the playoffs, I think they’ll be as battle-tested as can be.”

It worked for Mount Carmel last season. The Red Tornadoes used their perfect HAC-II run as a springboard to a District 4 Class AA crown and a berth in the state quarterfinals. In short, it was the best season in the program’s near 100-year history.

“We’re not afraid of competition; we put all those Schuylkill League teams on our schedule last year for that reason,” said Varano. “Our goal is to make it to the playoffs and you need to get to 11 wins. You have to win the games. Sooner or later you’re going to play strong teams.”

Scott Dudinskie covers girls basketball for The Daily Item. Email questions or comments to sdudinskie@dailyitem.com.