It was just a couple of seasons ago that Mount Carmel was the Cinderella story of its district, reaching the state tournament for the first time in years in 2011.
The Red Tornadoes improved on that initial trip to the PIAA tournament in 2012, reaching the quarterfinals last season.
Now, Mount Carmel is riding the wave of its third consecutive 20-win season. And the Red Torndoes will see a team it resembled a couple of seasons back.
Two teams unfamiliar with each other will meet tonight at 6 in Shamokin, as GAR and Mount Carmel play in the first round of the PIAA Class 2A tournament.
“We don’t know much about them,” GAR coach Hattie Caruso said. “They have a really good point guard and two tall girls that can shoot. And they all work well together.”
GAR did not suffer through the same state drought as Mount Carmel, last reaching the tournament in 2008. But this Grenadiers group was still years away from their time at GAR. And like the Red Tornadoes of two seasons ago, youth dominates the Grenadiers’ lineup.
GAR’s senior backcourt of Marena Spence and Julianna Leco will be counted on to slow Mount Carmel’s top player, Ali Varano. The junior guard was a key player as a freshman in Mount Carmel’s return to the glory of the state playoffs. Varano leads the Red Tornadoes in assists (2.3 apg) and steals (4.7 spg).
At forward, the top scorers for each team will look for their shots. Senior Christina Perles (16.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg) leads a team that averages 51.6 points per game (GAR is at 50.4). Junior forward Ana Raybuck is a paint presence, with averages of 8.9 points and team highs in rebounds (8.7) and blocks (2.4).
GAR junior Bre Mosier is a scrappy player who will look to disrupt Mount Carmel’s inside game. Grenadiers’ top scorer Brea Seabrook, a sophomore, won’t be counted on for 18 points in a half like she had against Lakeland to earn the state tournament trip. But the WVC Division III Most Valuable Player, who had 20 points, 12 rebounds and six steals against Lakeland, has averaged 17.3 points in four playoff games this season.
Freshman Marie Skrepenak could be the key to the Grenadiers’ success today. The center has impressed both as a starter and as a reserve, seeing significant minutes in either role. Against Lakeland in the state qualifier, she had 14 points and 10 rebounds coming off the bench.
She would likely match up with 6-footer Ellese Nestico, a veteran of Mount Carmel’s prior state tourney appearances but not a dominant post player. Nestico’s 2.0 points per game ranks seventh on Mount Carmel, and her 4.6 rebounds are third, barely ahead of the smaller Varano. Skrepenak can hit short jumpers and make deft passes, as well as score inside and rebound, making her a threat that should draw help coverage from Mount Carmel’s forwards.
“We’ve been telling her she’s not a freshman any more,” Caruso said. “We count on her. We count on everybody.”
Neither bench is deep — GAR plays just six or seven — but both offer exciting sixth players coming into the game. Sophomore Isabella Stellar is aptly named. The Red Tornadoes guard averages 5.7 points and is among the team’s three-point leaders.
But GAR has sophomore Majeedah Nealy, who often starts and could tonight. Nealy averages 4.6 points and has 21 threes, more than any Red Tornado. In all, GAR has nearly twice as many threes as Mount Carmel (66-34), making shots from behind the arc a potential difference-maker.
“This group, they know we can do this,” Caruso said. “They are quiet most times, but they get down to business out there. They want to win and they have fun. “