Milton coach Aaron Slusser performed a terrific opening act when he led Milton to a suprising District 4 Class AAA championship in his rookie season four years ago.
Slusser's Black Panthers followed that up with another district championship two years ago. But in neither of those seasons did Milton capture a league title. That was all right with Slusser, too. Five seasons on the sideline, though, has changed Slusser's perspective.
Now he wants both. Milton entered Monday night with a chance to capture its first HAC-I championship. The Panthers entered in a three-way tie with Shamokin and Danville. It has been both a surprising, and turnaround, season for Milton and Slusser has a new appreciation for how difficult it is to capture league supremacy.
"I'll be the first one to tell you the last couple years I've said winning the conference would be nice, but we want to win districts. But we want to win the conference and I will tell anyone winning the conference is harder than winning districts," Slusser said. "It's a grind for two months. In districts you might be looking at a three-game tournament at most and if you're playing well there's a good chance you're going to be in it at the end. When it comes to conference you have to bring it every night and not just at home."
Slusser makes a good point. Teams can heat up at the right time in districts just as NFL teams have the last few seasons to make darkhorse runs to the Super Bowl. His team in 2009 proved it, making a surprising run and upsetting higher-seeded teams in both the semifinals and the championship.
This season, Milton (12-9) has made a league title run the hard way. The Panthers opened their season 0-4, but never buckled and rallied to win 12 of their next 15 games while starting 10-2 in the league. This senior-laden team lost its league opener to Shikellamy, but soon turned their season around a year after going 6-16.
Dr. Masse's Top 5
1. Warrior Run (14-6)
The Defenders made a huge statement last Thursday, overcoming a 10-point halftime deficit at Montoursville and winning, 45-32. The Defenders dominated all aspects of the second half, outscoring Montoursville 32-12, more points than the Warriors have allowed in a game nine times this season. Warrior Run also came back Saturday against Hughesville and won the second halves of both games, 81-30. It has won nine of its last 10 games and has become especially dangerous with the emergence of players like Abby Fisher and Laura Bastian. Having Steph Shamburg does not hurt either, especially since the junior forward averaged 21 points in three games last week.
2. Montoursville (15-6)
The Warriors stumbled last week, losing to Southern Columbia, Warrior Run and Mount Carmel. Saturday, Montoursville fell behind Mount Carmel, 27-3 after one quarter. It was surprising too since Montoursville had looked so good in a rout at Lewisburg 11 nights earlier. Such is life in the rugged HAC-II, however, where five District 4 Class AA title contenders reside. Montoursville has the ingredients to win a district championship and is a budding force with four sophomores in its starting lineup. The Warriors have won more games this season than in any year since 2002 when they went 18-8 and reached the district semifinals.
3. Lewisburg (15-5)
The Green Dragons won three straight games last week and are fighting for a No. 2 seed in District 4 Class AA. The field is so loaded, though, that even if Lewisburg wins out it could end up seeded as low as No. 7. Senior point guard Maria Kelleher built on her strong season and scored 22 points in the Loyalsock win. She hit four straight free throws late and gave Loyalsock fits with her outside shooting and penetration. Haley Stanko also made an impact and grabbed nine rebounds. In two wins over Loyalsock, senior Lois Lesher blocked 11 shots.
4. Williamson (16-4)
The Warriors are NTL-West champions for the first time in 11 years after rallying past Wellsboro 50-41 last Thursday. Williamson exacted revenge for its only league loss and is surging at a good time. If the Warriors win their last two games they are guaranteed one of the top two seeds for the District 4 Class AA tournament. Six-footers Lori Horton and Kim Daugherty are double trouble inside and since guard Cheyenne Jones (12.1 ppg) returned from injury Williamson has been especially tough to defend.
5. Muncy (15-5)
It is a shame Muncy missed the Class A cut off by one student because it would be fun to see it play Benton again. The HAC-III rivals split two thrillers last week, the road team winning each time, Muncy 51-48 and Benton, 56-51 in overtime. Saturday's loss cost Muncy a shot at winning its first HAC-III title but it is the only team to beat Benton in league play. Guards Jordan Jones and Brianna McLaughlin combine to form one of the area's best backcourts and excel in all areas. The two both averaged 16 points in the Benton games.
Player of the Week
Kim Daugherty, Williamson
The senior forward was a force last week, averaging 21 points and making runs at two double-doubles in NTL-West clinching wins over Liberty and Wellsboro. Daugherty scored 21 points, grabbed 7 rebounds and made 4 steals in the Wellsboro win.
Game of the Week
Montgomery at St. John Neumann
Tonight's game is basically a playoff team for two teams fighting to get in. Montgomery (9-10) desperately needs a win while Neumann (10-9) can clinch a berth and make life easier on itself since its next two games are not easy ones either. Montgomery beat Neumann two weeks ago, winning an intense, defensive battle, 37-32.
Milton highlighted its ascension by handing Danville its first league loss and then exacted revenge on Shikellamy before overcoming a 12-point deficit and winning at Danville, 39-38, 10 nights ago.
That has been Milton's style. The closer and tougher the games, the better the Panthers have played. They have repeatedly rallied to win in the fourth quarter and have won five league games by 17 combined points.
"Honestly I think our confidence was down at the beginning of the season, but then once we got our first win and second win we realized we can actually do this and it just carried out through the other games," senior forward Emily Baker said. "We kept fighting and we got a lot of big upsets, Danville twice and Shikellamy. Hard work pays off."
Even when it has struggled mightily Milton has been able to overcome. It proved that last Tuesday when it made just one first-half shot but still erased a late four-point deficit and edged Jersey Shore, 27-23. It was the second time Milton rallied past the Bulldogs and it won those games by six combined points.
The team is as tough and resilient as it is talented. It also is close. The rotation features almost all seniors and this group has endured, rallied and enjoyed the journey together. Whatever the situation, the group is confident it will find a way to triumph.
"They trust each other and they like playing each other which is nice because we haven't always had that," Slusser said. "We've had teammates that couldn't stand each other but these girls really like each other and they have confidence in each other."
"It's not even a team, it's more like a family," Baker said. "We do everything together. We go everywhere. We share the ball pretty well and it works for us
That has helped make this league grind a successful one.
1K FOR MARIA
Maria Morgan became the first Bucktail player ever to score 1,000 career points as a sophomore. The standout guard reached that milestone in last Monday's 51-39 win over playoff-bound Galeton. Morgan needed only 40 games to reach 1,000 points, remarkable since every defense Bucktail plays is geared toward slowing her. Morgan is averaging 28.9 points per game but does more than just score, leading the team in assists and steals too.
Morgan had 30 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals the night she joined the 1,000-point club and had a hand in all 50 of her team's points earlier this season against St. John Neumann. What Morgan has done is pretty phenomenal when one considers the company she is keeping. The only other area girls players to score 1,000 points by their sophomore year in the past 15 years are Kelly Mazzante and Tierney Pfirman.
Talk about an exclusive club.
STRONG IN DEFEAT
Allie Pagana put on a second-half show in Saturday's 41-34 loss to Lewisburg. The junior guard scored 15 points, made eight steals and grabbed four rebounds while nearly willing Loyalsock all the way back from a 20-point deficit. Pagana helped Loyalsock pull within three points late in the game and finished with 20 points, 10 steals and six rebounds.
The Lancers (7-14) are not playoff-bound but Pagana's performance is one reason the future appears bright. Loyalsock returns most of its team next year and is bursting with young talent.
Hughesville sophomore Kierra Croucher is a player to watch the next few years. Croucher scored a career-high 24 points Saturday against Warrior Run ... Jersey Shore (8-10) is one of the area's most improved teams, winning three times as many games this year as in the last three combined. The Bulldogs still have playoff hopes and beat Mifflinburg, 51-46, Saturday ... North Penn is a young team that could be dangerous the next two years. The Panthers (8-12) hammered Towanda last Thursday, impressive considering Towanda had beaten Muncy five nights earlier. Sophomores Mariah Berguson and Kaitlyn Garverick are coming on strong and senior Whitney Holdren has had a good year ... South Williamsport stunned surging Millville on its home court, 64-60, last Tuesday and freshman Anna Steer showed why she could be a breakout player next season. The freshman scored a season-high 22 points.
Masse may be reached at email@example.com.