It’s always the best week of the high school basketball season. There’s always a few surprises, maybe an upset or two, and, in the end, either jubilation or silence in locker rooms.
It’s one extreme or the other when it comes to playoff time and it was all on display, from Oakland to Frederick, during the Maryland 1A West regional tournament week.
A lot was learned, and for two teams — the Northern girls and Williamsport boys — the season continues, both now two wins from state championships.
The Northern girls and Southern boys nearly pulled off a Garrett County sweep in the region finals Saturday at Frederick Community College. Neither game was decided until the final seconds. The girls, trailing most of the day, won 52-47. The boys, ahead most of the day, lost 42-39.
There are many reasons each team got so deep into the postseason. But, at least in one book of scribbled notes taken during games of the last two months, there’s evidence that each team left us at least one glaring reminder about winning basketball.
Northern reminded us that the taller, bigger teams don’t always win. With a 22-4 record, the bigger team hasn’t won many times at all against the Huskies this year.
Smithsburg’s Katie Sprecher is 5-foot-10 and Sara Rishell 6-foot-2. Both played even taller than their height because of their long arms and reach. They teamed for 33 points and 25 rebounds.
It was a classic battle between Smithsburg’s inside strength and Northern’s outside strength.
“Our height has kind of been our disadvantage all season,’’ said guard Kaitlynn Fratz, who averaged 24.3 points per game in three games last week. “But we know if we play hard defensively we can overcome it. And it was defensive intensity that was the biggest thing Saturday.”
Northern’s perimeter play won out in the end, as Fratz and Terra McKenzie teamed for 45 points. Forward/center Allison Yommer held her own inside, and the Huskies guards sagged into the lane to help out, which was one reason Fratz shared the team lead with six rebounds.
“We hustled on defense, and defense was the key to the game. We’re always the smaller team, so we’re used to it. But it was definitely a challenge,” said McKenzie, who scored 10 points in the final three minutes to help the Huskies overcome an early eight-point deficit.
“We’ve always come back before, so I knew we could do it again,’’ she added.
The Huskies had two come-from-behind wins in a span of five days in winning the region for the first time in 14 years.
“These girls have put in a lot of work and they’ve had a great season,’’ said coach Steve Fratz. “They’ve traveled all over the place during the summer, from Baltimore to Cincinnati to Richmond, Va., and we strengthened our schedule by picking up University (No. 3 ranked Class AAA team in West Virginia), and went to Hagerstown for a Christmas tournament.
“They bought into what we were trying to do and things started making sense to them. This is just a great group of girls.”
The Southern boys, coach Jon Hegeman admitted, had a bit of a roller coaster ride. There were peaks and valleys, but far more good times than difficult in a 16-9 season.
Make no mistake, though, Saturday was a difficult one. The Rams led almost from start to finish, but it slipped away in the end.
There were plenty of sad faces leaving the locker room. The expressions showed how much they cared, about themselves, the game, and each other.
From a playing standpoint, the reminder Southern provided was the importance of fundamentals. Ironically, it was a few turnovers that doomed the Rams in the end, but a few uncharacteristic minutes can’t overshadow a team strength over 25 games.
In the era of three-point shootouts and slam dunk contests, a time when some teams chuck up 40 three-point shots in hopes of making 10 while struggling to shoot 50 percent from the foul line, Southern played the game, some would say, the old-fashioned way.
Patience, defense, smart shot selection and team play. Old school never goes out of style.
Their picks and cuts and passes took them an awful long way. Their pivots, head fakes and ball fakes were often devastating, especially by Calvin Hilliard, who often appeared to play a half-foot taller than his 6-foot frame. Joey Kisselovich may be the best pure rebounder in the area and shot nearly 90 percent from the foul line. D.J. Ritchie was one of the more versatile players around, and guards Kurt Gangler and Wyatt McBee were good shooters and ball-handlers.
Nothing too flashy, but always around at the end, and most of the time leaving with a win.
However, for the first time in eight years, an Allegany or Garrett county team will not be in the boys state tournament. And ironically, a player with local ties helped see to it.
Williamsport’s Connor Arnone had a field goal, two foul shots and two steals in the final minutes to help send the Wildcats to their first region championship in 11 years.
Connor is the grandson of Ellen and Enordo “Moose” Arnone, of Frostburg, and the son of former Beall standout Bryon Arnone.
It may not be the last time local teams face an Arnone this year. Connor is also a standout in baseball and his sister, who played against Mountain Ridge in girls soccer in the fall, is a track and field state champion.
Their cousin, Brynn Arnone, daughter of former Beall standout Brock Arnone, is a sophomore and basketball player at Frostburg State University.
Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org