By TERRY L. SNARE
Assistant Sports Editor
After having a chance at PIAA State gold at the end of the 2016-17 season, the Juniata Valley girls basketball team accomplished a feat not many high school programs achieve, by making a return trip to Hershey during the 2017-18 campaign. However, settling for the runner-up silver trophy both years has not deterred the Green Hornets from their goal and has made the program all that more hungry as the 2018-19 season gets underway.
However, where last year’s squad returned everyone from a 24-6 team in 2016-17, including all five starters, this year’s edition has to deal with the loss of three starters, including a pair of 1,000-point scorers and one that came within 67 points of the mark.
But, Juniata Valley returns eight letter winners from last year’s 26-4, including Class 1A first team all-state all-star and two-time defending area scoring champion in 5-11 junior Halee Smith and 5-10 junior all-star guard Hayden Taylor. Smith set an area freshman girls record with 446 points two years ago to become just the second freshman girl to win the area scoring title. Last year, Smith finished with 484 points and a 16.1 points per game average to top the area again. Smith goes into her junior season with a remarkable 930 points and a 15.5 ppg. average over 60 games played in just two years. Taylor was third on the team last winter and ninth in the area with 293 points and a 9.8 ppg. mark. Taylor was also second on the team with 35 three-pointers and currently has 61 treys for her career.
“We have two of the best players returning from a two-time state finalist team and other players who are putting the time in to be back on top.” commented Hornet head coach Rachelle Hopsicker, who begins her eighth season with a 122-54 bench mark. “Our team speed, skills and the willingness to work hard will be out biggest strengths this season. We will also, as in years past, place a lot of emphasis on our defense, while continuing to fine tune our offenses.
The remaining letter winners include: 5-10 senior Emily Jefferis, 5-10 junior Kathryn Hopsicker, 5-2 junior Lexie Reed, 6-0 sophomore Emma Musser, 5-7 sophomore Maelyn Payne and 5-9 sophomore Olivia Smith. Smith topped the list of the non-starters last winter, contributing 2.5 points per game off the bench. Musser followed with 1.4 ppg. and Reed with 1.1.
“We have been going back over some things, considering this is basically a new team,” added Hopsicker. “We are not going to be as experienced as before, but, I do think we are going to be more athletic all around and faster as a team.”
The missing parts from the last two seasons accounted for nearly 50 percent of the team’s scoring last winter. The trio of Sydney Reed, Maddie Mattas and Taylor Leidy amassed 3,378 points over a four-year stretch. Both Reed and Leidy surpassed the 1,000 point plateau to become the sixth and seventh Hornet girls, respectively, to reach that milestone, while Mattas came up just 67 points shy. Reed also drained 87 treys a year ago and became the area girls’ career leader with 250 trifectas. Leidy finished with 85 buckets from behind the three-point arc.
“With the graduation of last year’s very experienced seniors, our team will be much younger,” continued Hopsicker. “We may have some growing pains as we figure out our new identity, but feel we have the personnel to be right back in the thick of things. Obviously, moving up to Class 2A we will find ourselves scouting some new teams, but competing with some very familiar ones come playoff time.”
A year ago, Juniata Valley dealt eventual PIAA Class AA champion Bellwood-Antis its only Inter-County conference North Division loss (57-56) on the Blue Devils home floor. Bellwood got a 61-55 playback win in Alexandria in early February to earn the ICC North spot in the Inter-County Conference championship. However, Valley finished the season with a 13-1 mark in the ICC, giving the program a remarkable 49-7 division record over the last four years.
Juniata Valley has also had an impressive effort in the District Six and PIAA Class 1A playoffs over the last two seasons. The Hornets advanced to just the third District Six championship game in the program’s history two years ago where they were dealt a 49-41 loss by Bishop Carroll. Last season, Valley overcame the Huskie obstacle with a 48-42 victory to win the program’s first-ever district title. The Hornets’ PIAA run over the last two years has carried them to Hershey. However, losses to Lebanon Catholic (55-43) and Jenkintown (51-46) left them as state runners-up.
“A new season and new opportunities await us and we will continue to build the program into a top-notch contender not only in District Six Class 2A play but also on the state level,” concluded Hopsicker. “With a strong supporting cast, we are excited to get the season underway. We have again set some lofty goals this season, including getting back to Hershey, and have worked hard in the off season to set ourselves up for success.”
Joel Pheasant will again serve as Hopsicker’s varsity assistant and junior varsity head coach. Mike Reed and Travis Cramer are varsity assistant coaches, while Trisha Grove and Haley Myers will serve as the junior high coaches.
Juniata Valley opens the season tomorrow at the Forest Hills Tip-Off. The Hornets face the host Rangers in the second semifinal at approximately 7:30 p.m., following State College and Central Cambria in the other semifinal.