Garnet Valley seeks to defend state crown

Garnet Valleys trio of (from left) Coley Ricci, Julia McGrath, and Allyson Heavens team up to stop Radnors Shannon Quinn in the Jaguars 15-14 semifinal win Tuesday. Lou Rabito / Staff Photographer
Garnet Valleys trio of (from left) Coley Ricci, Julia McGrath, and Allyson Heavens team up to stop Radnors Shannon Quinn in the Jaguars 15-14 semifinal win Tuesday. Lou Rabito / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 09, 2012

Conventional wisdom suggests that Garnet Valley is the overwhelming favorite to win its matchup with Central League rival Strath Haven when they vie for the PIAA girls' lacrosse championship Saturday at Hersheypark Stadium.

The Jaguars (23-3) have it all, from star players (Allyson Heavens and Halley Barnes are rated as top-15 recruits nationally) to experience (they're the defending state champions) to recent dominance of their opponent (they've outscored the Panthers, 28-12, in two wins this season).

Strath Haven (17-9), however, has something going for it that the Jaguars don't: a little bit of magic.

"I watched Hoosiers today," Strath Haven coach Rachel Busza said this week, "and I had to laugh because that's our team. Coming out of nowhere, we don't have the big names, we don't have the big squad, we don't have any big titles, and here we are in the final and we want it.

"Any team that we see, it's going to be what it's going to be. These girls are hungry; they're ready for it. I feel like we're the type of team and we've had the comeback that people makes movies about. It's surreal."

Indeed, the Panthers have a Cinderella air to them, and it just might be enough to pull off a major upset when the teams meet at 11 a.m. After stumbling to a 1-5 start, the Panthers regrouped to nab District 1's sixth berth (out of seven) in the PIAA tournament.

Since then, they have eked out two one-goal victories, including one over district runner-up Conestoga, before blowing away District 3's Penn Manor, 19-5, to advance to its first state final since 2009.

Garnet Valley, meanwhile, has been steady all year, save for a recent hiccup in the district tournament. It began 13-0 and at one point halted Strath Haven's season-high seven-game win streak. The Jags fought to their second straight appearance in the finals by avenging losses at districts to Harriton and District 1 champ Radnor.

It would appear the heavy lifting is done for Garnet Valley, which owned Strath Haven in two previous meetings, including a 16-6 drubbing in the district quarterfinals on May 19. It would be all-too-easy to overlook the Panthers now.

"I think that would be a challenge for most teams, but I don't see that being a challenge for us," Garnet Valley coach Kate Henwood said.

"Our girls are taking Strath Haven very seriously, and we're acting as if it's the first time we've played them because they will be a completely different team on Saturday than they were both times we played them before."

If that's not enough, the Jags have some serious talent to fall back on. Heavens, a Penn State recruit, will be the most athletic and versatile player on the field. Barnes (Rutgers) is a deadly scorer, bringing 104 goals into the final game of the season. AnnaElise Morello (Yale) rounds out the Big 3, leading the team in points with 156 (63 goals, 93 assists).

For Strath Haven, it's all about team. Sara Labrum and Morgan Glassford do the bulk of the scoring, but no one player stands out. It will be crucial for defenders Kelly Molloy and Jessica Borbee to create turnovers on deep defensive sets and for the Panthers to push the ball in transition.

It likely will be an uphill climb for Strath Haven. Despite its recent run, it struggles to match up with Garnet Valley. The again, no one picked the Panthers to get this far.

"I've been saying lately we're the miracle team - and they're my dream team," Busza said. "We're peaking at the right time. All my attackers can shoot and score. Once a team thinks one of my players is a top threat, and they try and take away that person, the next person just steps up."


Contact Evan Burgos at rallysports@phillynews.com.

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