As senior co-captain Kelsey Livoti cut down the net at St. Francis University's DeGol Arena following Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic's 52-41 PIAA Class A semifinal win over Homer-Center Wednesday night, Lady Marauder Devin Stessney saw Kayla Bates next to her, turned and gave her teammate a big hug.
It was somehow fitting. Both sophomores, Bates and Stessney entered the season as the two new starters in the Guilfoyle lineup. Their development has gone arm-in-arm with each other's and hand-in-hand with the success that has the Lady Marauders in line for a third consecutive state championship should they beat District 3 champion Steelton-Highspire on Saturday afternoon at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center.
"We actually got to be close because of that,'' Stessney said. "We aren't new girls to the team, but we do give the team that new spark that we need.''
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Devin Stessney drives to the basket.
Often Mark Moschella's first player off the bench on the 2009-10 team, Bates has stepped into the starting five to give the Lady Marauders more of a pure point guard than they had last season - her 72 assists lead the team and are nearly double her number of turnovers.
"Whenever I make that extra pass that gets us a layup or an easy shot that makes the crowd go,'' Bates said, "that gets me the most motivated.''
With a similar frame - she's is just an inch taller than Bates at 5-foot-8 - and the same blonde hair, Stessney is easy to confuse for her teammate on the court if you don't know them that well. Stessney's game, though, is different and complementary to Bates'; she's a prototypical shooting guard, ranking second on the Lady Marauders in 3-pointers with 23.
Ironically, the pair has fired up an identical 107 shots from inside the 3-point arc this year, and Bates only has scored 14 points more than her backcourt counterpart through 30 games.
"Devin has been under the radar this year maybe because of the attention the other kids get. But Devin had a great game defensively in the Western Final,'' Lady Marauders coach Mark Moschella said. "Kayla has made sure everyone's on the same page, and that's what a point guard's supposed to do.''
Both players also have stepped it up offensively in the playoffs despite being the new kids on the block. Stessney scored 11 points against Homer-Center, including seven in a 5-minute span of the third quarter as BG opened up a 17-point lead. In the previous round vs. Fort Cherry, it was Bates scoring 11, nine of those coming in the first half to get Guilfoyle an early cushion.
"It was a big game,'' Stessney said. "I had to come through for my teammates. We worked hard to get here. I had to give that last bit of energy for it.''
Much like their performances on the court, Bates' and Stessney's backgrounds are similar but different. Each began playing basketball at very early ages. Stessney inherited her love of the sport from her older sister and father and took up the game by third grade, playing for Juniata Elementary before transferring to Bishop Guilfoyle in seventh grade.
Bates met Stessney two years later when she transferred over from Tyrone Area, where here dad, Kevin, was the junior high coach and her cousin, Luke Rhoades, has been guiding the varsity.
"My life pretty much revolves around basketball,'' Bates said.
Bates began working on her game when she was in kindergarten, marveling at the skills of her older brother, Eric Castorina. Castorina was a terrific point guard himself, leading Tyrone to a District 6 championship and winning the Altoona Mirror's player of the year award before playing college basketball at IUP.
"He's the person I look up to. He the person I most admire. He's always there for me to talk to, and I really think he's the reason I love the game so much,'' Bates said. "He's living in North Carolina. He got married. But he's coming home for the game this weekend.''
While Stessney and Bates are close to other teammates, too, their circumstances have led to a unique tie forming between them.
"We hang out. We're pretty close,'' Stessney said. "She's one of the people I go to for things.''
"We worked really hard together, and we both wanted to start this year,'' Bates said. "I think that brought us closer together.''
Stessney said her bond with Bates off the court mirrors their relationship on it.
"She's very outgoing. She's just one of those people who is very easy to get along with, and she's always in a good mood,'' Stessney said. "She definitely adds to the friendship. I'm really calm. I'm one of those mellow people. But, whenever I'm around her, she brings out [the more outgoing side] in me.''
When they're playing, though, Stessney and Bates try to maintain their composure and be steadying influences for the Lady Marauders in spite of the fact that they are first-year starters.
"She has a great attitude,'' Bates said of Stessney. "She handles things as they come. She's always in a good mood.''
Both players were in a good mood before practice Thursday to prepare for their state-championship shot this weekend, and neither seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of being announced as starters at the Bryce Jordan Center over the weekend with the spotlight secured on them, although Stessney admitted "I don't think it's really sinking in, yet.''
"I think I'm more excited than nervous, but I know before the game starts the nerves will come,'' Bates said. "But I'm definitely excited. I know the team is, and that's just going to get us more pumped up for the game.
"I don't usually get nervous before a game unless it's a big game. Like a state championship.''