Lady Lion builds on her accomplishments

Once Darby Lee signed her letter-of-intent with Hartford back in the fall, there wasn’t a whole lot left for her to accomplish on the high school stage her senior year.

She was a district champion, held the team record for points in a game, had been voted all-state and now she had a Division I scholarship in hand once she graduated from Altoona Area High School.

Some players might have gone through the motions. Lee, though, felt like that would have been cheating herself.

“When you get the scholarship, you’re like, ‘Oh, that part’s over,'” Lee said. “But then the pressure is on, because you want to live up to that. You don’t want people to think she was just good one year.”

Lee, though, continued to live up to her billing and to expand her game. The 6-foot senior led the Lady Lions back to the District 6 championship game and had perhaps the two best games of the season in the playoffs.

For her efforts, Lee has been voted the Altoona Mirror 2013-14 Girls Basketball Player of the Year by the newspaper’s staff and correspondents and area coaches.

A first-team selection for the second year in a row, Lee is joined on the first team by Bellwood-Antis’ Ana Hollen, Hollidaysburg’s Courteney Storm, Portage’s Olivia McCabe and Bishop Guilfoyle’s Lili Benzel, who were separated by less than 80 votes. Lee, Storm and McCabe are seniors, Hollen is a junior, and Benzel is a freshman.

Bellwood’s Jim Swaney was voted Coach of the Year.

Lee averaged 16.2 points and 6.9 rebounds – both team highs by a considerable margin – while shooting 51 percent from the field and 76 percent at the line, again leading the Lady Lions in both categories. Altoona finished 10-12 but came up just three points shy of winning the 6-AAAA final and advancing to states for the first time in three seasons.

Although many players her size might desire to play on the perimeter to be more attractive to college scouts, Lee embraced the role of being the offensive force in the post, punishing opponents with an array of back-to-the-basket moves and having the touch to face up and score from the foul line, too.

“She played that position ever since she was little, and her father really worked with her. The more comfortable Darby got in our system, the more confident she became,” Lady Lion coach Jill Helsel said. “She had that will that when she wanted to score, no one could really stop her.”

Such was the case in the Cumberland Valley game her junior year. With teammates fouling out right and left, Lee found her number being called constantly, and she produced, scoring 40 against the eventual PIAA Class AAAA runner-up and 2014 state champion. It was kind of the same in this postseason, when she netted 24 points in the Lady Lions’ upset of defending champion and top seed Hollidaysburg in the semifinals, then scored a season-high 26 despite sitting out much of the first three quarters in foul trouble against State College in the district championship game.

In that contest, she also reached the 1,000-point mark for her career.

“Mostly, my goals were to help the team as much as possible to get to the district championship. The season was great. I had a great senior year,” Lee said. “Getting them motivated was most important, being that senior leader. I hope I accomplished that.”

Lee achieved what she did despite the fact that every opponent was geared to stop her first and foremost.

“You are a target once you get [a Division I scholarship]. It was a lot of pressure,” Lee said. “I’m glad I got the thousand. I’m glad I got to play my last year with one of my best friends [point guard McKenzie Hatch]. We made it to the championship. It was just a good season.”

Although Swaney’s been coaching more than 20 years and been the author of more than 300 victories, this is his first Mirror coach of the year award. He guided the Lady Blue Devils to a 25-3 finish and their first District 6 title in 15 years against a treacherous Class AA field. Bellwood also won the Inter-County Conference championship.

Swaney came out on top of a very close vote with Bishop Guilfoyle’s Mark Moschella and Tussey Mountain’s Todd Gates.