Blair girls must find a way

By Philip Cmor

As an Altoona Area Lady Lion, Brittany Stouffer has gone up against some of the best girls basketball talent the state has to offer.

Yet, even she had a moment of apprehension when she viewed the Central PA girls roster she and her Blair County teammates would be facing in Friday night’s 11th annual Altoona Mirror Basketball Classic.

“I was a little scared, at first,” Stouffer said in a moment of brutal honesty.

The game, which brings together the top senior players from District 6 and District 5 and whose proceeds benefit the Big John Riley Scholarship Fund, tips off at Mount Aloysius College at 6:30 p.m.

The Central PA squad is loaded. It includes two Division I college recruits – one on her way to UConn – a 2,000-point career scorer and a point guard who just led her team to the PIAA finals.

Four Central PA players are at least 5-foot-11. Conversely, the tallest player for Blair County is Hollidaysburg’s 5-8 Makenzie Wilkinson.

“I think that’s going to be our biggest struggle to overcome,” Bellwood-Antis’ Abbey Crider said.

Several of the Blair players arrived early to practice at the Summit Athletic Club on Monday and got a chance to do a little scouting of this week’s opposition.

“It’s a pretty nice stacked team,” said Blair County coach Rob Mock of Central. “A lot of good girls.”

Over the first 10 years, the girls side of the Mirror Classic typically has been the more competitive of the doubleheader. Although it has nearly 10 times as many schools from which to draw, Central PA only holds an 6-4 series lead. Blair County came within an eyelash of two more wins, including last year, when a buzzer-beater by Bellwood’s Ana Hollen couldn’t find the net, and the area all-stars escaped with 65-64 victory.

“I just think we (Blair County girls basketball players) have a lot of heart,” Stouffer said.

This year, though, more than any other perhaps, the odds looked stacked against Blair County. While Central PA coach Keith Moyer will be mentoring a first-team all-state player like State College’s Kyla Irwin, some of Mock’s players weren’t even starters on their own teams this season.

Blair’s top scorer, Tyrone Area’s Finnley Christine, is out of the game after a late-season injury, although Central forward Darby Boyles will play after finger surgery in February.

Seven Blair players averaged single digits in scoring in 2015-16.

Their might be reasons for that, though, that aren’t a reflection on Blair County’s senior talent at all.

For one thing, one just needs look ahead to next year’s game. Blair County’s crop of junior talent includes Bellwood’s Karson Swogger, Bishop Guilfoyle’s Lili Benzel and Anna Audley, Tyrone’s Kasey Engle, Altoona’s Paige Whitfield, Amber Newberry, Madison Shetrom and Alayna Biesecker and Central’s Hannah Johnston – seven of those players made the Mirror’s first, second or third all-area teams, Swogger was the player of the year, Benzel probably will be a four-time all-state selection and the 6-2 Biesecker missed most of this season with an injury or she might have been an all-star, too. Several of them are being recruited by Division I colleges.

That doesn’t even take into consideration talented sophomores like BG’s Ryley Lewis.

With players like that, it’s not surprising that playing time and shots would be harder to come by for this year’s seniors. This game actually gives a number of the Blair girls who might have been role players for their high school teams a chance to show what they can do in other aspects.

“I think it will be exciting,” said Marina Scipioni, who was Guilfoyle’s designated off-the-bench 3-point shooter the last couple of years.

“It’s a great opportunity for not only me but for everyone,” Crider said.

The other part of the impact of the upcoming classes in Blair County is that the girls playing for Blair on Friday night have been practicing against those players every year for the last two or three years. They actually already have faced the kind of talent they’ll see on Friday night.

“It’s definitely prepared me, because they are good, too,” Scipioni said. “It was good preparation.”

While the Central PA team has a big advantage in height, almost the entire Blair County girls roster seems to be comprised of players between 5-6 and 5-8, which should give Blair a fair share of versatility.

“Since we’re all fast guards, we should sprint up the court and push the ball. Maybe we can get ahead that way. We shouldn’t even set up the ball. We should just keep running, so we tire them out, so they don’t get a chance to get us underneath,” Claysburg-Kimmel’s Paige Burk said.

The Blair girls also possess another quality that has been key in past Classics: 3-point shooting. Burk, Scipioni, and Altoona’s Sarah Donley all are deadly from behind the arc, and most of the Blair players are dangerous outside shooters.

“A bunch of us will pass the ball as a team, and we’ll pass the ball fast. Maybe that will give us more opportunities,” Burk said.

It might look like an uphill climb, but the Blair girls are ready to give it their best shot.

“Size is one factor, but how hard we play is going to be another factor,” Crider said. “I know every girl on our team is going to play hard to try and get the win.”