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Emotional rollercoaster ride ends for B-A girls

By Philip Cmor

pcmor@altoonamirror.com

It’s hard for most people to fully appreciate the gamut of emotions the Bellwood-Antis High School girls basketball players experienced as their season concluded with Monday night’s 68-57 PIAA Class 2A semifinal defeat at the hands of Bishop McCort at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse.

Even the players had a difficult time putting it into words.

“I really don’t know how to describe it,” senior forward Sophie Damiano said.

Try, however, to put yourself in their shoes. You work for months, you could say even years, to put yourself in a position to claim the ultimate achievement. It’s not for money. The only real prize is the accomplishment itself.

You are within sight of the goal, only to be stopped short. And then it’s over.

“I’m more mad than upset. It was right there,” said Makayla Carles, an upperclassman swing player.

That’s what the Lady Blue Devils were wrestling with as they filed out of the locker room in small groups and back out onto the court. They were leading the Lady Crushers late in the second quarter, but McCort made a couple of big plays at the end of the second quarter and threw it into another gear at the beginning of the second half, punching its own ticket to Hershey’s Giant Center after a long wait and several close calls over the years.

In the midst of that, Bellwood-Antis was left to try to balance that immediate disappointment with a season of extraordinary success and a remarkable career resume for this senior class.

“It’s definitely hard, especially know we were one game away from Hershey,” Karson Swogger, the Lady Devils’ Saint Francis-bound all-state guard, said. “Definitely, you look back, and I’m so proud of this team and all we’ve accomplished. It’s a shame we didn’t make it the whole way, but you’ve got to look at the whole picture.”

That big picture has a lot of color and probably could be used to create a mural spanning the Tuckahoe Street bridge. The 2016-17 Lady Devils finished 25-5 — three of those losses came to McCort, two in close games, while the others came against Class 4A Laurel Highlands Conference champion Forest Hills and, in the Inter-County Conference final, Everett. They won the North Division of the ICC and advanced further into the state tournament than any other Bellwood team besides the 1990 squad that played for the PIAA Class 1A title.

The list of mileposts this senior class of Swogger, Carles, Damiano and reserve Alanna Leidig have been through even puts it into fuller perspective.

— Nine-six wins over four years.

— Three District 6 final appearances, including a championship in 2A in 2014.

— A 6-3 mark in interdistrict tournament play.

— Three overall conference titles.

“I told the seniors that I really appreciate the things they’ve done for me, that I can never repay the things that they’ve done,” B-A coach Jim Swaney said. “When you look at Sophia Damiano and Makayla Carles and the injuries that they’ve come back from to play high school basketball, it’s absolutely incredible. I don’t know how many kids in their high school careers suffer two ACL injuries and come back and still perform at the level that Makayla does.”

Her career path altered by those health issues, Carles came back and scored seven points in the PIAA semifinals. Leidig, meanwhile, was one of the stars that helped shine Bellwood’s way to the 2016 ICC championship win over Everett.

This season included three victories over a Juniata Valley team that will try to punch its own ticket into the state finals in Class 1A tonight. Among the more memorable games was the heartbreaking and controversial two-point loss to McCort in the D6 championship game, a contest that came just a couple of days after what probably was the defining moment for the Lady Devils, an emotional 50-49 district semifinal win over perennial powerhouse Bishop Guilfoyle.

“I’m going to remember the BG game the most,” Carles said. “That’s probably my favorite game. We worked really hard and played with intensity the whole time.”

The season also will be remembered as the one in which Swogger broke Blair County’s all-time scoring record by more than 300 points and established a new standard of 2,520 points.

“I don’t know even where to begin,” Swaney said of Swogger. “I always said that in my eyes Ashley Norris and Sarah Grazier held a special place for me, and I added Ana Hollen to that, because I thought she was on that same level. I can certainly say so does Karson. She’s an incredible competitor. She just works at her game so much.”

They’ll leave quite an example and a boatload of big-game experience on which the Lady Devil returnees can draw, and there will be a few of them. As a freshman, Alli Campbell already has a couple of Division I college scholarship offers and scored 28 points in the D6 final. Sophomore Riley D’Angelo has cemented her reputation as a dangerous 3-point shooter in her first two varsity seasons, while freshman Emilie Leidig looked right at home on the big stage Monday, scoring 15 off the bench.

Junior Tina Hollen rounded out Bellwood’s typical seven-player rotation and is another capable deep threat.

“They’ll bounce back,” Swaney said. “We fully expect to be in this position next year.”

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