Valley girls coach welcomes challenge of facing Carroll again

By Philip Cmor

There are some coaches, players and fans who would try to avoid another good team or curse the fact that it stood in their way to championships and honors.

Rachelle Hopsicker is not one of those people.

“I like a challenge,” Hopsicker said. “You don’t get better by beating up on teams that are worse. You might create a winning mentality, but it doesn’t help you in the long run.

“We want to beat the best. I’m a competitor.”

The former Fordham player who now is in her sixth year guiding the Juniata Valley High School girls basketball program is getting her wish right now.

Hopsicker’s Lady Hornets might be the best in Class 1A girls hoops … except there is one team out there on the opposite side of the Altoona Mirror coverage area that is just as good and to this point has been a little bit better.

Bishop Carroll.

The Lady Huskies came back from a big first-quarter deficit to defeat Valley two weeks ago for their second straight District 6 title. Tonight, those same two teams will face each other again at 6 p.m. at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse with the winner heading to the PIAA finals in Hershey later this week.

And, with both teams’ playing rotations filled almost solely by underclassmen and the feeder systems of each program filled with promising rising talent, this might just be the second round in a long, intersectional rivalry that could determine not just D6 but state supremacy while keeping fans with no allegiance to either school entertained for years to come.

Think of the series from the early 1990s in which Abby Hoy/Jill Tate-led Williamsburg beat Bishop Guilfoyle in consecutive District 6 Class 1A championship games only to have the Lady Marauders turn the tables in the western final, winning a state trophy in the process. Or the Williamsburg/Carroll battles that ensued once Guilfoyle moved up to 2A.

This has the makings of something like that on steroids.

“It’s pretty exciting to me, actually,” said Alyssa Martinazzi, Carroll’s all-state junior guard. “Both teams have everyone (coming back), basically, although we do lose two seniors. It’s only going to help each other out in the long run.”

It definitely has the makings of steel sharpening steal. In addition to the district final setback, Juniata Valley’s only losses have come at the hands of Class 6A district champion Altoona and Class 2A state semifinalist Bellwood-Antis — the Lady Hornets even defeated D6-3A top seed Tyrone during the regular season. Valley has won all three of its state playoff games heading into tonight be double digits, and the last two of those have come over district champions that were ranked in the state’s top five.

Carroll already was a known commodity heading into this season, having beaten Blairsville convincingly in last year’s 6-1A final with an underclassman nucleus en route to a run to the PIAA quarterfinals before falling to eventual state champ North Catholic.

Both teams have followed similar formulas in their success. Carroll and Valley are defensive juggernauts. Offensively, with the exception of Martinazzi, the scoring for the Lady Huskies and Lady Hornets is very balanced; Juniata Valley almost has all five starters averaging in double figures.

Both teams even are 23-5.

“It’s great to have good basketball and good basketball teams. That’s what it’s all about — competition,” said Carroll coach Bob Gongloff, who led BC to a pair of state titles during his first stint with the team in the early 2000s. “No one wants to play games where you are blowing teams out by 40 or 50 points all the time. We want competitive games. That makes you a better team.”

The Lady Huskies and Lady Hornets might very well keep pushing each other to hone their abilities to a fine, razor’s edge just to be able to stay with or ahead of the other. That bodes well for the survivor of the two to bring back state gold, keeping alive an outstanding tradition of District 6 success in Class 1A that goes back into the 1980s.

Of course, with all the talk about the future, there’s still tonight’s clash. Valley led 14-5 after one quarter in the first meeting, but Martinazzi netted a game-high 15 points, the Lady Hornets struggled to make shots over the final three quarters, and Carroll carried the final period, 14-6, to triumph.

Hopsicker and her team are hoping to put what they learned that night and in their last two wins over Winchester Thurston and Kennedy Catholic to good use in bridging that gap, while not letting the prospects of what might transpire down the road serve as a distraction.

“We’re both pretty young, but we’re really focused on this game,” said Valley junior and deadly 3-point shooter Sydney Reed. “We know we’re going to have to battle with them in the future, but we’re really trying to focus on the game in front of us.”

Valley starts three juniors and two freshmen, including Halee Smith, a 6-footer who handles the basketball as well as most guards. Carroll’s starting unit is 80 percent juniors.

These teams’ clashes might go on beyond next year, though. Gongloff feels he has about a half-dozen eighth graders who could push for playing time in 2017-18 coming up through the parochial schools, if they choose to remain in the private school system. There also might be more help already at the high school, as Maddie Murphy, a starting guard as a freshman most of last year, returned to Carroll in the winter after transferring to Penn Cambria in the fall, although she’s not playing this season.

Juniata Valley went 15-2 in junior high this season and was the only team to beat Inter-County Conference champion Claysburg-Kimmel.

“For three, four years, I think, we’ll be battling it out for District 6 and, possibly, state titles,” Gongloff said.

That bodes well for Carroll, Valley and area girls basketball for tonight and for the future.

“I knew they were going to be good,” Hopsicker said. “That is where we wanted to be.”

Bishop Carroll (6-1) vs. Juniata Valley (6-2)


PIAA Class 1A semifinals

Juniata Valley (6-2) vs. Bishop Carroll (6-1)

Teams: Bishop Carroll Lady Huskies (23-5); Juniata Valley Lady Hornets (23-5).

Site, time: Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse, 6 p.m.

The coaches: Bishop Carroll — Bob Gongloff (397-103 in 17 years at Bishop Carroll; 418-155 in 20 years overall). Juniata Valley — Rachelle Hopsicker (95-49, six years).

Playoff path: Bishop Carroll — defeated Harmony, 61-23, in the District 6 quarterfinals; defeated Williamsburg, 65-28, in the District 6 semifinals; defeated Juniata Valley, 49-41, in the District 6 championship; defeated Allegheny-Clarion Valley, 73-32, in the PIAA first round; defeated Berlin Brothersvalley, 47-32, in the PIAA second round; defeated North Clarion, 58-49, in the PIAA quarterfinals. Juniata Valley — defeated Blacklick Valley, 68-13, in the District 6 quarterfinals; defeated Portage, 48-28, in the District 6 semifinals; lost to Bishop Carroll, 49-41, in the District 6 championship; defeated Shanksville-Stonycreek, 51-20, in the PIAA first round; defeated Winchester Thurston, 43-28, in the PIAA second round; defeated Kennedy Catholic, 42-32, in the PIAA quarterfinals.

Starting lineups: Bishop Carroll — G Liv Borlie (5, 5-5 jr., 4.4), G Alyssa Martinazzi (11, 5-9 jr., 16.8), G-F Adie Divido (14, 5-8 jr., 8.4), F Anna Haigh (35, 5-10 so., 10.4), F Emily Kutskel (42, 5-11 jr., 7.6). Juniata Valley — G Taylor Leidy (14, 5-5 jr., 9.9), G Hayden Taylor (12, 5-6 fr., 10.0), G Sydney Reed (10, 5-6 jr., 12.9), F Halee Smith (31, 5-10 fr., 15.0), Maddie Mattas (33, 5-11 jr., 9.8).

Key reserves: Bishop Carroll — G Sam Rosenberger (25, 5-6 so., 1.0), G Kate Yahner (15, 5-6 so., 3.6), F Emma Gittings (33, 5-10 so., 1.2), F Jourdan Williams (32, 5-9 sr., 5.6), F Faith Blake (34, 5-9 sr., 0.8). Juniata Valley — F Emily Jefferis (5, 5-9 so., 1.0), G Lexie Reed (1, 5-0 fr., 0.6).

Who they get: The winner will play the winner of the game between Lebanon Catholic (3-1) and Jenkintown (1-1) on Friday at noon at Hershey’s Giant Center for the PIAA championship.

Notable: This is a rematch of this year’s District 6 Class 1A championship game. Carroll overcame a 14-5 deficit after one quarter to win its 11th district championship and second straight, all in this classification. … Juniata Valley is in the PIAA semifinals for the first time in program history. … The Lady Huskies are making their seventh state final four appearance but their first since losing to eventual champion Monessen on 2004. That is the only time a BC girls team has reached the semis and has been unable to make it to the PIAA championship game. … Both teams have beaten district champions in their last two playoff games. … Sydney Reed, who was held without a 3-pointer in the D6 title game, has eight treys in the state playoffs and has scored in double figures in all three interdistrict postseason contests. … Last game was only the fifth time this season a Lady Hornet game was decided by 10 points or less. Carroll, conversely, is 6-2 this season in single-digit-difference games, winning one of those in overtime. … Divido’s 18 points against North Clarion was a career best.

— Philip Cmor