Extra work pays off for Bellwood-Antis girls

LORETTO — As Hershey kisses rained down on the floor at DeGol Arena Monday, the Bellwood-Antis girls basketball team let out a year’s worth of frustration.

Tears were flowing, hugs were aplenty, and, of course, chocolate was eaten following the Lady Blue Devils’ 41-36 win over Blairsville in the PIAA Class 2A semifinals.

“I’m very happy for our kids,” Bellwood-Antis coach Jim Swaney said. “They’ve never been (to the state championship), and I wanted to take them there. A lot of people thought we were a year away because we were so young, but they’ve never believed that.”

It was Swaney who told reporters following Bellwood’s 68-57 loss to Bishop McCort in the 2A semifinals last season that he pictured this year’s team right back in this spot. That was despite the graduation of Karson Swogger, an all-state player who is the all-time leading scorer in Blair County basketball history.

“I said that, because I see them all the time,” Swaney said. “When I see the commitment these kids make in the summer in their conditioning and weight training, it’s amazing. I’ve got to thank Fred Dorman for that. He’s just incredible. He ran our weight and conditioning program over the summer. People don’t see that part.

“When it is 90 degrees outside in July and we’ve got 12 kids inside our little weight room in Bellwood, it’s about 120 in there. They are in there busting their tail. I know what these kids go through. The season is only three months, but if you’re going to play on this level, you have to make more of a commitment than that.”

Last season’s loss was clearly on the minds of Bellwood-Antis Monday.

“Last year, I was completely devastated losing,” B-A senior Tina Hollen said. “Not only did we lose the district championship, but we lost a chance to go to the state final. We lost the ICC game.

“Then, here in my senior year, we don’t even make the district final. So, we really wanted this after all that. Winning this feels so good. I may never get a district medal in basketball, but I might get a state medal. That’s more than I could ever ask for.”

Hollen, Alli Campbell, Riley D’Angelo and Emilie Leidig all played in that semifinal loss a year ago and made a pact to get back and have another shot at it.

“We wanted to go all the way this year,” Campbell said. “We were going to do anything to get there.”

That anything this year was getting past Blairsville, a team that has frustrated Swaney’s Lady Blue Devil teams for years. This time, it was Bellwood forcing the action and bringing a higher intensity level that made the Lady Bobcats uncomfortable.

“We had a couple mistakes that we made,” Blairsville coach Ralph McGinnis said. “They had the two 3-pointers that got them back into it. We missed a couple box outs. We just made some mistakes there at the end. Their size caught up to us. They were able to get inside on us and it paid off for them.”

When Hollen had to exit with three fouls in the first half, sophomore Jaydyn Shuke stepped in and filled in defensively and brought in a couple key rebounds.

“We have worked so hard since elementary school,” Hollen said. “I’m just so proud for my teammates pulling us through, especially when I wasn’t able to play with foul trouble. I’m so proud of everyone. I’m so happy.”

Now, the Lady Blue Devils finally can enjoy their historic achievement.

“They have a school record for wins in a season with 27,” Swaney said. “We have accomplished an awful lot this year. I’m just very proud of them.”