The McGuffey girls basketball team solemnly filed out of its locker room at Montour High School on Feb. 21 after having its WPIAL title hopes end with a 79-68 loss to Burrell.
While it was the second-straight season the Highlanders lost in the quarterfinals, they held their heads high. There was still a glimmer of hope for their playoff aspirations. If the Blue Devils defeated Greensburg Central Catholic in the semifinals and advanced to the Class AA WPIAL championship, McGuffey would clinch a spot in the PIAA playoffs for the second year in a row.
Highlanders junior guard Sammie Weiss and her teammates attended Burrell’s game against GCC on Feb. 25 at Baldwin High School and left with a sigh of relief. The Blue Devils won, and with the victory, gave McGuffey a second crack at postseason basketball.
The Highlanders will face Bellwood-Antis (24-2), the District 6 champion, Friday at the Altoona Fieldhouse. Tip-off is 5 p.m.
For Weiss, who was disappointed following the loss to Burrell, it did not matter who McGuffey drew in the first round of the state playoffs. She wanted at least one more game to play with her sister, Cassie, and the team’s other seniors – Sam Chadwick and Abby Pattison.
“I was upset that we lost, but I had a feeling that we might not be done, so I didn’t let it get to me too much,” Weiss said. “I had nothing to lose but I didn’t want it to be my last game playing with my sister and the other seniors. It was bad at the moment. I wish we would have won, but we still have another chance.”
Bellwood-Antis is in a similar position as McGuffey (20-4). Like the Highlanders, the Blue Devils lost their PIAA first-round playoff last season to Burrell. But unlike the Highlanders, Bellwood-Antis experienced roster turnover – returning just one senior. The Blue Devils did not skip a beat. They have won 24-straight games after losing back-to-back contests to open the season.
McGuffey head coach Amanda Burchett attended Bellwood-Antis’ District 6 championship win over Juniata on Saturday and came away impressed. Like McGuffey, the Blue Devils have solid guard play with a deep roster. While the Highlanders experienced jitters in their first taste of state playoff basketball last season, Burchett is confident that won’t be the case against Bellwood-Antis.
To simulate the inevitable large size of the crowd at the Altoona Field House, Burchett will blare loud noise throughout McGuffey’s practices this week.
“They are excited because this is our second year in the tournament,” Burchett said. “Last year was a surprise. It was all new and we weren’t really expecting it. It’s kind of a shock, but now we are more prepared for it. Last year was new to me, it was new to the girls and it was new to the school.”
The playoff loss to Northeast last season was the first state playoff game for a McGuffey basketball team – boys or girls. The location of the game will play a factor in the crowd noise. Bellwood-Antis is just eight miles away from Altoona, while McGuffey will travel 134 miles to play the game.
Weiss, who averages 23.8 points per game, admits she was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of last year’s loss to Northeast at Gannon University, but like Burchett, believes the Highlanders will not have the same jitters that resulted in a 59-49 loss that ended their season.
“Last year, I didn’t realize how loud it was going to be,” Weiss said. “It was loud. A lot of people were there, and this year coach said she is expecting it to be even louder. That’s what we’re going to try to get ready for. It’s going to be even more intense this year.”
Even if McGuffey falls short of earning the school’s first state playoff basketball victory, Burchett’s message to her team will be similar to the one delivered following the crushing loss to Burrell: They have made history.
“They have changed the basketball community at McGuffey,” Burchett said. “It hasn’t been known for winning or producing good players, but because of their work, people are scared to play us. People give us the respect we’ve earned, and it’s due to the girls we have now. They’ve been part of changing an entire attitude and atmosphere here at school.”