Cheltenham may have written the book on establishing a winning tradition when it comes to girls’ basketball in the area, but Council Rock North – although newer - is not far behind.
Both programs are perennial league, district and state powers. While the Indians have advanced to the state tournament 10 of 12 years under coach Lou Palkovics, the Lady Panthers have been there 22 of the last 24 years under coach Bob Schaefer.
Excellence is expected, and the players regularly deliver.
“People like to say, ‘Oh, you have such good athletes,’” Schaefer said. “Well, guess what? Every team out there has athletes.
“When I took over way back when, my goal was to teach these kids what commitment was and what hard work was and the rewards that follow. They’ve picked up on it pretty quickly, and it becomes a tradition of playing in-your-face tough defense, never quitting and overachieving, and the kids kind of expect it of themselves because they’ve seen the teams of the past.”
And what a storied past it has been.
The Lady Panthers, who have won 20 or more games in 24 of the last 26 seasons, have advanced to the state title game four times – and won twice (2000 and 2007). The Indians, meanwhile, have been to the state title game three times under Palkovics.
The Lady Panthers have won district titles in 1996, 1999, 2000 and 2001 while the Indians laid claim to the district crown in 2000, 2003 and 2006.
“I definitely preach to the girls tradition, and I think they do have a psychological advantage on people because the program has been so successful over the years,” Palkovics said.
Last year – just one year removed from a confrontation in the state title game, the two teams suffered through difficult seasons.
By their standards at least.
The Indians were 17-9 while the Panthers were 15-11. Both were sent packing in the second round of the district tournament.
“That was the hardest part,” Rock North senior Kate Logan said. “You don’t get those next four games, you don’t get that state tournament bid, and you have an extra month of free time that you’re not used to, and that’s the longest month of free time before spring sports start.
“The hardest part is not being able to go to practice the next day because the first thing you want to do after you have a loss like that is just to get to practice the next day and work as hard as you can to get back to where you were.”
Neither team had practice the day after their second round losses, but both teams began working in earnest to ensure there would be no reruns.
When the district seedings were announced last Sunday, the Lady Panthers (21-1) were the tournament’s top seed while the Indians (20-2) were seeded third.
“It’s really exciting,” said Cheltenham senior Dayna McCrewell, who was sidelined for a portion of last season recovering from ACL surgery. “I think the key for us has basically been our work ethic. In practices we work hard, and we’re always cheering each other on even though it’s not a game.
“When we get in a game, we’re all there for each other. We make sure we tell each other where we’re supposed to be, what defense we’re in. We’re always just talking to each other and encouraging each other.”
“We’re so much more confident this year,” Cheltenham senior Jenna Peoples added. “It’s like it’s a whole new team, but it’s not.
“It’s amazing to have Dayna back, but I think because we have been playing together so long and because we’re so close, it’s just starting to work out. We’re a really hard-working team. With everything we do, we put in 100 percent, and it shows.”
Players from both sides admit that last year’s disappointments played a role in this year’s success stories.
“Last year was tough,” McCrewell said. “But we needed last year to be prepared for this year.
“I was upset, but I knew I could get over it because I knew we would come back stronger this year.”
“Last year was different,” Logan added. “But we really needed that year to develop the chemistry we have this season. I don’t think we’d be where we are now if we hadn’t had that one – they call it a down year, but even though it was a down year, we still played fairly well, but for us, it’s not the same.”
Both teams returned basically the same players as last season. For some teams, that would have meant the same results as last season. But not for these two programs.
“The kids have worked hard, they’ve matured, they grew up a year,” Schaefer said. “There were a lot of factors that were different this year – their attitude and their work ethic. The kids worked hard, and it wasn’t me making them work hard. They’re self-driven and encouraging each other to work hard. A big part of that I’m sure is being a year more mature and understanding a little more of what’s expected.
“I sat with them the other day, and I said, ‘It would be a heck of a sad thing if we got upset real early in the playoffs, but regardless of what happens in the playoffs, it’s been a fantastic season.’ Every practice was fun and enjoyable.”
Team chemistry is strong on both squads.
“Every girl on the team gets along,” Peoples said. “It’s just awesome because we actually are a family. I know a lot of teams say that, but we actually live it.
“We’re all sisters. We talk, we gossip, we go to the movies together. When we have problems, we can talk to each other. It’s nice to have girls there that you actually care for.”
“This has actually been my favorite season of all my seasons,” said McCrewell, who saw significant playing time for the 2007 state championship squad. “Everybody has just bonded. We’re like a family.
“We all encourage each other. There’s no, ‘Oh, I don’t feel like doing it.’ We’re all here to work hard and get better.”
During the offseason, the Indians played together on the same Upper Makefield AAU team.
“We were able to build a lot of camaraderie, and a lot of our chemistry developed during the spring and summer AAU seasons,” Logan said. “Now we know how to play with each other better.
“Even though we’re all different ages, and we have a range of classes on our team – freshmen through seniors, we all have a good sense of where people will be on the court.”
Schaefer says he intentionally takes a break from his team during the offseason.
“We don’t go to team camp,” he said. “I don’t want to overdo things in the spring and summer. Therefore, when our season starts, we won’t be where we are at the end of the season.
“We face a lot of teams that do all those things, and the kids in their first two games are playing as well as they will the whole year. I like to think we build, and we’re ready at the right time, and we do what we need to do.”
“I get girls who work 12 months out of the year,” Palkovics said. “I get girls that want to stay around after practice for a half hour, I have girls who want to put in the extra time. I’m pretty spoiled that way.
“They definitely come to me with most of the skills. It’s just a matter of me instilling my program’s philosophy and getting my system in.”
While the approaches of the two coaches may be different, the results are pretty much the same – they produce winners, and last year’s early exit from districts only served as impetus to come back even stronger.
“When they talked to (Boston Celtic guard) Ray Allen the other day after they lost to L.A., he said, ‘It’s a good thing I’m not a football player, and I don’t have to wait until next week to play,’” Palkovics said. “I think it’s the same kind of thing with my girls.
“We’re not used to losing (early) in districts. If there was a season that started the next day, I think they would have jumped on it because they had to wait a whole year to redeem themselves. I think they came back with a lot more focus and resolve because they wanted to redeem themselves.
“The girls feel like they not only let themselves down, they feel like they let the coach down, and they really feel like they let the community down, so that’s the kind of tradition they feel.”
Earlier this season, the Indians surprised their coach with t-shirts that had pictures of Palkovics playing high school basketball emblazoned on them along with the word ‘Tradition.’
“We thought it was a good thing that kind of encapsulated the spirit of Council Rock North,” Logan said.
It encapsulates the spirit of Cheltenham as well.