Meadowbrook Christian girls go back to the future

Feb. 27—Kailey Devlin is old enough to remember when there wasn't any pressure on her Meadowbrook Christian basketball team.

It was way back when the Lions boasted a gaudy record, a league championship and the top seed in their district playoffs. That group made program history every time they stepped on the court for a solid month, winning the district and coming within an overtime result of earning a state semifinal berth.

Ah, yes. That 2022-23 season was a classic.

Not much has changed for Meadowbrook Christian in one year, and yet so much is different.

These Lions, absent two graduates, again have a gaudy record (25-1), a league championship and the district's top seed. They also have rematch with St. John Neumann in Thursday's district final at Montoursville H.S. (7:30 p.m.)

"Yes, we are the defending district champs, but that doesn't mean anything," said Devlin, who earned all-state status after her banner junior season. "That was last year, and we've got to play forward from there. We're just taking it day by day and doing the best we can."

Last season, Meadowbrook played in the considerable shadow of Allegheny Christian Athletic Association rival Northumberland Christian. The Warriors were coming off a District 4 three-peat and the 2022 Class A state championship. The Lions gradually emerged from relative obscurity by winning 17 of their first 18 games and ending the regular season at 20-2.

Despite nine non-conference victories — including a win over one of the two teams that beat them (Muncy) — the Lions didn't receive the measure of respect due a No. 1 district seed with a perfect league record. That changed when they marched past Bucktail and North Penn-Liberty to the district final, then overcame a 13-point, third-quarter deficit to beat Neumann by 10 in overtime.

Their historic run ended two weeks later with an overtime loss to District 2 champion Mountain View in the state quarterfinals.

"Last year we were just along for the ride; we had no idea what was going to happen. We didn't really expect (that level of success), to be honest," said Lions senior Audrey Millett. "This year, we have expectations that we're trying to meet, but I think it's important to let those expectations go — just let God control the situation and give it our all."

Meadowbrook graduated starting guard Alyssa Canelo and reserve forward Ellie Sweigard from last year's 27-3 squad. That pair was replaced, in effect, by juniors Emma George and Addison Nevius, both of whom saw their minutes nearly double to the 18-20 range, and the addition of freshman Hannah Millett. They have admirably filled the supporting roles alongside senior starters Devlin, Millett and Alayna Smith and sophomore Maddy Fasnacht.

The Lions bettered their regular-season record by one win while averaging a bucket more per game (41.7 ppg.), albeit prior to state tournament play.

"Last year everything was brand-new; now the girls are playing with an expectation on their shoulders," said Meadowbrook coach Shane Devlin. "So there's almost a relief after wins, instead of an exuberance and a celebration. We've talked about that a little bit, just getting back to having fun."

"I definitely think we feel some pressure compared to last year," said Audrey Millett. "I think it's nice that people respect us a little bit now. We definitely have earned that; we worked hard."

The bull's-eye that comes with being the defending champion seems to have weighed a bit on the Lions in districts. They were scoreless for the first 4 1/2 minutes and trailed after one quarter in a quarterfinal win over North Penn-Liberty, then needed a last-minute Devlin 3-pointer to knock off Bucktail in the semis.

"Yeah, we have a target on our backs," said Kailey Devlin, "but God's going to bless whatever we do."

"This is a battled-tested team, and there have been a lot of close games that we've had to fight through and find a way to win," said Shane Devlin. "Every game you've got something you can learn from."

Meadowbrook is a more balanced scoring team, too, particularly at the top where Kailey Devlin (15.9 ppg.) has ceded some of the responsibility to Fasnacht (12.2). Both are deep threats (38 and 37 3-pointers, respectively), as well as tough from intermediate and short range, as well as off the dribble and at the foul line. It makes gimmick defenses designed to slow Devlin more of a risk for opponents.

In second-seeded St. John Neumann, the Lions have a quicker, longer and more athletic challenge than anything they've faced to date. The Golden Knights (20-4) knocked off the only team to beat the Lions in the regular season — Lourdes Regional — by 11 in Saturday's semifinals (44-33). Meadowbrook will also certainly have the respect (if not the laser-focus) of a team that lost a 13-point, second-half lead in last year's final.

"It's motivational just knowing people are coming into a game (against us), thinking, 'Oh, we need to have a good game,'" said Fasnacht. "That's calming in a sense because they're the ones feeling that pressure to come in at their best."

"I like being the underdog, but this fun. Yeah, there's pressure now, but it's not all on us," said Kailey Devlin. "We've been there before; everything is not new. It's not like, Oh, we're making school history now. It's like, No, we've done this.

"Yeah, we have a target on our backs but God's going to bless whatever we do."

The Lions have qualified for the Class A state tournament by virtue of their district final berth. They would face the District 3 sixth-place team with a win, or the third-place team in the Districts 2/11 subregional with a loss.

"While we're defending district champs, there are three teams in our district that made it to the (Class A) final eight last year. This is probably one of the best districts in the state, and we don't take that for granted," said Shane Devlin. "Plus, the other piece of that is we've got three girls who are potentially playing their last game in every game we play. So that brings a new urgency to this part of the season, as well."

"It definitely feels a little bit different, knowing that this isn't completely new territory for us," Fasnacht added. "Honestly, I feel like it's more like this year I'm realizing that we're not guaranteed the next game. So it's about coming into each game and putting your all in. We need to work our butts off to get that next game."