Sewickley Academy girls basketball comes together during challenging season

Sunday, February 20, 2022 | 11:01 AM

After reaching the WPIAL semifinals the past two seasons, the Sewickley Academy girls basketball team hoped to make another strong run in the playoffs this year. But the SA girls team, much like the SA boys, had to replace five starters from 2020-21.

The team finished sixth in Section 1-2A with a 3-7 record, going 5-9 overall.

After losing their season opener, the Panthers won four of their next five before dropping four in a row and eight of their last nine games. The Panthers did not play a game from Dec. 21-Jan. 6.

“It was a challenging season for us in the wins and losses department, but we’ve really seen growth with this inexperienced group,” coach Mark Gaither said. “We were actually playing above expectations into early January. We knocked off a very good Shenango team in the section and then went into that weekend with a solid performance in a victory over Ellis.

“That was Jan. 8, and then we fell into covid protocols and had to shut down completely for 10 days. Sprinkle in a few snow days after the return and it was like starting from scratch. We had limited practice time and squeezed in a bunch of section games. But our group never complained, just went one day at a time and accepted every obstacle put in front of them.”

This year’s team centered around Desirae Nance, a senior forward, and Rinnie Jardini, a junior guard. Nance and forward Maddie Martin were the only seniors on the squad.

“Being that I’m a senior, I’m sad that my time (at SA) has come to an end,” Nance said. “However, reflecting on the overall performance of my team, I look back on all the success and failures we’ve had and I’m proud to say that I loved the fight we put up. Being a younger team, the bonds and lessons I learned will stick with me forever. We became a family.”

Nance’s season-best game was a 19-point performance Jan. 6 against Shenango. Jardini tossed in a season-high 17 points Jan. 8 against Ellis.

“Our two leaders, Des and Rinnie, have really grown as leaders,” Gaither said. “Being a huge part of our previous two successful SA teams, they could have easily become discouraged this year. But they’ve been wonderful leaders in their actions and words, leading by example and encouraging their younger teammates with less experience.

“Our roster consisted of only two guards. Des, who had been a terrific post player the past two seasons, made the adjustment to play guard for us this year. She worked hard at it and made a great transition.”

Jardini was one of five juniors on the squad. Two others were forwards Olivia Jackson and Maddie Miller, also the goalkeeper on the SA girls soccer team.

“We didn’t know what to expect coming into the season,” Jardini said, “but we knew it would be a challenge losing such a strong group of seniors. Our goal was to get better and for each member of the team to improve, and I think we’ve accomplished that.

“We’re sad to lose our two seniors, who have helped to build this program from the ground up, but I’m really excited for next year and to work and get better in the offseason.”

Virginia Gaither, a sophomore guard, was a newcomer to the lineup. She quickly jumped into the spotlight at Sewickley and averaged close to 10 points.

“Virginia and Rinnie are both really great shooters,” Nance said. “I have high hopes for their season next year.”

Gaither led the team in scoring and 3-point shooting. She connected for 20 points with six triples against OLSH and 20 with four treys against New Brighton.

“Virginia was a bright spot for us,” said her father, SA’s third-year floor boss.

The Panthers were well stocked with forwards in 2021-22, which should bode well for the future.

Jackson, Miller and Martin were joined in the frontcourt by junior Laila Wade, sophomore Lia Frazzini and freshman Lauren Retzlaff, who missed most of the season because of a soccer injury.

“Our interior size and rebounding was a strength with the emergence of our two forwards, Olivia Jackson and Maddie Miller. They are strong forwards who battled inside,” said Coach Gaither, who is assisted by the foursome of Tyler Warford, Jocelyn Warfield, Mark Winiecki and Jill Capozzi.

“Olivia has made great strides on the offensive end as a legitimate post presence with an array of post moves, and she also was able to step out some and handle the ball for us.

“Laila Wade gave us some solid minutes off the bench as an athlete and strong rebounder. Maddie Martin was our seventh man in terms of minutes. She gave us another presence inside and was a strong vocal leader.”

The Sewickley girls did achieve an extremely rare feat in February, defeating Hillel Academy by a 37-0 score.

“Obviously, the win versus Shenango (on Jan. 6) was our best win of the season,” coach Gaither said, “but we competed many other nights as well and with little depth, we just wore down late in games. We are excited for the future. We did not have an offseason program the past two summers and did not play middle school or JV basketball last year. Our kids have lost a lot of basketball and skill development.

“Our offseason will be huge as we get back in the gym working on skills and compete in summer league games. The experience gained this summer will play a factor next year as we continue to build and grow.

“We are also excited about our eighth-grade group that has shown a lot of promise and has a good work ethic.”


More Basketball

Leechburg boys basketball coach Damian Davies resigns
Penn Hills notebook: Drew Schifino plans basketball camp
Freeport grad takes over boys basketball program
Former OLSH basketball star Jake DiMichele commits to Duquesne
Penn Hills notebook: Daemar Kelly earns all-state honors