Friday night has become 'Championship Night' in the TIMES NEWS area.
Three local girls' basketball teams will be playing for their respective conference championships, as Northern Lehigh, Pleasant Valley and Tamaqua will all tip-off at 6 p.m. this evening.
Oddly enough, each team has a different storyline and has taken a different road to the finals. One team is undefeated and looking to defend its title. One team is looking for redemption in its first-ever title game. And one team is looking to get back to where it has been in the past.
Tamaqua (23-0) has had a bullseye on its back all season long and still refused to be beaten. Last year, the Blue Raiders won their first Schuylkill League championship since 1976-77 when they defeated Tri-Valley 51-28. Ironcially, the Lady Bulldogs will once again be the Raiders' opposition as they look to win their second title in as many years.
Tamaqua will enter the contest as the favorite, having beaten Tri-Valley 47-33 on Dec. 18. The Raiders have the luxury of having two top-10 TN scorers, including the area's leading scorer in senior Amy Zehner (23.8 ppg). Fellow front-liner Cassie Eroh chips in an average of 13.3 points-per-game.
The Raiders' main focus will be on the Bulldogs' Juli Weber. Weber, a 5-7 sophomore, scored 15 in a semifinal win over Pine Grove. She has scored over 300 points on the season and has led Tri-Valley to a 20-4 record.
"Juli is their point guard and the leader of their team," said Tamaqua head coach Joe Berezwick. "Everything they do goes through her. She is the type of player you don't really stop. We want to slow her down and try to contain her.
"It's interesting. The last two years we have played Tri-Valley, but the year before that we played Natvity in the championship. We were the newcomer and they were the champs. We lost, but the experience meant a great deal for us last year. Now we are the defending champs and Tri-Valley is the newcomer that lost the year before. It helps us a lot for having been here for a third time, but Tri-Valley will be better off as well for having played last year."
This wasn't supposed to be Northern Lehigh's first Colonial League championship appearance.
If the Bulldogs had it their way, they would also the defending champs as well after running through last year's regular season at 16-0. Unfortunately, the 'Dawgs were upset by Wilson in the first round on the conference tournament. This time around Northern Lehigh (21-2) is looking for redemption regardless of this being its first rodeo.
"We are looking at it as another shot to win a championship,"said Northern Lehigh head coach Dave Oertner. "Last year we just didn't get the job done. This time we want to take advantage of having another opportunity."
Northern Lehigh's offense revolves around junior Aimee Oertner and senior Sonya Josephson. The two are in the top-five in the area in scoring and combine for 34 of the Bulldogs' 52.6 points (Oertner 17.9 ppg, Josephson 16). That's basically 65 percent of the team's scoring. In their 40-39 victory during the regular season, Oertner poured in 18 while Josephson added six.
Southern Lehigh, who was up a point at halftime, was led by senior Eleni Dimou's ten points. Hannah Doell and Bridgette Doughert, the Spartans' leading scorers at about 10 ppg, each had eight.
"They are a very solid team," said Oertner. "They have some solid players and they can shoot the three. We had a little trouble getting hands in peoples' faces last time.
"Bridgette is strong inside and is a very good center. Doell is a nice swing man who can play inside and outside and can also defend. They are both about 6-1. Dimou is their point guard, but I think Christina (Bastardi) had the speed to stay with her. We will certainly have to play well defensively."
Then there is Pleasant Valley. The Lady Bears are five years removed from their last MVC final, in which they lost to Pocono Mt. West who just so happens to be their opponent Friday night.
From 2000-2005, Pleasant Valley was the mecca of MVC girls' basketball by winning five consecutive MVC titles. Now, in just Nadia Gauronsky's second year as head coach, the Bears are looking to reclaim the throne.
"I think it shows the hard work and dedication these girls have put forth" said Gauronsky, who's team in a year improved from 6-16 to 17-6. "A lot of different ideas were thrown at them since I took over and they have adjusted quickly. No matter what the outcome of this year was going to be coming in, I was happy with their work ethic. For them to be as successful as they have been is important to them and I am glad to see it paying off."
The two teams split during the regular season, with the Panthers winning 40-31 on Jan. 13 and the Bears winning 35-22 on Feb. 4. Ramona Benitez and Stephanie Davis are PM West's go-to-players. Davis hit for 17 points on five three-pointers in the Panthers' semifinal win over Stroudsburg. Benitez was second with 14 while no other teammate had more than three. Benitez and Davis went off for 17 and nine points respectively in their early-season win, but scored just five apiece in thei late-season loss.
"We are evenly matched athletically," said Gauronsky. "We are also both inexperienced in the post-season, with them being young and us being old. We just need to keep working hard and not have any mental mistakes. If we can do that then we should be alright."
ZEHNER-IFIC ... It was last year when Amy Zehner notched her 1,000th career point with the Tamaqua girls' basketball team. Last week, the Blue Raiders senior reach the number 1,000 in a different basketball category.
Zehner became the second individual in Tamaqua girls' basketball history to grab at least 1,000 rebounds and score at least 1,000 points in her high school career. Zehner pulled down her 1,000 career rebound in a 56-26 win over Panther Valley.
The only other Tamaqua girls basketball player to accomplish that feat was Cindy Miller (1977-80).
ONE THOUSAND FOR CELESTE ... Jim Thorpe's Celeste Robinson became the fourth TIMES NEWS girls' basketball player to reach the 1,000 point plateau this season.
Robinson joins Lehighton's Jordyn Homyak and Northern Lehigh's dynamic duo of Sonya Josephson and Aimee Oertner in doing so.
The Olympian hoopster was able to attain the mark in her junior season.
Back on Feb. 8, Robinson only needed three points before a key Schuylkill League Division I showdown with Pine Grove. Robinson was able to walk away with a 17-point effort to top the 1,000 career point mark.
Currently, Robinson sits with 1,034 points entering the district playoffs.