Central Mountain has risen from the ashes in girls basketball and brushed off past setbacks
They worked and tried, but whatever they did, wins kept eluding them.
It became a vicious cycle, a cruel basketball version of the movie “Groundhog Day” brought to life. Over a six-year span, the Central Mountain girls won four basketball games. They bottomed out from 2017-2019, losing 48 straight games.
“It felt like a routine. We’d go to practice and have a good practice and we’d go into a game and play well and get beat by one or two,” senior guard Avery Baker said. “Then you just have a bad practice the next day and you have to turn around and play again. It just kept happening.”
Finding wins became a Moby Dick adventure and sustained success the Holy Grail. Hope was running dry.
And that is what makes the story the 2021 Wildcats are writing so remarkable. Central Mountain has risen from the ashes, brushed off the past setbacks and blazed a new trail. A team that just last season snapped that 48-game losing streak and that won 10 games the past seven years is now one of the area’s best.
Central Mountain is 9-1 and a just a play from being undefeated. One more win and the Wildcats will match the previous seven-year total. Basketball is fun again and this team is shining a bright light upon both its program and school.
“It feels good to see how much better we’re doing because everyone used to look down on our program,” senior guard Quinlynn McCann said following last Friday’s 61-35 win against Midd-West. “No one can take us lightly anymore.
“We put in a lot of hard work. It’s nice that we can prove some people wrong and see the hard work pay off, finally,” Baker said. “We don’t have to dread playing anymore. We actually have fun.”
The foundation for that fun was set when Baker’s father Scott became the team’s coach three years ago. Baker coached the Central Mountain boys for 16 years, enjoying a successful tenure which included a district championship. When others ran from what felt like a Sisyphus-type challenge, Baker embraced the opportunity.
But until the first practice, he did not realize how truly daunting this situation was. Central Mountain coaches spent that first year re-teaching the fundamentals. Before this team could run it must learn to walk. It was a process and Central Mountain endured its second straight winless season.
But through the darkness, some light started breaking through.
“It was abysmal. It was unbelievable. I knew it was bad, but until you’re there it’s a shock,” Scott Baker said. “That first year we didn’t win any, but there were a few where we closed those 40-50-point gaps to 25 points or 15. We started to score and started to look like a basketball team instead of like deer in the headlights.”
Every journey must start somewhere, and the journey began there, although it looked no different than the past. McCann and Baker, however, were emerging as dangerous guards. Alyssa Fisher was another promising sophomore that year while freshman Mia Kopysciansky also made an impact.
Forward Kiahna Jones joined the talented nucleus last year and Central Mountain emphatically ended its 48-game losing streak in the season opener when it routed Philipsburg-Osceola. Suddenly, Central Mountain had one powerful ingredient it had lacked for so long.
“We knew what was coming in the future,” McCann said. “We knew who we had coming up and we knew we had something to start our program over again.”
Central Mountain started 4-2 last season but struggled down the stretch and finished 6-16. Still, it was a big bounce-back season, and it allowed the Wildcats to dream big entering the offseason. Central Mountain also knew point guard Ava Renninger would be arriving from junior high, providing another weapon and allowing Avery Baker to play her natural shooting guard position.
Renninger’s arrival also provided Central Mountain more depth. Often that was what held the Wildcats back in 2020. Central Mountain was competitive in a lot of games but lost many late when the team would tire.
“We knew going into this year with the core that we had and Ava coming in with us that we had a pretty good shot,” Scott Baker said. “We just want to keep it going.”
Renninger fit like a glove into the rotation and has been among the area’s leading scorers all year. Baker and McCann also frequently stuff the stat sheet, Fisher provides another weapon and Jones has become a potential force in the post. Kopysciansky and Reese Doyle have played well off the bench and all the moving parts have fallen into place.
Things looked good on paper, but the final hurdle was the mental one. All the talent, execution and game-planning would not matter if the culture did not change. From the opening game, Central Mountain has broken down that wall and started believing it will win instead of waiting for things to go wrong.
While it struggled in the fourth quarter last year, Central Mountain often has owned that quarter in 2021, dominating Lewisburg and Shamokin there early this season while picking up impressive wins. Central Mountain erased a six-point fourth-quarter deficit last Saturday, allowing just four points and defeating DuBois, 45-41. They have won close games. They have won blowouts and they have come from behind.
Above all, Central Mountain has won. A lot.
“Once we saw at tournaments that we could beat teams around here if we play our best that gave us confidence. It showed us that if we come out and play really hard it can happen,” Avery Baker said. “We started playing as a team and it just kicked in. We knew we had a good team, but we also knew we had to work hard and run the plays and move the ball. We knew we had to work things out that way.”
The work goes on and Central Mountain has not yet reached the summit. But what a climb it has been. The Wildcats are headed for their first winning season since 2011 and have become legitimate District 6 title contenders.
With Renninger and Jones still being young, the foundation for future success is there as well. Scott Baker already has fulfilled a promise he made after accepting the job and the transformation continues.
“I told the administration all I’m going to promise you is that we’ll be better when I’m done than when I started,” Baker said. “Once kids learn to win, they have to understand how to get to that next level and how to beat those good teams they play at playoff time. There’s lots of steps to the process.”
And Central Mountain has made that first step a giant one.