Tyrone Lady Eagles gain experience, maturity during 2003-04 campaign

The struggles experienced by the Tyrone girls basketball team in 2003-04 were expected. After a solid four-year run that saw the Lady Eagles steadily climb up the ranks in District 6, the program had hit a down cycle when younger players would have to step in and take over at an early age.
It happens all the time in sports and it has happened many times for Tyrone coach Jim Swaney.
So the 16-year coach understood his team would stumble. He understood that there would be growing pains. He understood that some players would come along more slowly than others.
But with all of that said, he could not understand, nor could he accept, his team\’s 4-20 record, a low mark for a coach who is used to playing basketball well into March.
“We all have to be disappointed that we only got four wins,” Swaney said. “There\’s no question that we got better, but it never translated into wins. We really should have been around nine or 10.”
As strange as it may sound for a team that had separate losing streaks of four, five and eight games, nine or 10 wins were within Tyrone\’s grasp. Tyrone lost twice in overtime to teams that qualified for the post-season, blew a double-digit lead in a one-point loss to Huntingdon, and was outplayed only for small stretches in four total losses to Mountain Conference rivals Bald Eagle Are and Bellefonte.
Now, with a humbling and educational year in the past, and a summer for growth on the horizon, Swaney and the Lady Eagles are preparing for what may be the most pivotal off-season in program history. Next fall, the Lady Eagles will return size, athleticism, experience and talent.
The next seven months will determine if it will be enough to put the program back on track.
“We\’re very excited about next year, but we know we have a lot of work to do,” Swaney said. “We can\’t forget that we were 4-20. We need to be reminded of that every day and if that makes us mad, well maybe that\’s a good thing.”
One thing that is definitely good is that Tyrone will start next seasons with a proven scorer in Hilary McNelis, who in her junior season proved to be among the toughest defensive assignments in the conference. She scored 400 points for a 16.6 ppg. average and hit several milestones along the way.
McNelis led the Lady Eagles in scoring in 19 of their 24 games, became the seventh player in program history to register 30 points in a single game, and became the first 400-point scorer in a single season since Nic DelBaggio in 1997-98. She also led the team in rebounding 14 times and had seven double-doubles.
Her performance was even more incredible when you consider that she did it basically without developing her weak hand and she did it when every player, coach and fan in the gymnasium knew she was getting the ball.
“She had a great year for us,” Swaney said. “But she can do better. She wants to be a great player. For her overall good, as a basketball player and a softball player, she\’s going to have to get faster and she\’s got to work on using her right hand. If she does that, she should challenge for Mountain Conference MVP.”
Sophomore Emily McKenna – Tyrone\’s only other player who returned last season with varsity experience along with McNelis – also averaged double-figure scoring, netting 10.7 ppg. to go along with 81 assists and 33 three-point baskets. She\’ll return next season along with classmates Emily Ingle and Emily Lloyd and junior Heather Stanton to provide the foundation of an experienced a deep backcourt for the Lady Eagles.
“We\’re going to have at least nine guards in the mix looking for playing time. It will be a challenge and that\’s a good thing,” Swaney said. “We\’re going to make it a competitive situation for them and see who wants to grab a position the most.”
Tyrone will not be as deep on the interior, but they will return experience and athleticism nonetheless. Sophomores Ashley Roth and Marissa Hoover each filled starting roles at some point last season, and both are leapers that can rebound from the weak side when playing opposite McNelis. Junior Christina Taylor will also be in the rotation after battling injuries for the better part of the last two seasons.
Swaney is also excited about a strong group of players moving up from junior high that could provide depth and competitiveness in practice situations.
But despite reasons for optimism, Swaney is realistic about the program\’s situation as the summer approaches.
“For us to be good, we need to do three things,” he said. “We have to get more athletic, for one. We\’ve got to get more kids scoring and become better shooters. Those may be the two easy things. Third, we have to get mentally tough, and that\’s what\’s most important. That\’s what we have to work at to be competitive on the District level.”