- Mindi Rice
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SPRINGFIELD, Pa. -- For 88 years, the Philadelphia Catholic League has set its own standard for excellence. A PCL championship was the pinnacle for the approximately 20 schools that rotated through the league during that time.
In November, when No. 5 Cardinal O'Hara met to set goals for the season, the girls set their sights higher than the handful of PCL banners on display in the rafters of their gymnasium.
First came the Nike Tournament of Champions title. Next, the Lions are after a PCL title. But this year, it doesn't stop there -- a District XII title against other Philadelphia teams, then the girls will focus at a shot at the big time.
For the first time in Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association history, the PCL is in the mix for state championships.
"We get a whole another arena to compete against, to prove ourselves against and to measure ourselves against," O'Hara assistant Chris Genther said. "When we hadn't had it before, it was always, 'Oh, Central Dauphin would have beat you by 20 or Downingtown East would have …' but now we get to partake in that."
Central Dauphin (Harrisburg, Pa.) is the reigning 4A girls basketball champion and likely O'Hara's stiffest competition.
O'Hara, which will compete at the 4A level, won't face its biggest PCL rival, No. 17 Archbishop Carroll (Radnor, Pa.), once the teams meet the public schools and District XII. Carroll, a slightly smaller school, has been classified as 3A for basketball, giving the PCL two legitimate chances at a PIAA title in girls basketball.
For Carroll, Mount Saint Joseph Academy, near Philadelphia, is the reigning 3A champion.
"At the end of the season, all that matters is that state championship," O'Hara senior Stephanie Holzer said. "That's what we're going for. ... Being the first year that we can make history and being the first Catholic school to win a state championship, that's amazing."
The PCL teams spent a year learning the PIAA rules, including no recruiting and a few uniform tweaks, before becoming full members this season, less than three years after the PCL asked to be incorporated in the PIAA.
Joining District XII, the Philadelphia area, gives that district 79 programs. Forty-five are Philadelphia Public Schools, 13 are charter schools and 21 come from the PCL, some co-ed and some either all-girls' or all-boys' schools.
The only league that remains out of the PIAA mix is the Inter-Academic League in Philadelphia, which features No. 31 Germantown Academy.
"That's a big step for a Catholic team to be able to play in that and say we're best in Catholic League and in the public league," junior Natasha Cloud said.
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Mindi Rice is a staff writer for ESPN HoopGurlz. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.