Central’s deep run reminiscent of 1996 championship team

By Brad Fauber

HARRISONBURG — Central’s girls basketball team’s deep postseason run to the 3A state semifinals this season brought back plenty of fond memories for Falcons assistant coach Sarah DiNardo-Swartz.

For DiNardo-Swartz, and many other former Central players, parents and fans, this season looked a lot like the 1996 season — the last time a Falcons girls team reached the state tournament.

The Falcons won the Group A state championship that season, and although the Falcons’ bid for a return to the state title game evaporated with a 75-52 loss to Spotswood at James Madison University on Saturday, this season provided the Falcons faithful with plenty of familiar feelings.

“The memories definitely came back,” DiNardo-Swartz said after Saturday’s loss. “I had people come up to me saying ‘This feels familiar. I remember this.’ And it did. And it brought up a lot of emotions, and I really just wanted them to experience it. It’s exciting for them. I’m excited that they got to experience it, because they were really excited about it.”

DiNardo-Swartz said she noticed several similarities between this season’s Central squad and 1996 team, beginning with the way both teams were able to achieve more than most had expected.

“I don’t think anybody expected us to get to where we made it either, so that’s what really brought us together when I played,” DiNardo-Swartz said. “We really played well together and it just clicked. These girls really made a good run [this season], and for the most part really tried their hardest to play as a team.”

DiNardo-Swartz attributed that success to how well both teams were able to increase their level of play once the postseason began.

“I think that’s probably the most similar thing, is how well they handled the postseason,” she said. “I was fortunate enough to be on a team that was like that the whole season. We had our first bad practice when we got in that gym — I’ll never forget it — and it was terrible. We couldn’t catch a ball, it just wasn’t clicking. And then we just came together and said ‘Listen, we’ve got to do something here.’ … And we all came together and supported each other. That’s what you’ve got to do.”

The 1996 team, under the guidance of then-head coach Roger Wilkins, reeled off 18 straight wins that season on its way to the state title.

The Falcons beat Wilson Memorial for the fourth time that season in the state semifinals, and they followed that up with a 52-47 win over Haysi in Bristol for the Group A championship.

DiNardo-Swartz — who held the Falcons’ all-time scoring mark until it was broken earlier this season by Katelyn Poston — recalled snatching a rebound off a missed free throw by teammate Meghann Peer (now Meghann Eastham) against Haysi and scoring a layup late in the game.

“I remember that, and our fans going crazy, and then I remember [thinking] ‘OK, we may very well be able to pull this off,'” DiNardo-Swartz said. “And then it just went from there. We ended up getting a little baseline jumper … and then it was over and we couldn’t believe it.”

DiNardo-Swartz said she’s still in close contact with Eastham and Lindsey Yates (formerly Lindsey Rutz), and Brandy Ritenour, who was a senior on the Falcons’ 1996 team and had a courtside seat to Saturday’s 3A state semifinal game. Ritenour said the friendships made during that season were just as meaningful as the state championship trophy.

“Friendships, and I think that was just as much a part of it as winning — the friendships that we made and then how well we all got along,” Ritenour said.

“It’s great to see Sarah [DiNardo-Swartz] up here coaching now. That’s just an amazing thing,” she added.

DiNardo-Swartz echoed that sentiment.

“We all definitely still keep in touch as much as we can. I’m still friends with a lot of them, so that’s nice,” she said. “We really did something special that year, and we have so much community support, and they came together again for these girls. That’s really special.”

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD