When North Platte St. Patrick's and Hershey square off at the state basketball tournament Thursday, it will be their fifth battle of the season. St. Pat's coach Nathan Stienike and Hershey coach Jeremy Thomas said that it's only proper that their teams will play again -- this time on the highest stage.
The series is tied at two games each.
Hershey (20-4) is ranked slightly higher than St. Pat's, but St. Pat's (22-3) has a better record.
Tip off is at 10:45 a.m. at Lincoln East. The winner will advance to play at 9 a.m. Friday.
Thomas knew that the intense rivalry would go up a notch with Hershey dropping from Class C1 to C2 and placed in the same district with St. Pat's this season, but he didn't expect it to last all the way to the state tournament.
"The rivalry with St. Pat's has always been huge, whether its boys' or girls' basketball, and this year it got more heated," said Thomas. "We knew we'd be playing them at least two times and then we knew we'd have a chance to play them in the SPVA finals; then, maybe in subdistricts and now we get to play them a fifth time at the state tournament. Here we go."
Stienike and Thomas both said that what makes the Irish-Panthers rivalry so special in girls' basketball is that they share a lot of the same philosophies. They both believe that the key to winning games is with stingy defense and intensity on both sides of the ball.
Throw in the fact that the two schools are only 13 miles apart and you have a series that is sure to be competitive.
"I think it's a good rivalry," Stienike said. "Both teams always play hard and both bring a lot of fan support to the games against one another. I think it's a great environment for high school girls' basketball."
"The fact that it's St. Pat's," said Thomas, when asked what about the rivalry brings out the best in his team. "There's nothing else that needs to be said. If that doesn't motivate you nothing will. The girls really respond to the rivalry because great teams make great teams better."
Like with a lot of rivalries, no lead is safe when it comes to Hershey and St. Pat's, Thomas said.
"St. Pat's always plays hard and they always have great athletes," he said. "You have to play with a lot of intensity because whether a team has a lead of 10-0 or 15-5 early, the other team is sure to keep playing hard and they usually make a run."
Stienike said Hershey a great team with a nice complement of posts and guards that makes it tough for the Lady Irish, and this year is certainly no different.
"It starts with Hershey guards (Daynlee) Miller and (Maegan) Hiatt and their both great ball-handlers," said Stienike. "They've also got Maddie Seamann inside and she has been tough all year. Then Brooke Frederick is great at putting pressure on defense. They're a well-balanced team."
With the series for this season is tied at two games all, Thursday morning's game at Lincoln East High School will be for the season series and bragging rights.
St. Pat's won the first game on Dec. 8 at Hershey.
But in the conference championship on Jan. 19, the Lady Panthers beat the Irish to avenge last year's loss in the conference tournament finals.
Then on Feb. 7, Hershey took the upper hand in the series with a win over St. Pat's in North Platte at the McGahan Activities Center.
A week later in the subdistrict finals in McCook, the Lady Irish beat Hershey 48-43 in a double overtime marathon.
Stienike said that game was very characteristic of the rivalry.
"I thought we had it won in regulation -- up by four with a minute left in the game,” he said. “Then I thought Hershey had it won in the first overtime with the lead in the last minute before Mandy O'Malley scored the tying basket with a putback in the last seconds. Then in the second overtime, we knocked down enough free throws to win. It was a battle between two teams that never quit fighting until the end."
The Lady Panthers were heartbroken after losing that game to their arch-rivals on Valentine's Day. But they were glad to have another chance at the Irish after receiving the wild card berth at the tournament.
"Both teams played hard (in the subdistrict finals) but I wasn't pleased with our execution on offense, but that's a credit to St. Pat's and how well they played on defense," Thomas said. "We watched the film and we corrected the things we needed to fix from that game. The girls want this. It's a grudge match."
With standout players on both sides graduating this year, Thursday's historic fifth game between Hershey and St. Pat's will mark the end of what has been a storied chapter in the rivalry.