JOHNSTOWN – Danville met its kryptonite once more on Wednesday night.
Her name is Celeste Mershimer. She stands 5-foot-3 with curly, shoulder-length black hair and a bounce to her step. She is quiet on the court, a leader by her actions above all else.
She is also Danville’s worst nightmare.
The Blue Devils faced the senior point guard – who was recently named Div. IV Central District Player of the Year – for the third time in four years on Wednesday, and it went about as well as it did her freshman year, when she hung 15 first-quarter points on Danville en route to a double-digit district final win.
“We were familiar with her. (We) kind of knew what she was capable of,” Danville head coach Matt Proper prefaced.
It didn’t matter.
Mershimer lit the Blue Devils up again, this time for 26 points, 12 steals and seven assists. When she was on the court, she dictated everything about the game – the pace, the shot selection, the way Danville sizzled under her full-throttle, full-court ball pressure.
She led Fairfield Christian Academy to a comfortable 87-52 district semifinal win at Johnstown High School, where her team led the whole way. The Knights (25-1) came in as the district’s top seed, led by Mershimer and head coach Ben Bethel, who earned Central District Coach of the Year honors this week.
Danville (12-11), meanwhile, came into Wednesday’s game without its leading scorer, CeCe Newbold (second team all-district), who had averaged 12 points per game. Newbold suffered a concussion during the team’s second-round win on Saturday, Proper said, which sidelined her for the biggest game of the season.
“Without CeCe tonight, it kind of changed dynamics,” Proper said. “We kind of knew she’d be out all week so we kind of practiced with it. But still, when you have someone all season, you miss that.”
It was the perfect storm for Fairfield Christian, which took Danville out of its comfort zone immediately after tip-off. Mershimer picked the pocket of a Blue Devil guard 10 seconds into the game and raced down for a lay-in, only to score again a minute later on a transition pass from fellow first team all-district honoree Hope Custer.
Danville didn’t go down easily, however. The Blue Devils punched back with two three-pointers from freshman Brooklyn Hess – including a half-court shot at the buzzer – to stay within 22-15 after one quarter.
When Danville could break the Knights’ full-court, denial pressure, they could score in the half-court. But it was getting there that became the problem. Danville recorded over 30 turnovers on Wednesday night, per Proper’s tally, and the majority of those came on consecutive possessions in the first half.
“The turnovers just killed us tonight, you know. I don’t know if the pressure of the game or whatever got to us, it just seemed like we just were rushing everything,” Proper said. “We were kind of hesitant, our confidence was kind of lacking tonight. But I thought especially just handling the ball, we ended up with 30-plus turnovers. It’s hard to do anything with that.”
Still, Danville hung in there. Using improved transition defense and buckets from four different Blue Devils to start the quarter, the district’s six-seed cut the deficit to 4 with 4:29 left until halftime.
That’s when Fairfield Christian closed the door. The Knights ratcheted up their full-court pressure and pushed the pace offensively, going on an 10-0 run that took approximately 75 seconds. Senior Janae Grabans swished a turn-around shot from the block, then Mershimer found Emma Seals in the corner for a wide open transition three.
The only thing stopping the Knights before halftime was a nosebleed Mershimer incurred with 51 seconds remaining, and even that didn’t take the senior out for long. The Knights took a 45-31 lead into the locker room.
Proper was proud of his team’s resiliency during the first half, but the Blue Devils simply couldn’t keep Fairfield Christian off the scoreboard long enough to take the lead.
“It just seemed like we were trading buckets too much, you know. We weren’t getting stops to cut into the lead enough where we needed to,” Proper said. “Defensively, it just wasn’t quite there.”
The Knights ran away with it in the second half. They went on a 18-5 run over the first six minutes, where Danville simply couldn’t buy a bucket. Junior Sophia Sterling took Danville’s posts off the dribble for two buckets, the second of which put her squad up 61-35.
Danville received a spark off the bench from freshman Camie Newbold, sister of CeCe, late in the second half. She came into the game at the end of the third quarter and immediately drew a foul while converting a turn-around post shot, prompting the loudest cheer of the night from the Blue Devil bench. She also held her own defensively, blocking shots and collecting rebounds against the smaller Knights.
Mershimer’s experienced crew – Fairfield Christian started three seniors and two juniors – put an exclamation point on the night with a 24-point fourth quarter, which included two triples from Custer and a 17-0 run to end the game. Danville did not score for the final 4:40.
Ultimately, it was Mershimer who changed the game for Fairfield Christian on Wednesday night. She was the All-American point guard, setting up her teammates first and scoring later. But her ball pressure is what caused a good portion of Danville’s turnovers, which led to easy buckets at the other end.
“I mean, great point guard,” Proper said. “She did a good job of breaking down our defense and either getting to the rim or kicking out to get open looks for her teammates. So yeah, she’s a good player.”
Despite their defensive struggles, seven Blue Devils scored. Hess led the way with 12 points, while junior forward Ally Bower added 11. Junior Erin Mickley scored 9 points and Hannah Duncan, who started in place of CeCe Newbold, had 8.
Danville was the final Knox County team left in the tournament. Cardington is now the only KMAC squad remaining; the Pirates will face Amanda-Clearcreek on Friday night in the Div. III Columbus District championship game.
Wednesday marked the second time in three tries that Fairfield Christian beat Danville in the tournament – the last coming in 2016, Mershimer’s freshman campaign (Danville beat the Knights in the regional semifinals in 2017). Fairfield Christian will face two-seed Newark Catholic on Saturday night in the district final.
While Danville’s season came to an end, Proper said afterwards that he was proud of his team. He noted that, even without their leading scorer, they went toe-to-toe with one of the state’s best teams for four quarters on Wednesday night.
“Everyone just wasn’t on the same page tonight, you know? It happens,” Proper said. "Unfortunately, like I told the girls, only four teams get to end the season with a win, and it just wasn’t our night.
“I thought we had a good season; they worked hard and I’m proud of what they accomplished. I told them, a lot of them will be back next year, so they’ve got a lot to work toward. There’s a lot of potential there if they want to go after it.”
Danville will graduate just one senior from this year’s roster – forward Macy Moore – and will return its entire crunch-time rotation. That includes the junior class of Newbold, Mickley, Duncan, Bower and Bobbi Berger, who all played pivotal roles on this year’s team. It also includes Hess, who has three more years to blossom as one of the area’s premier talents.
The future is bright for the young Blue Devils. And because of that, the mood after Wednesday’s game wasn’t as somber as one might think. Instead, sadness was replaced by hope. There are bigger things ahead.
“You try to store games like this away, you know – the disappointment, kind of the letdown that your season’s over while another team moves on. I always tell them, ‘Store that away. Store that feeling away. And that’s why you get up in the summers, that should kind of motivate and drive you as you work to better your game,'” Proper said.
“And also I said, ‘Look around. You have a good group here, but you have to do it together. But you have to do it together. It has to happen together. It can’t be one or two of you, you have to buy in together. I have a good feeling that will happen.”
Fairfield Christian: Celeste Mershimer, 26 points; Hope Custer, 21 points; Janae Grabans, 16 points; Sophie Sterling, 11 points; Emma Seals, 7 points; Kennedy Couch, 4 points; Lannah Prysi, 2 points.
Danville: Brooklyn Hess, 12 points; Ally Bower, 11 points; Erin Mickley, 9 points; Hannah Duncan, 8 points; Bobbi Berger, 7 points; Camie Newbold, 3 points; Alenah Boeshart, 2 points.