New story in mind
Crusaders ready for rematch with Archbishop Wood PIAA CLASS AAA GIRLS Second Round Lancaster Catholic (29-1) vs. Archbishop Wood (18-9) BY JASON FULGINITI, Sports Writer
If a picture is worth a thousand words, the scene in Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center on March 24 of last year was a photographer's dream.
Among the indelible images that day were the watery eyes and tear-stained cheeks of seniors Alyssa Aichele and Amy Balasavage. Partly because their high school girls' basketball careers had ended, and partly because of how they'd ended.
There was then-junior point guard Porscha Speller, the team's leading scorer, sitting on the bench wearing a knee brace and looking helplessly up at the scoreboard as the seconds ticked away.
And of course, there were the stunned, confused looks on the faces of Lancaster Catholic's players all night, as they got burned by one backdoor cut after another while failing to accomplish much of anything against a swarming Archbishop Wood defense -- something they generally do to other teams.
That, in a nutshell, was last year's PIAA Class AAA championship game, in which Catholic was throttled by the Vikings, 52-33 -- enabling Wood to capture its third consecutive state AAA crown.
For the Crusaders, the goal now is to keep history from repeating itself.
Tonight at Reading's Geigle Complex, Lancaster Catholic (29-1) will get another crack at District 12 runner-up Archbishop Wood (18-9) when they square off in a PIAA Class AAA second-round game at 6:30.
Wood is responsible for one of the Crusaders' two losses in 44 games dating back to Feb. 4 of last year -- the other coming to Susquehannock in this year's District Three Class AAA quarterfinals.
Catholic avenged that Susquehannock loss with a 89-79 double-overtime victory over the Warriors in its PIAA opener Saturday, creating another chance at redemption for which they've been longing for exactly 353 days.
"We're hoping to give them a better game than what we did last year," Catholic coach Lamar Kauffman said. "We need to go back (against Wood) and say 'We're a better team than we were last year.' And I think we are."
For a couple of reasons.
While Aichele and Balasavage were both staunch defenders, the Crusaders have replaced them with sophomore forward Lil Veronis and freshman forward Caroline Scarff, who provide more of a scoring punch.
But the main thing that makes Catholic better this time is that Speller is healthy.
Suffering a right knee sprain in last year's state semifinals, Speller tried playing for a bit with a brace on her leg in the title game, but eventually ended up on the bench for most of it.
In the end, Speller, who was averaging 17.8 points per game, was held scoreless for the first time all year.
"I know Porscha is looking for a chance to prove she can play with teams like (Wood)," Kauffman said.
Meanwhile, Wood will be looking for a chance to prove it's still title-worthy, despite graduating three starters from last year's team, and despite an 18-9 record that -- to the untrained eye -- might suggest otherwise.
Fact is, there might not be a more battle-tested girls' basketball team in the state than the Vikings, whose nonleague schedule features games against some of the top high school programs in the country.
Of Wood's nine losses, five are to teams outside of Pennsylvania, including the McDonogh School in Maryland (48-35), St. Mary's Berkeley (51-35) from California, Dillard High (39-38) from Florida, and Archbishop Molloy and Christ the King (60-36) from New York.
Furthermore, three of its other four losses are to Archbishop Carroll (twice, 30-27 and 31-25) and Mount Lebanon (52-50) -- both of which were PIAA Class AAAA qualifiers.
Equally noteworthy is that after suffering back-to-back losses to Archbishop Carroll in the Philadelphia Catholic League title game and to Prep Charter (47-41) in the District 12 final, the Vikings underwent a late-season makeover under coach Jim Ricci, who said his team looked tired after those losses.
Ramp up the intensity and tempo, of course.
"We let it be known practice was going to be as competitive as possible," Ricci told Montgomery Media. "And the kids went after everyone hard. (Last week) was a very competitive week of practice."
In an effort to stay fresh and get out in transition more, Ricci started using 10 players -- subbing five at a time in waves to keep the Vikings' legs fresh.
The result was a 60-39 drubbing of Pope John Paul II in Saturday's opening round -- a game it led 39-8 at the break.
"They were (huffing and puffing) in the locker room at halftime," Ricci told Montgomery Media, referring to his players that night. "But at the end of the first half, we were shooting layups because (Pope John Paul) couldn't run up and down with us."
Which, interestingly enough, has always been Catholic's bread and butter.
How that all pans out tonight is anyone's guess.
"This would be a tremendous win for us," Kauffman said. "That (win) would make us 30-1 and the worst we could end up then is 30-2, which wouldn't be bad."
For the Crusaders, getting a little long-awaited redemption wouldn't be either.
WHEN AND WHERE: Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. at Reading High School's Geigle Complex
AT STAKE: Wednesday's winner advances to the PIAA quarterfinals against either District 6 champion Forest Hills (20-4) or District 7 fourth-place finisher Blackhawk (25-1).
HOW THEY GOT HERE: After racing to the Lancaster-Lebanon League Section 4 championship with an unblemished 21-0 record and cutting down the nets after their second straight league title, the Crusaders appeared poised to defend their District 3 crown - or, at the very least, face fellow unbeaten Palmyra in a classic district final. But upstart Susquehannock flipped the script on Catholic in the quarterfinal round, dealing the Crusaders a stunning 59-53 upset. Catholic regrouped to defeat Berks Catholic (59-40) and Eastern York (62-54) for third place in the district tourney, then avenged its loss to Susquehannock with a gutsy 89-79 overtime victory in last Friday's PIAA opener. Now the Crusaders face another familiar foe in Wednesday's second round: Archbishop Wood, which handed them a 52-33 defeat in last year's PIAA championship game.
Archbishop Wood's triumph over Catholic gave the Lady Vikings their third straight PIAA championship, but this season has been a bit of a struggle. Wood's nine losses are among the most in the 32-team field, but that is deceiving; few teams play as tough a non-league, out-of-state schedule as Wood does, and two of their losses came to powerful District 12 Class AAAA champion Cardinal O'Hara. Still, Wood entered the state playoffs riding a two-game losing streak; the Vikes lost to O'Hara 31-25 in the Philadelphia Catholic League title game, then dropped a 47-41 decision to Prep Charter in the District 12 championship. Wood rebounded in the first round of States, defeating Pope John Paul II 60-39.
ABOUT LANCASTER CATHOLIC: The Crusaders' game plan under longtime coach Lamar Kauffman rarely changes -- constant pressure, from one end of the court to the other. While Catholic may lack some of the senior leadership it had during last year's deep state playoff run, the Crusaders still have plenty of veterans and a ton of firepower. The top scorer is guard Porscha Speller, a 5-7 senior who averages 18.7 points per game. But she's far from the only weapon. 5-11 senior center Emily Martin (10.4 ppg), 5-6 junior guard Danille Atkinson (9.5 ppg), 5-10 sophomore forward Elizabeth Veronis (8.2 ppg) and 5-11 freshman center Caroline Scarff (7.8 ppg) are reliable options as well.
ABOUT ARCHBISHOP WOOD: The Vikings are all about defense, allowing opponents to score just 35 points per game while putting up 46 per game themselves. Their players to watch include 6-1 sophomore forward Aubree Brown, 5-4 senior guard Jackie Pierson, 5-8 senior guard Colleen Young, 5-8 junior guard Jess Kaminski, 5-10 senior forward Haley Scullion and 5-7 senior guard Maddie Tamburini. Brown and Pierson were both voted onto the All-Philadelphia Catholic League Second Team. Wood's two-game skid in the Catholic League and District 12 playoffs matched its longest of the season.