Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
One team expected to be here, the other didn't know what to expect this season.
Archbishop Wood's girls' basketball program has been a mainstay at Hershey's Giant Center ever since the Philadelphia Catholic League joined the PIAA and Thursday night, the Vikings will make their 10th appearance in the state title game over the past 13 seasons. Lansdale Catholic felt like it had a team capable of getting there two seasons ago, then had a rough go of it last year before shocking plenty of people with a scrappy young core this season.
It's an all-PCL affair as the defending state champion Vikings will face a Crusaders team that's come a long way since their regular season meeting back in February on Thursday night in Hershey.
Vanderbilt commit Ryanne Allen (above) leads Archbishop Wood in its PIAA title defense. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
"I think it just shows the PCL is one of the best high school leagues in the state," Lansdale Catholic standout junior Gabby Casey said. "Even seeing the other teams (Neumann-Goretti in 3A and Cardinal O'Hara in 5A) make it is really great and shows how tough our schedule has been.
"Our schools are pretty close in distance and I think a lot of fans will want to go, it's great that we're meeting them because as a team, we really wanted to play Wood and get another shot at them."
The Class 4A girls' field was one of the deepest across the 12 PIAA brackets, so it's no small task that Wood or LC found its way to Hershey. Sure, the Vikings have one of the best players in the state in senior Ryanne Allen, but they also graduated three starters off last year's PCL and state championship squad.
Wood finished third in the PCL regular season standings, losing to eventual PCL champion Cardinal O'Hara in the league semifinals and taking that disappointment of not being able to defend their Catholic League title to fuel their state run. The Vikings didn't allow 30 points to any of their first three state opponents before battling past Jim Thorpe in the semifinals behind a huge showing from their bench rotation.
Allen also noted the fact her last high school game gets to come on the biggest stage, something she isn't taking lightly.
"Playing in Hershey for my last game, I couldn't ask for anything better than that," Allen said. "I'm going to soak it in, take in every moment and just enjoy it with my teammates and hopefully the result will be what we want."
The switch in the PIAA's playoff schedule this year also meant both teams got a few extra days to soak in the accomplishment. Allen said it's been an adjustment after last year's compact state playoffs but has equally enjoyed the extra time with her teammates and the student body rallying behind them and planning on a big presence in the stands Thursday.
"Last year everything was like back-to-back-to-back, so having this week to prepare and take it all in is a pretty cool feeling," Allen said. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact it's my last game with Wood and as a team, we're doing our best to prepare for LC and just be ready for the game on Thursday.
"I'm super-proud of our whole team. Defensively, we've really picked it up on that end of the floor and with other kids stepping up, you can just see their confidence picking up and they believe their shot is going in and they know we believe in them."
Not too far away, it's been similar at Lansdale Catholic. If there's one thing the Crusaders love, it's a state championship game. When the school's girls' soccer team won a state title in 2019, nearly every student in the building bused up to Hershey to support them and Casey said there's already talk of several busloads of fans making the trip on Thursday.
"We've had a lot of doubters along the way and most definitely were not expecting this, so it's just been a lot of fun," Casey said. "In school, it's been great seeing everyone support the girls' side of our sports and I'm really looking forward to the game, I think our school is busing a lot of kids up and I'm sure the atmosphere will be amazing."
Gabby Casey (above) scored her 1,000th point in a LC uniform earlier this month. (Photo: Andrew Robinson/CoBL)
Two seasons ago, the Crusaders had picked up two impressive wins to start their PIAA 4A campaign before COVID-19 ended their season. The team lost its top two scorers, leaving Casey to shoulder the load through a difficult 2-11 season in a division that produced three state champions. An influx of underclassmen talent, plus improvement from Casey and sharpshooter Olivia Boccella led to a turnaround season.
Still, LC stumbled late when it went up against the Catholic League's traditional powers and after dropping its PCL quarterfinal to Neumann-Goretti, the Crusaders waited for 20 days before their state run began. They waited, but not patiently and certainly not by sitting around. Losing four of five games only fueled LC to back in the gym and work and four wins later, the benefits are clear.
"We really had to focus on the little details," Casey said. "We switched our defense up, which has been a big factor but I think just the realization that we could potentially go on a big run is what really motivated everyone to want to get in the gym and continue working. I'm really grateful for the group of girls we have because they all want to keep improving."
Deja Evans has four consecutive double-doubles in the state tournament and the 6-foot-2 junior will be a matchup issue for a small but determined LC front line. Seniors Bri Bowen and Shannon Morgan are also looking to go as champions while Delaney Finnegan has been doing a bit of everything in the starting lineup with Ava Renninger, Kara Meredith and Allie Fleming championing a strong bench unit.
Having played her fair share of big games, Allen said the difference in a championship setting is often trust between teammates and whichever side can show the most grit to get in and make something happen.
"Playing for Wood, there's always that added pressure and you know you're going to get the other team's best," Allen said. "It's a state championship game, both teams are going to give everything they have and you just have to find a way to give that much more and come out on top in the end."
Crusaders senior Lauren Edwards, just 5-foot-9, has battled bigger players all season and Casey will need to be a presence on the glass against a tough Wood frontline led by Evans and Bowen. Freshmen Sanyiah Littlejohn and Nadia Yemola have stepped up in states to round out the starting five with Boccella.
Casey, who had 23 in the semifinals, has averaged that many points this season. While the junior forward is looking forward to playing on the big court in Hershey in what she hopes is a raucous environment, she and her teammates aren't putting pressure on themselves either.
"We don't have anything to lose," Casey said. "We're so pumped to be here and as a team, I know the feeling we're going to have getting out there is going to be insane. We're all looking forward to the game and I think that will only make us want to have more of a competitive edge being on the big stage and doing something we've never experienced before."
Allen will also have company in Hershey again this year with twin brother Tyson, a starter on Wood's boys' team, trying to win his first PIAA title in Saturday's 6A title tilt against Roman Catholic. Ryanne said it's more stressful watching than playing in a state game but she's hoping both she and her brother will have championships by the end of the weekend.
One team expected to be here, one didn't know what to expect from its season. Now, both are expecting the same thing for themselves - leave Hershey with a trophy.
"The game isn't going to be the same, they're a different team now and so are we," Allen said.