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Westtown locks down Penn Charter to defend PAISAA title

02/26/2023, 6:15pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Fran Burbidge and Westtown didn’t talk about expectations all year. 

They just met them, day after day, game after game, week after week. 

The Moose didn’t have a perfect season, taking a few lumps from some of the country’s top teams over the course of the last few months. But there’s no denying the ending was exactly what they’d planned for all season: a state title. 

Jordyn Palmer (above, left) and Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick celebrate Westtown's 2023 PAISAA championship. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Westtown fulfilled its biggest expectation on Sunday afternoon at Saint Joseph’s Hagan Arena, the top seed in the state’s independent school tournament putting together a dominant first half en route to a 74-54 win over second-seed Penn Charter. 

“I know there was a lot of pressure on them — not so much pressure, but expectations,” Burbidge said. “It’s not something we ever talked about at all, (but) to see them address each hurdle placed in front of them, not only as well as they did but together the way they did it and held it on — credit to Penn Charter and their team, they’re really really good, but these girls deserved it and they earned it.”

Zahra King led the way with 20 points for Westtown, the defending Pennsylvania Independent School Athletic Association (PAISAA) champs, which won for the second time in program history, the association of non-PIAA schools going back to 2007. Eighth grader Jordyn Palmer chipped in 13 points, all in the first half, while her classmate Jessie Moses added 10 off the bench as the third member of the team in double figures.

It was a true team effort for Westtown, which had all nine girls who got into the game enter the scoring column, from King and Palmer to Seton Hall commit Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick (8 points) and junior wing Savannah Curry (6 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists), to reserve forwards Aidan Langley and Michelle Olak, who combined for six points and nine rebounds, freshman guard Atlee Vankeso’s four points coming off the bench as well.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Westtown’s Delaware-bound senior guard Grace Sundback, who chipped in six points and three assists in her last high school game. “Not a lot of people can say that they’ve done this throughout their high school career. The best part is, like coach Fran has said, we don’t talk about it every day, we just know, we’re on the same page, we all know that this is what we know we’ve been working for all year, and I’m really proud of us and the way we’ve battled throughout the whole year.”

(Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

In a matchup of last year’s PAISAA championship game, which Westtown won 51-50, the Moose didn’t take long to make it clear that this year’s matchup wouldn’t be nearly as close.

Palmer, King and Curry all drilled triples in the first four minutes to open up a 10-2 lead, and that was only the beginning of the onslaught. 

Westtown’s first-half defense was smothering, swarming, suffocating. The Moose forced 12 first-half turnovers, held the Quakers to just a single field goal in the first 16 minutes, which came with less than two minutes to play until halftime. By that point the lead was already 20 points; it was 36-12 at halftime, the outcome all-but-decided.

“I would say so, yeah,” King said when asked if it was Westtown’s best defensive half of the year. “I think we knew, we came out and we knew that in order to be able to get up and win, we had to be aggressive on the defensive end. At the end of the day, we executed defensively and we played together.”

“I didn’t have us as prepared as we should have been for that pressure,” Penn Charter head coach Joe Maguire said. “I didn’t do a good enough job of having us ready to face them.”

Penn Charter, to its credit, didn’t quit. The Quakers got a few buckets early in the third quarter to get their legs back under them, though Westtown still won that period 21-19 to go up 57-31 heading into the fourth. 

The Quakers got within 18 late in the final period, the building getting some energy from a large PC student section that got into it as the game went on, but the gulf was just too wide to overcome.

“I feel like we did a great job of getting back into it and playing our game,” said Penn Charter’s Aleah Snead, who’ll be playing her college ball at St. Joe’s, on the same court her high school career ended. “It was definitely way too late in the game but I feel like we did a good job of staying within ourselves and not getting angry at each other, encouraging one another to do the right thing.”

Sophomore guard Kaylinn Bethea led the Quakers with 18 points and six steals, while eighth grader Ryan Carter finished with 15 points and seven rebounds; FDU-bound forward Bella Toomey added eight points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Bethea and Carter provided much of the fireworks in the fourth quarter, Bethea hitting some deep jumpers while Carter got to the hoop and scored.

Afterwards, Maguire choked up when talking about the senior class of Snead, Toomey, Ohio State lacrosse commit Gracie Shoup and Kelsey Bess, a Division I prospect who’s missed the last two years with knee injuries after a terrific start to her Penn Charter career. The two will leave the Quakers program two-time Inter-Ac champs in a league that had been dominated by Germantown Academy and Notre Dame, changing the perception of the program into that of one of the top in the Inter-Ac and the entire Philadelphia region.

“The bigger thing that I’m most proud of with them, and I said this to them in the locker room, as a teacher at school now, the little kids look up to them, they want to be them, and that’s because of the time that they’ve taken to build those relationship with these little girls,” Maguire said. “Having four daughters, it’s really amazing to have real-life role models right there for them, right in front of us every day.”

While Westtown will have to replace Sundback and Bland-Fitzpatrick next year, there’s still a lot returning, starting with King and Curry, a pair of versatile wings with high-major offers, plus Vanesko, a sharpshooting guard who should slide into a starting role next year. But it’s the pair that haven’t even started high school that really have eyes wide.

Palmer, the Moose’s eye-opening eighth grader, struggled with fouls in the second half, getting all of her 13 points in the first half before fouling out with five minutes remaining. The 6-foot-1 forward and Moses, her 5-9 classmate who hit two 3s and has been Westtown’s sixth man all year, are going to be a pair to watch for the next four years, keeping the future looking plenty bright in West Chester for years to come.

“I’m very excited,” Palmer said. “Top two eighth graders on the same team, that’s crazy. [The] next four years are going to be special.”

By Quarter
Westtown School:  21  |  15  |  21  |  17  ||  74
Penn Charter:         4   |   8   |  19  |  23  ||  54

Westtown School: 25-49 FG (8-17 3PT), 15-25 FT
Penn Charter: 16-51 FG (4-15 3PT), 18-31 FT

Westtown School: Zahra King 20, Jordyn Palmer 13, Jessie Moses 10, Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick 8, Savannah Curry 6, Grace Sundback 6, Atlee Vanesko 4, Aidan Langley 4, Michelle Olak 2

Penn Charter: Kaylinn Bethea 18, Ryan Carter 15, Aleah Snead 9, Bella Toomey 8, Molly Dougherty 3, Natalia Modzelewski 1

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