By Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)
A year (and a day) later, Lansdale Catholic will be back.
On March 24 of last year, in the back hallway of the Giant Center, Crusaders senior Gabby Casey was already talking about getting back after she and her teammates fell short of winning the program’s first title. It became the team’s goal, the sweet reward on a path that thus far has seen a lot of winning this winter.
Across the state, Blackhawk was in the midst of what was shaping up as a special season of its own before a devastating injury threatened to derail it all. Instead, the Cougars adapted and returned to a place they hadn’t been in nearly a decade.
Saturday afternoon, LC’s mission will go up against Blackhawk’s mettle, one of them leaving with the PIAA 4A championship.
Lansdale Catholic and Gabby Casey, above, are back in the state title game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“It’s a lot of excitement,” Casey said. “Playing in that huge arena, we’re expecting our whole student section, so really looking forward to that again and the great support from them. It starts with taking it in and living in the moment.
“It’s my last year and being there with some of my best friends, it’s really amazing.”
Teams don’t go to a state final, return four starters and add another quality piece without weighty expectations coming with it. It’s not like the Crusaders tried to bury their heads in the sand about it, but coach Eric Gidney was pretty up front in the preseason about blocking out the noise.
The first day of practice started with Gidney crumpling up a picture of the Giant Center and tossing it aside. It was a gesture meant to show his team how much work and time had to pass before they could even think about it.
LC had a few moments of celebration during the year, most notably winning the program’s first PCL title, but by and large has kept it low-key. The Crusaders finally let loose a little bit on Tuesday and even their coach is enjoying the ride.
“They’ve really come together, they’re playing well and playing for each other,” Gidney said. “They’re a lot of fun to watch. The last couple games, I’ve made it a point to be a little more celebratory on the sideline.
“I’m not normally like that, but I realized I need to enjoy this too because this is a heck of a team to coach and watch.”
Blackhawk has proven to be tenacious, resilient and adaptable this postseason. With the WPIAL playoffs about to begin, the Cougars lost their senior leader in Quinn Borroni - a Mercyhurst bound guard - to a torn Achilles, requiring several changes and players to take on increased roles at the season’s most critical juncture.
The Cougars fell to North Catholic in the WPIAL title game by 16 points. By the time they met again in Tuesday’s semifinal round, Blackhawk had adapted.
Forgoing their usual pressure, trap-happy defense for a halfcourt, pack-the-paint approach, Blackhawk gave up some of its offensive production but got the stops it needed, downing a strong North Catholic side 45-40. That earned a trip back to Hershey, not unfamiliar ground for the program.
Blackhawk coach Steve Lodovico has made all the right moves this postseason and he knows how to win at the Giant Center, leading the team to its back-to-back state titles in 2014 and 2015 in the old Class 3A. Both of those wins coincidentally came against Archbishop Wood, so he’s got some success against the PCL.
Junior Alena Fusetti has led the way, adding on some of Borroni’s role to her own, the guard hitting her 1,000th point in the WPIAL title game. Freshman Aubree Hupp has been the team’s breakout performer this postseason, taking over Borroni’s starting spot and scoring 15 against North Catholic including a pair of clutch free throws
Senior point guard Kassie Potts has seen what it takes to win a state title - her sister Vanessa was a freshman on the 2015 squad - and was a major reason the Cougars are in Hershey. The 5-foot-4 guard had 19 points in the semifinal round, a timeless case of a senior raising their level of play in the season’s final stretch.
A year ago, Casey reflected on a heartbreaking loss vowing to be back. It wasn’t a boast or guarantee, but there was an inflection in the dynamic forward’s tone that felt like it was already predetermined.
“This is all motivation,” Casey said that night in Hershey. “We’re all a little sad now, but at the same time happy we made it here. I have no doubt we’ll all come back better than ever.”
If there’s a scoring record she doesn’t have, it’s either really obscure or nobody’s bothered to look it up. Managing to surpass a first-team all-state junior season, Casey broke both the program and school record for scoring, was named the PCL’s MVP and the Gatorade PA State Player of the Year.
She’s averaging 21.5 ppg and was nearly there at halftime of LC’s semifinal win over Scranton Prep, with 19 of her 25 at the break. Casey secured her future last April, committing to play at St. Joe’s but there’s never been a moment this year where Gidney felt the senior was coasting.
“It’s such a blessing to have as a coach,” Gidney said. “There are a lot of seniors who might be in her spot and say ‘I’m going to have a career at St Joe’s and whenever that happens, it happens’. She’s got an unfinished business mentality.”
She also has plenty of help. LC doesn’t sub often, but the Crusaders’ first five is a good a lineup as there is in the state.
Jaida Helm has given LC everything it needed from her, the senior averaging 12 points and about eight rebounds as another inside-out threat and glass cleaner in the frontcourt with Casey, who is around eight rebounds herself. Lansdale Catholic’s team defense has been stellar the last two rounds and by no coincidence, sophomore guard Sanyiah Littlejohn has put on two masterclass efforts on her assignment while distributing the ball.
Olivia Boccella was held scoreless by an ambitious defensive plan last round, but the junior guard has been hot all postseason, firing well above her 9.5 ppg season average prior to Tuesday. Sophomore Nadia Yemola has also been quietly strong, hitting open shots at a consistent pace all season.
“We know what to expect. All of us know how big of a deal it is,” Yemola said. “We’re so excited to be back and have another shot at winning.”
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