Exuberantly running onto the floor of Hershey’s Giant Center to celebrate their PIAA state championship in the girls’ Class A finals on March 24, the Beavers of Lebanon Catholic jumped into each other’s arms and then did what they’ve done before each game on the road to the finals – embraced in a team huddle.
“It feels great to get this [state championship] with the best team and the best coach ever,” junior forward Alexis Hill said as members of the media descended upon the team.
“It’s been a good journey, and I’m proud,” said Hill, who finished the game with 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Beavers to a 55-43 win over the Juniata Valley Hornets, securing Lebanon Catholic’s third state title in girls’ basketball.
The Beavers, 24-8 on the season, rolled through the District 3 and PIAA playoffs, besting opponents by at least 20 and sometimes 30 or more points in each game.
But Coach Patti Hower’s team was challenged in the semis and in the finals, forcing the Beavers to dig deep – “Teamwork Makes a Dream Work,” their motto says.
Against Jenkintown in the state semifinals March 21, Lebanon Catholic held a 28-16 lead at the half, but the Drakes – the District 1 champions out of the Philadelphia area – charged back with speedier second-half play and with foul trouble on the part of the Beavers, and pulled within two. But Hill’s success at the foul line in the waning moments sent the Beavers to Hershey.
On the championship stage, Lebanon Catholic found itself contested again, as Juniata Valley capitalized on four consecutive turnovers to take a 6-0 lead before the Beaver faithful could collect their breath.
If Coach Hower’s starting five were worried, they didn’t show it.
Hill took over, converting turnovers into points, and then making a home at the baseline to snag offensive and defensive rebounds. Her teammates quickly followed suit, holding Juniata Valley to three points in the second quarter.
Lebanon Catholic led 20-10 at the half.
Juniata Valley opened the third quarter with an authoritative run to quickly cut the Beavers’ lead in half, and a bit of foul trouble and missed shots at the line kept the Hornets within seven points of Lebanon Catholic for most of the fourth quarter.
But the Beavers would not be stopped, as Hill’s put-back after a missed foul shot on the back end of a 1-and-1 stretched the Beavers’ lead to 8 with less than a minute to play.
Destiny for the program’s third title in school history (the others were in 1992 and 1995) awaited.
“Both of these last two games were our tougher games this year,” junior guard Neesha Pierre said. “But we’re a fighting team, and so even though we had challenges from Jenkintown and Juniata Valley, we had no problem digging deep to do what we needed to win.”
Pierre said that, following last year’s run to the state semifinals, and winning a third district title in a row this season, capturing the state championship was indeed the goal for this team.
“When we won the semifinal game this year, the desire to win states was so, so real,” she said. “I told my teammates that if we just play our game, we’ll be fine.”
Coach Hower, who earned her 700th win earlier in this, her 39th season on the Beaver bench, shared the same message.
“Before the game, I told them, ‘We’re prepared. We’ve done what we needed to do to prepare for this game – we just have to go out and execute,’” she said. “I was proud of the fact that even though we fell down early, we came back. Juniata Valley hit a couple buckets to open the second half, but we didn’t crumble.”
As the Beavers worked their way through the playoffs, Coach Hower was often asked how this year’s team compares to those of the championship teams of 1992 and 1995.
“Every team is special. Even the teams that only won 7 or 8 games – they’re all special. I’m glad I’ve stayed as long as I have, because we have good kids. They’re fun to be around, they’re very coachable. They’ve improved as a team from day one, and that’s what you look for.”
Lebanon Catholic’s starting five of Hill, Pierre, Celine Mars, Jasmine Turner and Jayden Shellehamer are set to return as seniors next year. Meanwhile, the excitement of this year’s state title continues to draw together the school’s PreK-12 community.
“We’ve loved the school spirit behind us. I just love my school so much,” Pierre said. “We look up in the stands and see kindergarteners and first graders screaming and cheering us on. I was walking down the hallway today and I saw a little girl with my number painted on her cheek. It’s so inspiring, and it brings our school community together.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness