2023 in A-K Valley sports: High school athletes make their championship dreams come true

Saturday, December 30, 2023 | 11:57 AM

The year 2023 will long be remembered for many monumental happenings, from a landmark announcement by the PIAA to A-K Valley athletes’ accomplishments and championship performances and teams bringing home gold at the district, regional and state levels.

Athletes again were able to pay off many hours of dedication and determination to not only reach but to surpass their goals.

It is time to look back on a number of the top stories of the year in the A-K Valley.

10. Freeport volleyball rolls on: Every fall, there is an almost certainty in area high school athletics: The Freeport girls volleyball team will be a favorite to claim section gold and be in the mix for a WPIAL title.

The Yellowjackets again were right there this fall. They rolled through Section 5-2A with an undefeated record. They didn’t lose a game (42-0) in sweeping 14 section matches to claim the program’s 19th consecutive section crown.

Fronted by all-state performers in senior middle hitter Josie Russo and junior outside hitter Alaina Whitlinger, Freeport, as the No. 1 seed, swept Charleroi, Shenango, and Avonworth in the WPIAL tournament to make it to the finals against Beaver.

In a classic, down-to-the-wire title match, the Bobcats outlasted the Yellowjackets in five games, going to the limit in the deciding game, 15-13.

Freeport resumed play in the state playoffs and rolled past District 10 champion North East in three games before meeting its demise in a sweep at the hands of eventual PIAA champion Philipsburg-Osceola.

Seniors Grace Beach and Sydney Selker and junior Leah Schreckengost were additional Freeport All-WPIAL selections.

9. Riverview runs to title: The Riverview boys and girls cross country teams made their marks at the WPIAL Class A championships at White Oak Park in October.

The Raiders boys captured their second team title in three years and were led by an 11th-place individual finish from junior Chris Barnes. Riverview finished with 64 place points, 16 better than runner-up Eden Christian. All five of the Raiders’ scoring runners placed in the top 20.

Riverview went on to earn its fourth top-five PIAA finish since 2019. The Raiders placed second this year. They also were state runners-up in 2019.

The Raider girls, fronted by junior Lily Bauer’s 12-place finish in 20:48, finished as the WPIAL Class A runner-up by just one point to Mohawk (127 to 128) and qualified for states for the second year in a row.

Riverview went on to place 13th in Hershey, four spots better than their 2022 finish.

The A-K Valley sent a dozen other individuals to states after top WPIAL finishes: Burrell senior Grace Nesko (girls Class 2A), Kiski Area senior Eliza Miller (girls 3A), Cavaliers sophomore Sam Plazio and senior Paul Roberts (boys 2A), Freeport junior Michael Braun (boys 2A), Fox Chapel senior Rowan Gwin (boys 3A), Apollo-Ridge senior Sienna Jackson (girls A) and sophomore Breydon Orvosh (boys A), Knoch senior Ava Santora (girls 2A), Kiski Area junior Justin Gross (boys 2A), Fox Chapel junior David Black (boys 3A), and Plum senior Gabriel Powell (3A boys).

8. Soccer success: As the No. 6 seed and the underdogs throughout the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs, the Fox Chapel girls soccer team didn’t back down against some other postseason blue bloods.

The Foxes upset No. 3 Peters Township and No. 2 Upper St. Clair before stopping No. 1 North Allegheny, 1-0, in the championship game at Highmark Stadium on a dramatic overtime tally from senior midfielder Kate Friday.

The title was Fox Chapel’s second in program history and first since 1985.

The team went on to beat District 3’s Hempfield in the PIAA first round before falling to District 1 runner-up Conestoga in the quarterfinals.

Riverview achieved many firsts in 2023, including a first section title and WPIAL title-game appearance.

The Raiders had new life after a tough 1-0 loss to Freedom in the WPIAL Class A final at Highmark Stadium.

Riverview defeated Conemaugh Township, Springdale, and Bishop Guilfoyle in its first trip to the state tournament to earn a shot at a state title in Mechanicsburg.

The Raiders came up one win short of state gold, falling 5-1 to Dock Mennonite at Cumberland Valley High School.

Senior Lola Abraham, a Pitt commit, picked up several postseason accolades, including VND Player of the Year honors, after tallying 77 goals this season and finishing with 176 for her three-year varsity career.

The Springdale girls finished third in WPIAL Class A and returned to the PIAA playoffs where they rolled past District 10 champion Seneca before falling to Riverview.

The Burrell boys also earned bronze in WPIAL Class A and punched their ticket to states. The Bucs routed District 9 champion Redbank Valley, 9-0, before suffering a tough semifinal loss to WPIAL champ Bentworth, 3-1.

7. Kiski reaches goal: Kiski and Fox Chapel met at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry to see which team would bring home its first PIHL title.

Fox Chapel was a top seed from its division entering the Class A playoffs and was 20-2 heading to the finals. Kiski, the fourth team from its division, stood at 18-5.

The Cavaliers upset a divisional No. 1 seed, North Hills, in the quarterfinals and then defeated Greensburg Salem in the semifinals.

Senior goaltender Evin Brice made 34 saves in the title game, and Ethan George scored twice as Kiski celebrated a 4-1 win.

Justin Gross and Ethan Bombalski (empty net) added goals for the Cavaliers, while Trip Goehring tallied the Foxes’ only goal.

Kiski didn’t have very long to enjoy the win as it had to turn its attention to its first state-championship experience, a game against Flyers Cup champion West Chester East.

West Chester East ended up being too powerful for Kiski and won its third straight Class A state crown with an 8-1 result at the Robert Morris University Island Sports Center.

6. Lorish contends: Plum junior Wes Lorish had a goal to improve on last year’s 10th-place finish at the PIAA Class 3A golf championships. He accomplished that mission by finishing tied for second (7-under) at this year’s tournament in October on Penn State’s Blue Course.

After 36 holes, Lorish found himself in a three-way tie for the top spot and in a playoff with Butler’s Hunter Swidzinski and Penn-Trafford’s Nick Turowski. While the playoff didn’t go his way, Lorish did bring home a silver medal from states.

He made it to Penn State by securing the 14th and final berth from the WPIAL championships at Valley Brook Golf Club earlier in the month. His individual tournament journey began by winning the Section 4 qualifier in September at Meadowink Golf Course in Murrysville.

Lorish shot 66 and 71 in his two rounds at Penn State. He sank a birdie putt on the final hole of his second round to join the playoff.

5. Girls wrestling arrives: The PIAA followed through on its promise that if at least 100 Pennsylvania high schools would sponsor a girls wrestling team, it would officially sanction the sport.

The 100th school came on board in the spring, and the PIAA voted May 17 to make girls wrestling official. Among other things, the WPIAL and the PIAA will host individual championships in February and March.

More than two dozen schools in the WPIAL, including Plum, Kiski Area, Burrell and Fox Chapel in the Alle-Kiski Valley, have sponsored girls wrestling.

Those four teams, along with individual competitors from schools such as Riverview, Highlands and Knoch, are in full competition mode with tournaments or duals matches as 2023 comes to a close.

4. Hornack doubles up: Burrell’s Cooper Hornack capped his junior season with his first PIAA wrestling championship. He captured the Class 2A title at 127 pounds by rallying to defeat WPIAL rival Chris Vargo of Benthworth, 2-1, in the finals.

Hornack used a takedown with a minute left. He finished his 2022-23 season 43-6 and entered his senior season earlier this month with a 116-19 record.

He became Burrell’s 10th wrestler to win a state title. If he does it again this year, he will tie Joe Makara as a two-time Bucs champion.

Hornack and Vargo also met in the WPIAL finals with Hornack winning 5-1 for his second WPIAL title. He also won a WPIAL championship as a freshman.

Hornack and freshman Cam Baker, who was runner-up at WPIALs and fourth at states (41-11) in his varsity debut, joined others such as 2023 grad Niko Ferra, current senior Nico Zanella, and junior Isaac Lacinski in helping Burrell claim a WPIAL Class 2A team runner-up finish for the second year in a row.

The Bucs were second to Burgettstown in the WPIAL tournament before going 1-2 at states to finish 12-6 overall.

3. Cavaliers swim to gold: Kiski Area trailed Indiana by 12 points heading into the 400-yard freestyle relay at March’s WPIAL Class 2A swim championships at Pitt’s Trees Pool.

A WPIAL-record swim from the relay team of seniors Parker Sterlitz and Levi Hansen, sophomore Jason Tucker and junior Landon Seman allowed the Cavaliers to overtake Indiana and claim the program’s first WPIAL team title.

Sterlitz’s WPIAL individual championship in the 500 free among a number of other medal-winning performances helped the Cavaliers rise above the rest in boys Class 2A.

The Cavaliers team title, the first for an Alle-Kiski Valley boys team and the second for an A-K Valley team overall (Fox Chapel girls, 1996), was part of a number of other championship performances from area swimmers.

Seeded first by 16 seconds, Eliza Miller won the girls Class 3A 500 free with a time of 5:09.17.

Fox Chapel grad and Brown University freshman Sophie Shao completed a standout WPIAL career with two more individual titles. She won the 200 individual medley and claimed her fourth 100 fly title in as many years.

Foxes sophomore Christian Dantey captured his first individual WPIAL title with a win in the boys Class 3A 200 free. He came in seeded fifth.

2. Bauer’s winning case: There was no one faster in the boys Class 2A 800-meter run this past spring than Riverview’s Amberson Bauer.

A week after he claimed WPIAL gold in the event and added the 1,600 title at Slippery Rock University, Bauer traveled to Shippensburg and made the most of his 800 opportunity by pulling away from the field for a win in a time of 1 minute, 54.93 seconds.

He was one of eight WPIAL athletes to win a PIAA gold medal.

Freeport senior hurdler Isaac Wetzel came close to joining that list as he finished second in the boys Class 2A 300 hurdles in 38.25 seconds, six-hundredths of a second behind the winner.

Wetzel and the winner, Slippery Rock’s Levi Prementine, both tumbled over the finish line.

Two local WPIAL champions – Kiski’s Eliza Miller in the girls Class 3A 800 run and Freeport’s Michael Braun in the boys Class 2A 3,200 – went on to fare well at states.

Miller was fifth in the 800 at Shippensburg with a personal best 2:10.90, and Braun took 10th (9:26.79).

Braun’s Freeport teammate, Reese Skiba, earned fifth in the girls Class 2A discus.

1. Year of the Deer: The Deer Lakes boys basketball team first stopped Our Lady of the Sacred Heart’s WPIAL-record 74-game winning streak in the regular season.

Then in March at the Petersen Events Center, Deer Lakes stopped OLSH’s four-year WPIAL-title streak.

Senior Bryce Robson made a clutch layup with just over a minute left that proved to be the game-winner, and the Lancers held on for a 61-60 win as two Chargers’ last-second shots were unsuccessful.

It was Deer Lakes’ first WPIAL boys basketball title, and it came in Albie Fletcher’s first year as head coach.

Four senior starters – Robson, Michael Butler, Nate Litrun and Nate Buechel – and junior starter Billy Schaeffer helped pace a 10-deep Lancers rotation.

Deer Lakes wasn’t done with its postseason run after WPIALs as it advanced to the PIAA finals against state power West Catholic.

The Lancers, who finished the season 21-9 overall, defeated District 10’s Seneca, District 4’s Loyalsock, WPIAL No. 4 Neshannock and District 6 champion Penn Cambria in the PIAA tournament to reach the title game in Hershey.

West Catholic proved to be too much for Deer Lakes and won 83-65 in the title game.

The Lancers were one of six Alle-Kiski Valley basketball teams, boys or girls, to make the PIAA playoffs.

The Highlands boys qualified by finishing fourth in the WPIAL Class 4A tournament, while the Fox Chapel boys placed seventh in Class 5A.

On the girls side, Highlands and Knoch secured fourth and fifth, respectively, from WPIAL Class 4A, while St. Joseph earned a fourth-place berth in Class A.

Honorable mention

• Deer Lakes football made history, winning the program’s first playoff game since the school was formed in a merger nearly five decades ago. The Lancers (8-4, 3-2) finished third in the Class 3A Allegheny 6 Conference and won three of four to close out the regular season to qualify for the WPIAL tournament. The Lancers were awarded a home game for the first round and defeated Southmoreland, 48-18. Senior quarterback Derek Burk had a strong season and finished as the all-time career passing leader in the Alle-Kiski Valley with 5,313 yards.

• Area athletic greats were celebrated in May with the 52nd Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame induction at the Pittsburgh Shriners Center in Harmar. The Class of 2023 featured Erin Exler Bish (Springdale), Joseph Gallli (Valley), Mark Lamendola (Leechburg), Stefan Lundberg (Kiski Area), Kerry McKinney Mills (Deer Lakes), Thomas Phillips (Freeport volleyball), Thomas Saulle (Freeport), Thomas Slosky (Highlands), Emily Alcorn Taylor (Riverview), and Terry Thompson (Kittanning). Of the previous 382 hall-of-fame inductees, more than a dozen were on hand to welcome the newly enshrined group.

• New Kensington native and Kansas City Chiefs rookie Skyy Moore became the first Alle-Kiski Valley-based player to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl. He hauled in a 4-yard pass from Patrick Mahomes with 9:22 left in the fourth quarter to give the Chiefs a 35-27 lead. Kansas City kicked a field goal with no time left to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles, 38-35.

Leechburg softballkept things rolling in the spring with a WPIAL-record 36th straight season of making the playoffs. Leechburg went 10-2 in Section 3-A, finishing as the runner-up to Frazier. The Blue Devils beat South Side, 7-1, in the first round before falling to No. 2 Carmichaels, 13-3, in the quarterfinals to finish the season 11-8.

• Burrell softball extended its playoff-qualification streak to 17 seasons. An experienced group led by VND Player of the Year Katie Armstrong finished its season 14-7 overall, placed third in WPIAL Class 4A and made the PIAA playoffs for the second year in a row. They fell to District 6 champion Juniata, 1-0, in the first round.

• Leechburg junior Jayden Floyd and Apollo-Ridge senior Karter Schrock became the 18th and 19th players in WPIAL history to both run and throw for 1,000 yards in a single season. Floyd helped the Blue Devils reach the WPIAL playoffs for a third year in a row by throwing for 1,469 yards and eight touchdowns and running for 1,155 yards and 18 scores. Schrock finished with 1,066 yards passing and six TDs while rushing for 1,224 yards and 16 scores.

• A number of area athletic greats passed away in 2023.

Former Plum and Burrell football coach Al “Abby” Mauro died Nov. 11 at age 80. He was only the second coach to guide two different local high school programs to WPIAL titles (Plum ’83, Burrell ’86). Chuck Wagner led both the Oakmont and Springdale football teams to WPIAL titles.

Garry Nelson (June 4, age 73), led Fox Chapel basketball to WPIAL section championships in 1966 and 1967 and helped Duquesne men’s hoops qualify for the NCAA Tournament in 1969 and 1971.

At 6-foot-7, Tay Waltenbaugh (Dec. 17, age 69) was a star basketball player at Highlands, where he led the Golden Rams to the Section 3-A title as a senior in the 1971-72 season. He went on to play at Juniata College, where he was an honorable mention small-college All-American.

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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