Aquinas Academy girls eye next step after defending section title

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Saturday, February 12, 2022 | 11:01 AM


The Aquinas Academy girls basketball team is hitting stride at just the right time.

Having overcome numerous early-season injuries, a flu bug and a five-day covid shutdown that wiped out three games, the Crusaders are pointing toward another deep WPIAL Class A playoff run.

“Everyone is back and healthy and we’ve been playing well together the last few games,” coach Chris Lebakken said. “Everything is working pretty well right now.”

The Crusaders, who clinched their second consecutive Section 1-3A title with a 51-38 victory over Clairton on Feb. 7, are expected to earn a top-four seed for the WPIAL Class A playoffs beginning around Feb. 17.

The tiny Catholic school in Hampton coasted to the section crown, outscoring its opponents by an average margin of 27 points through seven section games. Aquinas (11-5, 7-0 as of Feb. 9) is No. 4 in the latest Trib HSSN rankings, behind undefeated Union, West Greene and playoff nemesis Rochester.

Aquinas has qualified for the playoffs all five seasons since returning to the WPIAL in 2017, but the Crusaders haven’t reached the finals. Last season they lost to Rochester, 75-34, with a WPIAL title bid on the line. It was their second straight playoff loss to the Beaver County school. With their entire starting lineup returning, the Crusaders used the lopsided loss as motivation this offseason. The players practiced twice a week, competed in a summer league and attended team camp at Cal (Pa.).

“Our main goal for this whole entire year was to go to the (WPIAL) finals,” senior guard/forward Liz Russell said. “Last year we went to semis, and it was really upsetting that we couldn’t make it to the finals. I think this year we have a bigger chance and I think we really, really want to win a championship.

“It was really heartbreaking losing to (Rochester) again. I feel like we always just lose to Rochester every year. We decided after the season that we were just going to work a lot harder and try to knock them off next year.”

Other returning starters fueled by the disappointment of last season’s playoff loss are senior center Emi Kartsonas, who is averaging about 12 points and 10 rebounds per game, both team highs; senior guards Laura Richthammer and Elizabeth Hardy and junior point guard Bella Hite (9.5 ppg).

“They all understand they are seniors and they understand this should be a fun season the remainder of the way,” said Lebakken, in his third season. “They are just going to try their best and everyone hopes for some wins.”

The Crusaders opened the season with a 65-7 victory over Propel Braddock Hills, and their only losses to Class A schools were to Union and Eden Christian.

Russell, who scored a season-high 26 points against Riverview on Feb. 5, is back to full strength after missing three weeks with a concussion. She was injured in the Dec. 13 nonsection loss to South Park.

“I was a little nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to come back, with all of my symptoms and everything I’ve had,” Russell said. “But I’ve really had a quick recovery, and I’m really happy to be back.”

Said Lebakken, “It means so much. Her first game back … the defense was clicking and the offense was moving. It was fun to see. Her shot is coming along. I think she’s back to her normal self, which is great timing.”

Other than injuries, the Crusaders dealt with a flu bug in December and then had to shut down for five days in late January, canceling practice and scraping games against Portersville Christian, Eden Christian and Seton LaSalle.

“We’ve definitely faced some more adversity other than the covid break,” Lebakken said.

Many of the seniors on the roster have played together since third or fourth grade, Lebakken said. This is their last chance to make school history by reaching the WPIAL finals for the first time.

“I really don’t want to regret not working hard enough to win the championship or go far,” Russell said. “I know our team is very capable of that. I think all of the seniors know our potential and how far we can get. I think we are all on board to making it the best year we can have.”

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