Aquinas Academy girls hungry to take next step

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Saturday, December 9, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Playing at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center each of the past two seasons was a dream come true for the Aquinas Academy girls basketball team.

Now they just want the dream to have a better ending.

The Crusaders return their top four scorers from last season’s team, which lost at the Pete in the WPIAL Class A championship game for the second year in a row.

“The girls are excited,” coach Chris Lebakken said. “A couple of them are pretty hungry because of what happened last year and the year before. I think we are ready. The girls have been working really hard.”

All told, Aquinas welcomes back eight of the nine players who saw action in last season’s 52-35 loss to eventual state champion Union in the WPIAL Class A final, including leading scorer Emily Fisher (11.2 ppg). A 5-foot-3 senior guard, Fisher is still looking for her first points at the Pete. She is a combined 0 for 18 from the field in the two championship games, going 0 for 12 in last season’s loss to section foe Union in which Aquinas was outscored 23-6 in the fourth quarter.

“It really did suck,” Fisher said after a late November practice at the tiny Hampton private school. “It was very unfortunate that we lost back-to-back. But I’m really ready for this year.”

Joining Fisher as returning starters are 5-11 junior forward Violet Johnson (10.4 ppg, team-best 8.7 rebounds per game), 5-7 sophomore guard Ellie Junker (8.8 ppg) and 5-5 sophomore guard Tess Duer (6.2 ppg, team-high 2.8 assists per game, team-high 82 deflections).

Victoria Taylor, a 5-11 senior forward/center, will complete the lineup, replacing graduated guard Belle Hite as the Crusaders move to a bigger starting five.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to get back and have a different outcome at Pitt,” said Junker, a first-team all-Section 1-A pick last season. “Honestly, growing up I could never imagine playing on that court. It was just so cool. It was such a great experience.”

Aquinas went 17-10 last season — five of their losses came to section foes Union and 2022 WPIAL champion Bishop Canevin — and recorded the first PIAA playoff victory in program history. The Crusaders prepared for their return bid with a “fantastic” offseason, according to Lebakken, that featured the Fox Chapel spring league, the Aquinas summer league and a team camp at Cal (Pa.) in August. Aquinas won at Cal (Pa.), reached the quarterfinals at its own league, losing to Class 6A Bethel Park, and played about .500 ball against much bigger schools at Fox Chapel.

“We had a really good offseason and the girls know that,” said Lebakken, in his fifth season. “We’ll see where we end up.”

Said Fisher, “It was very good that we played in the Fox Chapel league against 5A and 6A schools. It was really beneficial for us. Playing against those teams showed us that winning isn’t going to happen easily. You are going to have to work for it.”

The Crusaders won’t have to work to make the playoffs. Because Cornell does not have a team this season, Aquinas is part of a rare four-team section, along with Union, Bishop Canevin and Eden Christian, and is assured of reaching the WPIAL playoffs for the seventh straight season since returning to the league in 2017-18. The Crusaders open section play against visiting WPIAL preseason No. 1 Union on Jan. 2.

Aquinas will get depth from senior forwards Annie Austin (5-10) and Riley Mahon, sophomore small forward Elliot Keverline and sophomore guards Alexa Risdon and Rebecca Guillen.

“I’m definitely super excited,” Fisher said. “I think we can do amazing things. Everyone on our team has been working really hard for this. Me and the other three seniors are really looking forward to it because we all know that we are very much capable of making it right back to The Pete.”

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