New-look Aquinas girls roster back in WPIAL Class A mix

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Saturday, February 4, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Rebuilding is a dirty word for the Aquinas Academy girls basketball team.

One year after graduating four starters from the most successful team in program history, the Crusaders are top five in the WPIAL Class A rankings and assured of a sixth consecutive playoff berth.

The Crusaders opened the season at 8-0 — the best start for the tiny Catholic school in Hampton in at least two decades — and were 14-5 overall (2-3 in Section 1-A) as of Jan. 31, ranked No. 4 in the Trib HSSN WPIAL Class A poll.

“I think we are playing great considering the starting experience that we lost,” fourth-year coach Chris Lebakken said. “We definitely have some talented kids. We’re just really young, and it shows once in a while when we are out there. But when we are ready to go, we can play.”

Senior guard Bella Hite, the only returning starter from the program’s first WPIAL finalist, has jelled with a new-look lineup that includes a suddenly prolific junior guard, a 5-foot-11 sophomore and a pair of promising freshmen.

“Losing six seniors was obviously very hard,” said junior point guard Emily Fisher, the team’s top scorer at 12.6 points per game. “But whenever we made it to the finals and coming into this year, I knew that we were capable of doing it again.”

Aquinas Academy, which joined the WPIAL in 2017, has a tough path. The Crusaders are third in Section 1-A, behind WPIAL Class A No. 1 Bishop Canevin and No. 2 Union, who handed Aquinas all three of its section losses. The rematch with defending WPIAL champion Bishop Canevin was scheduled for Feb. 6.

The highlight of the Crusaders’ 8-0 start was a 63-53 victory over nemesis Rochester on Dec. 12. Fisher, who saw limited time on last season’s senior-ladened team, led the way with 24 points as Aquinas gained a measure of revenge from blowout losses to Rochester in the 2020 and ‘21 WPIAL playoffs.

Four days earlier, Fisher had scored a season-high 27 points with six 3-pointers against Springdale.

“It was a huge confidence boost to know that I’m capable of doing that,” said Fisher, who credited a strong offseason with her AAU club, Get Ranked Basketball. “Through May and the summer, I practiced every single day. It really helped me get my shot down. Last year I would never take the ball to the basket and now I find myself doing that a lot more.”

Said Lebakken: “She had a really good AAU season and her confidence blew up. This year is going fantastic for her.”

Joining Fisher and Hite, a Division I field hockey recruit, in the starting lineup are sophomore forward Violet Johnson (11 ppg, 8 rpg) and two freshmen, forward Ellie Junker (10 ppg) and guard Tess Duer (4 assists per game).

Johnson scored a team-high 21 points in a victory over WPIAL Class 3A Burrell, and Junker has emerged as a consistent scorer as a ninth grader.

Hite doesn’t post eye-popping numbers, but the four-sport athlete is the Crusaders’ unquestioned leader.

“She is the heart and soul of the team,” Lebakken said. “She’s a special talent and a special girl.”

Aquinas Academy closes out the regular season at WPIAL Class 3A No. 2 Shady Side Academy on Feb. 11 and will learn its postseason fate Feb. 13 when the WPIAL playoff pairings are announced. Toughened up by a demanding schedule, Aquinas could find itself as a third-place team in its section but still receive a top-four seed in the WPIAL playoffs.

“It’s an odd world in Single-A,” Lebakken said. “It is what it is. Whatever seed we get, we will have to try to take care of whoever is in front of us.”

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