Senior scorer steps up during Quaker Valley playoff run

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Sunday, March 12, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Maria Helkowski had a memorable run in the WPIAL playoffs for the Quaker Valley girls basketball team.

The gritty 5-foot-6 senior guard was the Quakers’ leading scorer in all three games, a 52-39 win at home over Knoch in the Class 4A quarterfinals, a 51-40 loss to Blackhawk at North Allegheny in the semifinals and a 44-28 win over Highlands at home in the third-place game.

“Maria has been a critical part of our overall success this season,” coach Ken Johns said. “As we’ve moved into the playoffs, her level of play has continued, and it’s a nice complement to the other pieces we have. She’s been able to knock down some shots, and any time you have multiple people that can score, it makes the team that much harder to defend.

“Maria’s strength offensively is definitely her ability to shoot the ball from the outside. If we get her the ball in her spots, she can make shots. When you have someone that is capable of doing that, it stretches defenses and makes the team harder to defend. Maria is competitive. I’d say one of the strengths of the senior class is that they are all highly competitive and do not like to lose.”

QV received a first-round bye as the No. 4 seed in the tournament behind top three seeds Blackhawk, North Catholic and Elizabeth Forward.

Helkowski averaged 16 points per game in her team’s three WPIAL playoff games, scoring 22 against Knoch, 15 versus Blackhawk and 11 against Highlands.

She hit on 18 field-goal attempts, including five 3-pointers, and was a perfect 11 for 11 at the free-throw line.

“The seniors have been playing together since third grade, and we have a special bond,” Helkowski said. “We know how to use our strengths to contribute to the team. We earned the third seed in the state tournament by winning two WPIAL playoff games. We will continue to work hard in the gym to prepare for a run at the state championship.”

Helkowski is a two-year starter and four-year varsity player for the Quakers. She also is a three-year letterwinner.

Against WPIAL opponents this season, Helkowski ranked first on her team in free-throw shooting percentage (74%) and total points (295) and second in scoring (16.8 ppg) and 3-point field goal percentage (36%).

She averaged 4.1 rebounds and almost 2.0 steals per game.

Her best offensive game this season was a 26-point performance at home Jan. 19 against Keystone Oaks in a 62-51 nonsection win.

“Maria specifically has had some games where she was able to hit shots and put some points on the board for us,” Johns said. “Any time you can do that, especially in the section games when everyone knows you so well, it helps a lot.

“She’s part of a senior class that has played together for a while, and they all came into the season wanting to improve on what the team accomplished last year.”

Helkowski also plays lacrosse in the spring. She has a 4.0 GPA and plans to attend a four-year university and study health science in the fall.

She is a member of the National Honor Society and participates in Key Club, Best Buddies, student council and peer jury.

Helkowski was asked which team or player was the best that QV has faced this season.

“This is a tough question because due to injuries, matchups in some games have been challenging,” she said. “I would have to say Blackhawk as a team poses difficult challenges, but (junior guard) Alena Fusetti at Blackhawk is the most difficult player to defend.”

Quaker Valley’s other leading scorers in the WPIAL playoffs were senior forward Shannon Von Kaenel, with 15 points against Knoch and 10 against Highlands, and Omou “Mimi” Thiero, who netted 10 against Blackhawk and nine against Highlands.

As a team, the Quakers sank 24 of 34 free throws in the three WPIAL playoff games.

“I’ve been very pleased with the team’s effort in the playoffs so far,” Johns said. “We had a good regular season that set us up for a bye in the playoffs. I was a bit concerned about the 15-day layoff, but the team really responded well. We beat a good Knoch team in the quarterfinals. That was a tough test after a long break.

“Going against Blackhawk in the semifinals we knew was going to be another test. They are the No. 1-seeded team for a reason. I thought we played our hearts out. That was probably the hardest we’ve played for the entire game as a team in the time that I’ve been here.

“While the score was fairly close, it belies how close the game really was. They pulled the ball out and held it for a while with a good amount of time left and we had to foul to get the ball back. They are a good foul-shooting team, and they made them all when they needed to. We then had to bounce back two days later against a very good Highlands team and somehow summoned energy to do so.”

Quaker Valley (17-8), which finished as the runner-up to Blackhawk in Section 2-4A, was scheduled to open PIAA play March 11 at Harbor Creek (19-6) in Erie.

“It was a long week with an emotional loss, the last week of the term at school, so the kids have had a ton of work and two games in 48 hours,” Johns said. “They’ve done an amazing job. We’re catching our breath a little now and getting ready for the state playoffs.”

The team’s four seniors are Helkowski, Von Kaenel, point guard Nora Johns and forward Silvia Carrasco-Almanzar.

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