Tiny Aquinas Academy showing it belongs among WPIAL girls basketball contenders

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Sunday, February 7, 2021 | 11:09 AM


The second-smallest school in WPIAL girls basketball is eyeing bigger things this season.

One year after making school history, Aquinas Academy is seeking its first section title and another postseason run.

“We don’t want to stop,” junior forward Elizabeth Russell said. “We want to keep going.”

The first-place Crusaders were 4-0 in Section 3-A (8-2 overall) as of Feb. 2 and were No. 5 in the Tribune-Review WPIAL Class A rankings.

The tiny Catholic school in Hampton has 49 girls in grades 9-11. Among 126 WPIAL schools, only Geibel is smaller.

But the Crusaders, who last season became the school’s first team to reach the PIAA playoffs, have taken another step forward despite a roster with no seniors. They will reach the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season since returning to the WPIAL in 2017.

“I’m very impressed,” second-year coach Chris Lebakken said. “Last year, they were young. They’re still young. But they’ve really committed. They are having fun and playing hard.”

After a 55-52 season-opening loss to Eden Christian, the Crusaders reeled off seven wins in a row before a 55-22 loss to Class 5A McKeesport on Jan. 25.

Russell has doubled her scoring average from last season to about 12 points per game.

Junior center Emi Kartsonas is averaging about 11 rebounds, and juniors Laura Richthammer and Elizabeth Hardy and sophomore Bella Hite form the starting backcourt of an aggressive attack on both ends of the floor.

Juniors Patricia Blume, sidelined with a knee injury, Anna Keverline, Sydney Libell and Jillian Mercer are other valuable players for the Crusaders, who were scheduled to play at Clairton on Feb. 8 and at Riverview on Feb. 11.

“Everything is night and day compared to last year,” Lebakken said. “The energy, the ball movement, the defense, the intensity.

“I’m very excited and the girls are very excited, too.”

When Lebakken was forced to miss two weeks in early January after testing positive for covid, the players took it upon themselves to conduct virtual workouts, with five team captains each directing separate FaceTime conditioning drills with their teammates.

Russell is a prime example of the work ethic. The Fox Chapel resident devoted herself to getting better during the offseason.

Every day she was either running two miles or lifting weights or riding a stationary bike or working on her ball-handling. She played basketball outside “no matter if it was hot or cold.”

She returned a vastly improved player, averaging 20 points against Eden Christian, Cheswick Christian and Clairton.

“I trained very, very hard this summer because I wanted to be a great aspect with our team,” Russell said. “It showed, and our coach started to be confident with me.

“I was very nervous to shoot last year. I just went to the rim every single time because I wasn’t confident. I think I made one 3-pointer last year. Now I can really do everything, which has really helped me and it really helped our team.”

The program has come a long way from its first attempt at WPIAL basketball in 2009-10. The Crusaders went 3-18, failed to win a section game and promptly returned to the small-school SWCAC for the next seven years.

And while last season ended with a 58-27 loss to Shanksville-Stonycreek in the PIAA first round, the players gained confidence and motivation from their achievement.

“Our team is very, very dedicated to basketball,” Russell said. “We want to win, and we deserve to be here.”

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