Woodland Hills girls turn program around, emerge as WPIAL title contenders

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Monday, January 20, 2020 | 5:21 PM


Woodland Hills has been a team on the rise the last two seasons, but after their past seven days, the Wolverines look like contenders to reach a WPIAL final.

The Wolverines, ranked No. 2 in Class 5A, took command of the Section 3 race with consecutive last-minute wins last week, first by knocking off rival Penn Hills, 46-45, and then with an overtime road win over Oakland Catholic, 55-53.

Those wins give Woodland Hills (13-2, 8-0) a two-game lead in the section over Oakland Catholic, quite the turnaround for a program that only two years ago snapped a 53-game section losing streak that covered more than four full seasons.

But the Wolverines themselves aren’t suprised about their success, which they say has been some time in the making.

“We believed all summer long, and the girls have been doing what it takes and going through the process to get better,” Wolverines coach Von Pitts said. “Winning against Peters Township (in the season opener), that’s where it started. We started winning, and we thought we could do something special.”

No win ranks as high for Woodland Hills as the triumph over Penn Hills. Apart from the section implications, the Wolverines had lost 13 consecutive games against their neighbors since their last win in the 2011-12 season finale, making this one so much sweeter.

“I mean, one, we wanted to beat Penn Hills because they’re our rival, but two, we were at home, and three, it was a section game. We haven’t been able to beat them in years,” junior forward Peyton Pinkney said. “We are still learning how to win, but now, becoming a family, this team is tighter than it has ever been. We’re trusting each other.”

It’s hard not to trust Pinkney after her clutch plays down the stretch in both of the section wins.

The 6-foot post player with scholarship offers from Duquesne and Robert Morris got it done on both ends of the court, scoring the go-ahead hoop and taking a game-sealing charge against Penn Hills and knocking down a buzzer-beating game winner from the foul line against Oakland Catholic.

That second win, which gave Woodland Hills the season sweep over Oakland Catholic, showed a lot of the Wolverines’ character after they fell behind early.

“That game was one for the books,” Pinkney said. “We had the worst first quarter we could ever play, and give props to them, they punched us in the mouth. … But that OT, we did everything we were supposed to. That last play, I got the ball in the high post, (did a) jab step, pump fake … when it went it, it was the best feeling you could ever have.”

Pinkney and senior Joi Burleigh, whose late basket sent the Oakland Catholic game to overtime, have been forces for the Wolverines. Both average double doubles, with Pinkney scoring a team-high 15.8 points per game and Burleigh grabbing 14 rebounds per contest in a comeback season.

“(Burleigh) had a knee injury that didn’t allow her to play going into her junior year, and she’s rebounded tremendously,” Pitts said. “She gives us great leadership, and she’s a better person than an athlete. She’s a 3.8 GPA student, and she really personifies what we’re trying to do.”

The Wolverines aren’t a two-player show, however, and Pitts described his team as a puzzle where all the pieces fit just right.

Senior guard Tatiana Vazquez scores around eight points per game but is the team’s defensive stopper, and Pitts said she has begun to garner some college interest because of the impact she makes on that end of the floor. Sophomore point guard Jazmine Dunn plays bigger than her 5-3 frame, and fellow sophomore guard Jasmyn Fisher has hit crucial shots in wins over Penn-Trafford and Oakland Catholic.

Off the bench, Pitts praised the work of senior Ciara Beachom, who provides quality minutes and no let-down when she spells Pinkney or Burleigh in the post. Freshman Kayla Walter has also come into her own, making a pair of 3-pointers off the bench to settle things down in the Oakland Catholic win.

“We all know we’ll be there for each other,” Pinkney said. “Jazmine gave me the ball (against Oakland Catholic) when she got stuck, and after the game, she told me she knew I’d make that shot. There’s more of a trust factor. We know we’ll be here for each other.”

As they move into the second half of section play, Woodland Hills now finds itself in the new position of being the leading team, not the one chasing.

That presents a new challenge, but one Pitts said his team is ready for after getting through the past week with two big section wins.

“We told our girls, the target’s now on our back. For years, we were at the bottom of the barrel, but now we have P-T, Oakland and Penn Hills targeting us,” Pitts said. “It’s nice to see the girls grasping that, and they know we’re not just trying to establish a team, we’re trying to build a program. We want to be like Norwin, North Allegheny, Chartiers Valley. We no longer want to be in that lower tier.”

“We know they’re going to come harder at us the next time, but we’re still playing to win every game,” Pinkney said. “We’re playing to reach our goals, and the next one is to win the section. If we get that (first-round) bye, that’s amazing, but then we have to work even harder to win that playoff game and get into states.”

Matt Grubba is a contributing writer.

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