It has been almost 30 years since he starred as a do-it-all forward at Shady Side Academy and Stanford, but you can finally say the WPIAL has produced a player reminiscent of the late great Pete Sauer.
Three of them, to be exact.
Until this season, Cate, Charlotte and Cassie Sauer never had gotten the chance to play together on the same team. Now, the Sauer sisters are making the most of their first and only opportunity to do so, helping the Bulldogs emerge as a championship contender in Class 3A and carrying on their father’s legacy while playing on the court named in his honor — just over a decade after his sudden and tragic death.
“After he died, I think we wanted to, or I wanted to continue playing, because he taught me how to play,” Cate said.
A 6-foot-7 forward with a versatile skill set and undeniable clutch gene, Pete Sauer led Shady Side to the 1995 PIAA Class 2A title before putting together a stellar career at Stanford. A four-year starter and two-time captain under Mike Montgomery, he averaged 7.9 points for his career while helping the Cardinal reach the 1998 Final Four, falling to eventual champion Kentucky in a memorable overtime thriller, 86-85. Along the way, he developed a reputation for his grit, toughness and leadership, and it’s no coincidence the team went a combined 99-28 during his four years in Palo Alto.
Upon graduating in 1999, Sauer began a successful career in finance and was preparing to run a multi-manager investment fund when he died suddenly in July 2012, collapsing after a pickup basketball game. He was 35.
Nobody could blame the Sauer sisters, after going through such a traumatic event at such a young age, if they never wanted to see a basketball again. Instead, they turned to the sport as a way to cope and remember the brief time they shared with their father.
“I don’t really remember my dad that much, but when I was younger, I thought it was always a way to remember him and almost live through him a little bit vicariously,” said Cassie, the youngest of the three sisters.
Each of them began playing basketball at about 6 years old, and Cate, the oldest, actually remembers being coached by Pete for a year or two back when they lived in New York. The family had just purchased a home in Fox Chapel and were preparing to move when he died in 2012, leaving their mother, Amanda, to raise the three of them. She has managed to do just that while also making headlines as the first female football referee in the Big Ten Conference.
And as if losing a husband and father wasn’t enough hardship for the family to endure, Cate was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma when she was in fourth grade, a little more than two years after her father’s death. Charlotte and Cassie remained by her side through her extensive chemotherapy treatments, always showing up to the hospital with their mother to help keep her in good spirits. Somehow, Cate managed to keep attending school and living as close to a normal life as possible throughout her battle with cancer, but she admits she often wondered why it seemed like life was out to get her.
Fast forward eight years later, and she is now a 6-foot-2 senior forward going to Princeton next year on a rowing scholarship. And, more importantly, she is cancer-free.
“The four of us are extremely close-knit and really rely on and trust and love each other,” Amanda said. “When Cate was sick, it was part of the deal. We’re all going to the hospital, all four of us, every day, for six weeks while she had it. Then I had to continue to give her chemo at home. When Cate got sick at night or got the chills, we had to all work together.”
Cate, who transferred from Ellis School to Shady Side along with her sisters after her freshman year, has really come into her own as a senior. An intimidating presence in the paint, Cate uses her long limbs and uncanny strength to bully her way to the basket, averaging 7.5 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2 blocks per game.
Although basketball is only her second sport — she is considered one of the top high school rowers in Pennsylvania — she is doing everything she can to make her final season one to remember.
“I still have a love for [basketball] and love playing it,” Cate said. “I just wanted to finish my high school season out because I’ve done it my whole life.”
A 6-foot junior, Charlotte was never as passionate about sports as Cassie or Cate as a child. Admittedly the most shy and quiet of the three growing up, it took some time for Charlotte to “break out of her shell” following her father’s death. Getting more involved in basketball and softball helped her become more outgoing in recent years, though, and she now starts on the JV team at Shady Side. And although she doesn’t get as much varsity playing time as Cassie and Cate, Charlotte still cherishes being part of every practice and game with her sisters.
“I think the first couple years, it kind of hit me then, and I became a little bit more shy,” Charlotte said. “But as I found my circle of friends at Ellis, I opened up to them.”
As for the player with the most potential and brightest basketball future of the three sisters, Cassie is the obvious choice. A 6-foot-1 freshman forward, Cassie is already seeing significant minutes and averaging 5.5 rebounds while rotating in and out with Cate. She plays with the acclaimed SLAAM AAU team during the offseason and is already thinking about playing at the next level — just as her father did when he and Stanford captured the nation’s attention during that magical run to the 1998 Final Four.
“Cassie is a kid with a lot of potential,” Shady Side coach Jonna Burke said. “She is a kid who can put it on the floor and drive from the elbow and make a layup. Cate isn’t really going to ever put it on the floor. Cassie can do some of that. She can shoot the ball.
“Cassie is a little more versatile than Cate. I think that will prove itself even more down the line.”
Before Cassie can worry about playing in college, though, she and her sisters have a job to finish this year with the Bulldogs (12-1), who have won nine games in a row. And with a Hall of Fame coach like Burke patrolling the bench, many are already penciling Shady Side in as the team to beat in Class 3A.
The team’s only loss came against a Class 6A team in a 61-45 defeat at Baldwin on Dec. 8, and they also own a 50-47 win against Class 5A rival Fox Chapel on Dec. 29. The Fox Chapel game headlined the annual Peter Sauer Memorial Tournament at Shady Side, where a packed house helped spur the Bulldogs to a dramatic win. The sisters said it’s been the highlight of their season so far.
“The energy is really fun to play with,” Cassie said. “The crowd each game grows a little bit more, and I’ve never really played with a crowd like that. So it’s definitely fun.”
More and more, the Bulldogs are noticing their fellow students showing up early to support them. Cate still remembers her sophomore year when the team finished 1-10 and hardly anybody other than parents showed up to watch. Meanwhile, the Shady Side boys played in front of tons of fans for nearly every home game during their run to a WPIAL Class 3A title last season.
You know what they say — everybody loves a winner.
“We really have a good bond going,” Cate said. “Last year, coach [Burke] talked a lot about starting the foundation and building up from there. And she wants to go all the way in the playoffs [this year], so I think we can do it.”
Of course, this Shady Side team is much more than just the Sauer sisters. For starters, freshman guards Karis Thomas and Maggie Spell are the team’s leading scorers, and both are capable of taking over a game at any time. With a potent blend of youth and experience, the Bulldogs are loaded with talented scorers and as much depth as any team in Class 3A. But as anybody who was around to watch those late ’90s Stanford teams can attest, every great team needs a “glue guy” — or in this instance, a couple of “glue girls.”
“I do think they really enjoy being on the same team together,” Burke said. “I sometimes have to split them up, because they’re just giddy and they’re talking. They’re really sweet kids. Cate could dominate in there and be intimidating with her size, but she’s not like that. That’s not her personality. If you fall down on the floor, she’ll stop and help the other team up.”
With every rebound his daughters pull down off the glass, every charge they take in the lane, every loose ball they dive for and every bucket they score, Pete Sauer’s legacy grows a little bit stronger. And if the Sauer sisters and their teammates can keep up this level of play the rest of the way, they might just get the chance to finish their one and only season together by playing for a WPIAL championship — and in a building fittingly known as “The Pete.”
“I actually did not [realize that]. That’s crazy,” their mother said. “I’m ready. Coach Burke is ready. … It’s been something I’ve thought about for a long time since moving back to Pittsburgh.
“Every time I see them out on the court together, it takes my breath away.”