When Our Lady of the Sacred Heart departs Moon Township and travels to Oakland on Friday afternoon, the bus driver shouldn’t need directions to the Petersen Events Center.
The Pete has become a home away from home for the Chargers, one of the WPIAL’s most successful programs for most of the past decade. They have won four consecutive WPIAL titles and back-to-back PIAA titles, and earlier this season set a new state record by capturing their 74th win in a row.
And while the success has been consistent during that run, the achievements generated this season have been sort of an outlier. Success may have been predicted in the past, but these Chargers have surprised a lot of folks this season.
“I’ve got to tell you, moving up to 3A and graduating the guys that we did, I don’t think anyone would have expected it,” OLSH coach Mike Rodriguez said.
Playing in the final for the seventh year in a row, OLSH (19-5) will shoot for more history Friday when it tries to become only the second team to win five consecutive WPIAL titles. Midland claimed five in a row from 1973-77. The Chargers will take on Deer Lakes (16-8) in the Class 3A championship at 5 p.m.
While OLSH, the No. 6 seed, is a title game veteran, No. 5 Deer Lakes is making its first appearance in the final. But don’t expect Deer Lakes to be like a deer in the headlights. After all, the Lancers were the ones that ended OLSH’s winning streak Dec. 22 when they beat the Chargers on their home court, 70-55.
“They’ve played in The Pete before. We have to go enjoy it, but not be awestruck,” Deer Lakes coach Albie Fletcher said.
Fletcher has guided Deer Lakes to the final in his first season. A 1993 Deer Lakes graduate, Fletcher spent the previous four seasons as an assistant for Terrance Parham, who resigned following last season when the Lancers went 16-7 and reached the WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinals.
Both teams advanced to the final courtesy of winning shots in the final seconds of semifinal wins. Senior Michael Butler nailed a 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left to push Deer Lakes to a 56-54 upset of top-seed Steel Valley, while senior B.J. Vaughn connected on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift OLSH to a 53-50 win against No. 2 Neshannock.
“[Monday] night they were on Cloud 9,” Fletcher said. “I think they’ve had a quiet confidence throughout the season.”
OLSH, which won each of its previous four WPIAL titles in Class 2A and went undefeated each of the past two seasons, has seen its confidence grow over the past few months. The Chargers had to replace three starters, most notably Jake DiMichele, the third-leading scorer in WPIAL history. The two starters back — senior guard Rocco Spadafora and senior forward Bryson Kirschner — have shined, as have a supporting cast that includes Vaughn, junior guard Dorrien Tate and junior forward Dereon Greer. Spadafora is the leading scorer at 16 points a game. Senior forward Rocco Coladonato has been the team’s sixth man.
“This is something that has been a wonderful journey,” said Rodriguez, who has 293 wins in 15 seasons at OLSH.
Deer Lakes has been on one of those, too. Senior guard Bryce Robson was one of two starters back this season. He’s averaging a team-high 18 points a game. Among the team’s other top contributors have been 6-5 senior forward Nate Litrun, junior guard Billy Schaeffer, and junior guard Aiden Fletcher, son of the coach.
Robson scored 21 points, Schaeffer 17 and Litrun 12 when Deer Lakes put an end to OLSH’s long win streak in December. Deer Lakes raced to a 19-10 first-quarter lead before going on to hand the Chargers their first loss in nearly three full years. Spadafora and Kirschner both scored 19 for OLSH.
“They’re just so long and they have great shooters,” Rodriguez said. “They execute well, are very well coached, spread the floor, and get guys out in transition. It’s going to be tough.”
Class 4A championship
Another team that won’t need GPS on Friday is Lincoln Park, which is making its seventh championship appearance in the past eight seasons and 10th overall since joining the WPIAL in 2007. The top-seeded Leopards (24-1) will try to win their sixth title when they face section rival and No. 6 North Catholic (19-6) at 9 p.m. The teams will be meeting in the final for the fourth time in five years. Lincoln Park beat North Catholic in 2019 and 2021, while North Catholic topped the Leopards in 2020.
“Nelly Cummings said it to me after we beat Beaver at Beaver … I always preached this to them years ago, the standard is the standard, and that’s what it’s like here at Lincoln Park,” said Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski. “We just get things done and guys can play. It’s not easy plugging a lot of good players together because someone wants to be the big dog. When you understand who the players are and what they can do, it makes it easier.”
What also won’t be easy is beating North Catholic for a third time this season. Lincoln Park is the only WPIAL team to top the Trojans this season, beating them by 16 points on Jan. 3 (87-71) and Jan. 27 (71-55). North Catholic has three losses against teams from the Philadelphia area and another against a team from Florida.
While North Catholic beating defending champion and No. 2 seed Laurel Highlands, 74-59, in the semifinals might have surprised some, don’t count Bariski among them.
“Wasn’t a surprise to me,” Bariski said. “Unless you know how to play against them, it’s very difficult. I love Jim Rocco. We’ll hit it again, man.”
Rocco has directed North Catholic to the final in his first season as coach, but he is no championship game newcomer. In nearly two decades at Penn Hills, Rocco guided the Indians to a pair of WPIAL titles and a PIAA title. His North Catholic squad has won nine games in a row since the second Lincoln Park loss, all but one by double-digits.
“We’re playing as well as we have since we played at Archbishop Wood in December,” Rocco said. “We’re flowing offensively and defensively.”
Lincoln Park is on a roll, too. The Leopards have won 12 consecutive games since a 54-49 loss to Class 6A finalist Central Catholic on Jan. 14. That was the lowest point total of the season for the Leopards, who average a WPIAL-best 76.3 points per game. This isn’t a two-man team, but their star duo might not have any rivals in the entire WPIAL. Junior guard Brandin Cummings is a Pitt recruit and guard Meleek Thomas is considered one of the top sophomores in the country. Both have pumped in 23 points a game. Thomas scored 29 in a semifinal win against Highlands.
“They have the two best players in the area,” Rocco said. “They’re two Power Five kids. Cummings is going to play in the ACC right away. He’s going to build strength in the strength program and will make an immediate impact in the ACC. And Meleek is as good as anyone we’ve seen around here since Terrelle Pryor. We had a kid at Penn Hills, Drew Schifino, and Meleek reminds me of those guys. He’s going to make a lot of money in the game.”
North Catholic, winner of five WPIAL titles, also has lots of firepower, though. The Trojans average 71.9 points per game, which ranks sixth in the WPIAL, and have a pair of big scorers in junior guard Max Hurray and senior guard Andrew Maddalon. Hurray, who has a Division I offer from UMass Lowell, averages 22 points a game and Maddalon 18. The two combined to score 48 points in the semifinal triumph against Laurel Highlands.
“They’re really good players, but the nice thing about those guys is they play in the flow of the game,” Rocco said. “They don’t force it too much. They just sort of feed off of how we play and how we play really fits their skill set, as it does for a number of our guys.”
Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.