The Blackhawk and North Catholic girls basketball teams are no strangers to Pitt’s Petersen Events Center.
In fact, no team outside of the ones wearing blue and gold, rocking the script across their chests and playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference have made themselves as much at home at The Pete.
North Catholic, winner of a record 21 WPIAL championships, has played in the finals in each of the past nine seasons. The Trojanettes captured the WPIAL Class 3A title a season ago.
Blackhawk has won eight WPIAL crowns in its history. The Cougars, who have won five titles in 18 seasons under coach Steve Lodovico, are the defending Class 4A champions.
The two teams now are poised for a return trip to Petersen Events Center at 3 p.m. Saturday when top-seeded Blackhawk (21-3) squares off against No. 2 North Catholic (21-3), which moved up a classification this season, with the Class 4A title on the line.
“You’ve got two programs that have been here before kind of attitude,” Lodovico said. “I know North Catholic has been there multiple times and we’ve won eight of them.
“Two storied programs,” he added. “I don’t think the environment is going to shock either one of us with both of us playing last year.”
And both teams have made quick work of their competition in the WPIAL playoffs.
Blackhawk defeated its postseason opponents, Belle Vernon and Quaker Valley, by a combined 29 points. North Catholic, which currently is on a 15-game winning streak, has rolled past Beaver and Highlands in the postseason by a combined 58.
“They are playing well and, in all honesty, I think it’s really a whole team type of concept,” North Catholic coach Molly Rottmann said. “I will say that I felt like this group, more so than in the past with other teams, you can tell there’s a chemistry and they care about each other.
“I feel like we are just playing really unselfishly.”
Junior guard and Harvard recruit Alayna Rocco, a 1,000-career point scorer, leads the Trojanettes offensively. She averaged a team-high 17.1 points per game in the regular season.
Akron recruit Dacia Lewandowski joins junior Ava Walker and Rocco in the backcourt to make up one of the most talented trios in Class 4A.
Rottmann said her team, replete with six seniors, certainly is motivated to continue their program’s winning ways.
“This senior group is a special group,” Rottmann said. “We’ve been to the WPIAL championship four times with them. There’s not a whole lot of kids who can say that. They’re driven.
“It’s been our goal since the beginning of the season,” she added of winning a WPIAL title. “I think it would mean the world to all of them. It’s something that they really want.”
Blackhawk junior guard Alena Fusetti, who is averaging 17.5 points per game, will look to match North Catholic’s offensive output, along with guards Kassie Potts and Piper Romigh.
Guards Aubree Hupp and Ava Davis could play critical roles for the Cougars in filling in for injured standout guard/forward Quinn Borroni, who averaged 11 points and 9 rebounds per game before her Achilles tendon was ruptured near the end of the regular season.
For Lodovico, however, the game will most likely come down to his team’s ability to play defense. Blackhawk is allowing 32 points per game, which is good for second fewest in Class 4A.
“I honestly think we’ve got to have a great offensive night and defensive night,” Lodovico said. “We have to get it to our style of play. We have to be able to get up and play some pressure defense and execute on the offensive side. I think we both kind of feed off of other team’s mistakes, so we’ve got to be really dialed in offensively in taking care of the ball.”
Class 5A championship
Oakland Catholic’s campus might be within a somewhat substantial walking distance of Petersen Events Center, but South Fayette will be the team more familiar with Pitt’s home court when the Class 5A championship tips off at 5 p.m. Saturday.
No. 1-seeded South Fayette (23-2) is the defending Class 5A champion, while No. 2 Oakland Catholic (22-3), winner of six WPIAL titles all time, will be making its first trip to the championship since 2017.
“They’re a very good team,” said Oakland Catholic coach Eddie Benton Jr. of South Fayette. “They’ve got a lot of weapons. Solid program. And so is Oakland Catholic, so it’s going to be a good game.
“They’re very appreciative,” the coach added of his players. “They haven’t had a taste of this at all. Those young ladies are very hungry. They’re excited and they’re very appreciative of the thought of even playing in The Pete.”
For South Fayette, the thought of performing in a Division I basketball arena is slightly less novel.
The Lions won their second WPIAL title in school history a year ago, upsetting three-time defending champion Chartiers Valley.
This time around, South Fayette coach Bryan Bennett has been preparing his players for a change in perspective.
“We know that we are in different shoes than last year,” he said. “We’ve discussed that we’re going to get everybody’s best efforts, so we have to bring ours every night.”
Few tandems across the WPIAL have done just that at as high of a level as Lions seniors Maddie Webber and Ava Leroux.
A 5-foot-11 Villanova recruit, Webber averaged 17.3 points per game in the regular season. The versatile senior can score inside and out and is an excellent defender.
Leroux, daughter of former Penguins enforcer Francois Leroux, is a 6-3 forward and Elon recruit. She is an imposing force in the paint for the Lions.
“Yeah, I’m a pretty fortunate coach,” Bennett said. “The two of them, they’re a pretty tough tandem. I’d take them against any two in the WPIAL. They’re close friends. They play well together. They look for each other. They share the ball well. They’re great leaders. It’s a nice group to have.”
Bennett said he is well aware, however, his team will have its hands full against one of the toughest full-court presses in Class 5A.
“We’re definitely going to have to handle the ball and minimize turnovers on Saturday,” he said.
Senior guard Alexa Washington has been critical to Oakland Catholic’s resurgence. A North Florida recruit, she averaged 15.6 points per game in the regular season.
Rachel Haver, a senior guard, also will play an important role alongside Washington. She is joined in the backcourt by classmate Halena Hill, while forwards London Creach and Jill Gallo create problems for Oakland Catholic’s competition in the paint.
“Our whole starting five, we need big games out of every single one of them,” Benton said. “When I say ‘big games’ I don’t necessarily mean scoring.
“I think they all bought into their role, and I think they all do a great job of making sure they can contribute through their role.”
Class 1A championship
No. 3-seeded Aquinas Academy (16-8) will be making a return trip to Petersen Events Center when it tips off against top-seeded Union (17-6) at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Both teams battled through a tough Section 1 schedule, which included 2022 WPIAL champion Bishop Canevin, to earn the chance to capture their school’s first district crowns.
Aquinas knocked off Bishop Canevin, 43-37, in the semifinals, avenging a loss in the WPIAL championship a year ago.
Union, which fell a game short of advancing to Petersen Events Center in 2022 at the hands of Bishop Canevin, advanced to Saturday’s championship after winning a share of the Section 1 title.
“We played them twice and we felt that our section was one of the better sections, if not the best section, in [Class A],” said Union coach Rob Nogay of Aquinas, which his team swept in the regular season. “I’m not surprised [Aquinas and Bishop Canevin] were in the semifinals. I’m not surprised that Aquinas beat them, either. They play tough. They like to get after it.
“Seeding-wise, I know on paper, they’re not supposed to be there,” Nogay added of Aquinas, “but I’m not surprised.”
Although Aquinas advanced to the WPIAL championship a season ago, Crusaders coach Chris Lebakken said his team may not reap too much of a benefit in terms of its experience.
Aquinas returns only one player, senior Isabella Hite, who saw significant minutes in the championship in 2022.
“I’m not expecting us to be prepared,” Lebakken said. “I’m preparing them for the worst. I’m preparing them for the depth perception and the environment.”
Aquinas will need no introduction to Union’s fierce 1-2-1-1 diamond zone full-court press defense.
Lebakken said he made a simple request of Nogay when he ran into his counterpart at an Aquinas Academy-Union boys game earlier this year.
“I told him to get out of that darn zone and he said, ‘No, never,’” Lebakken recalled.
On the opposite end of the court, Union relies heavily upon junior Kelly Cleaver.
The 6-foot forward averages a team-best 15.9 points per game. She also has 201 rebounds, 55 blocks, 70 steals and 70 assists this season.
“When I say she plays on both sides of the court, she’s definitely playing for sure,” Nogay said.
Sophomore guard Kylie Fruehstorfer is averaging 12.8 points per game for Union and is shooting 30% from 3-point range. She also has 84 steals and 62 assists. Forward Zoe Lepri also contributes 8.8 points per game and has 86 rebounds on the season for the Scotties.
“They worked hard,” Nogay said of his players. “I got this job when these seniors were freshman. They’ve worked hard. We’ve done a lot to get this program turned around.”
Junior Emily Fisher, who averages 11.3 points per game, paces Aquinas, and 5-11 forward Violet Johnson scores 10.5 points and adds 9 rebounds per game. Freshman Ellie Junker, who averages 9.5 points per game, also should contribute for the Crusaders along with Hite.
“I’m just so proud and humbled to be a part of the girls lives,” Lebakken said. “The school is obviously known for its academics. I’m excited to have the opportunity to win a gold and hopefully bring it back to the school and turn more heads for athletics.”