Kelly Cleaver heard the talk around Union High School.
“The boys always look at us and say, ‘Well, you guys don’t have rings yet,’” she said from the podium in the media room on Saturday at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center. “They can’t use that anymore.”
Cleaver and the top-seeded Scotties overcame a slow start and rode a 23-6 run in the fourth quarter to defeat No. 3 seed Aquinas Academy, 52-35, and earn the first WPIAL Class 1A girls basketball championship in school history.
“These girls are as unselfish as you can find,” Union coach Rob Nogay said. “They’ve been like that since they started. These seniors were freshmen when I got the job here. We take pride in being a team. Every day we go to practice we talk about playing for the ‘U’ that’s on our shirts and the ‘U’ that’s on the floor.
“We don’t play for individuals or ourselves,” he added. “We’re out there representing Union and representing Lawrence County.”
Sophomore guard Kylie Fruehstorfer scored a game-high 20 points for Union (18-6), while Cleaver, a junior forward, contributed 14 points and nine rebounds, and senior forward Zoe Lepri scored 10 points with 10 rebounds.
“I had a dream about this since I was very little,” senior guard Kayla Fruehstorfer said. “I’m just very excited that we did it.”
Aquinas Academy (16-9) lost in the WPIAL championship game for the second consecutive season. The Crusaders fell to Bishop Canevin in the title game a season ago.
“I think we had some decent shots in the fourth,” Crusaders coach Chris Lebakken said. “They just weren’t falling.”
A pair of freshman guards led Aquinas Academy offensively, as Tess Duer scored a team-high 15 points and Ellie Junker added 14 on 3-of-6 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc.
After the teams slogged out to a slow start that saw Union take a 6-4 lead after the first quarter, Junker made a pair of 3-pointers in the second that momentarily got things going for her team offensively.
Junker said she became motivated – and saw some shots begin to fall – after senior guard Bella Hite was carried off the court with a knee injury.
“I think once Bella got hurt we all really had the mentality that it’s bigger than ourselves,” Junker said. “Everything that we did on that court was for Bella. I feel like that sort of lit a spark for our team, and we started to play together and find people that were open and capitalize.”
But after the teams played to a 29-29 tie through three quarters, Union began to seize control.
Kylie Fruehstorfer opened the first possession of the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer, which was followed by a steal and layup by Cleaver that turned into a three-point play with a free throw.
When Kylie Fruehstorfer and Lepri then made consecutive baskets, Union suddenly found itself leading, 39-29, with five minutes left in the game.
“I think Ellie Junker was hurting us in the first half, and we switched up our defense a little bit and tried to take her away,” Nogay said. “She’s a great player, and they’re a really good team. They’re well coached.
“We moved on offense a little bit to get Kelly the ball a little bit more,” he added, “and that seemed to work out for us.”
Cleaver and Lepri scored eight points each in the fourth quarter, while Kylie Fruehstorfer added seven.
Union scored 25 points off Aquinas turnovers on the game.
“They went to a box-and-one on Ellie, and I think we just kind of got a little winded and a little defeated on a couple of those turnovers and the fast break layups they had,” Lebakken said. “It looked like it just took the wind out of us.”
Union advances to play the fifth-place team from District 9, which will be either Port Allegany or Clarion. Aquinas Academy will play District 6’s third-place team, either Bishop Carroll or Juniata Valley.
“Unbelievable feeling,” Nogay said. “I’m not even sure that it set in 100% yet. We worked real hard to get to this point.”