After the emotional high of winning a WPIAL championship — or the agonizing sting of coming just short — the feat of stringing together five consecutive wins in the PIAA tournament to become state champions is something few teams are built to achieve.
Take recent history for example — in the five state playoff tournaments since the PIAA switched from four to six classifications, only five WPIAL teams have won state titles on the girls side. Only once during that time period has more than one WPIAL school brought home a state title in the same year, when Peters Township and Chartiers Valley both completed undefeated seasons in 2019. Still, history also suggests that at least one local team will capture the ultimate prize at the end of the season, with the WPIAL crowning at least one state champion on the girls side in 12 of the past 13 seasons.
Who will it be this year? Will there be multiple champs, or maybe none at all? Only time will tell. But if you’re searching for the team that might have the best chance to make some serious noise in the PIAA playoffs, which begin Friday, look no further than back-to-back WPIAL Class 5A champion South Fayette (24-2).
Why the Lions, you ask? Well, for starters, they have Maddie Webber, and the rest of the teams in their bracket don’t. That gives them an advantage right off the bat.
“I’ll take Maddie over anyone in the state,” South Fayette coach Bryan Bennett said. “She’s such a competitor, she’s such a hard worker, she’s a great leader, a great teammate, and she’s done a lot of wonderful things. She elevates everyone’s play on the floor, not just her own. The other players also feed off of her and have done amazing things themselves.
“Each year, she has kind of worked on different things to make her game a little bit better. I know she’s going to continue to make great strides over the next four years.”
Webber is a 5-11 senior point guard and Villanova recruit who averaged 17.2 points per game as a senior, but her greatness goes far beyond her gaudy numbers. Webber constantly sets up her teammates for easy buckets by drawing the attention of the defense, and she uses her length and athleticism to hound the other team’s best player defensively night in and night out. And on top of everything else, Webber is a winner, as proven by the Lions’ record of 47-7 with a pair of WPIAL titles over the past two years.
Of course, if South Fayette hopes to go all the way to Hershey, Webber can’t do it alone. Luckily for the Lions, their superstar has a worthy sidekick in 6-3 senior forward Ava Leroux. The Elon recruit showed why she’s so valuable with 17 points and 13 rebounds in South Fayette’s 64-49 win against Oakland Catholic on Saturday in the WPIAL Class 5A championship, and she’ll need to be at her best the rest of the way in order for the Lions to make a run at a state title.
“She’s getting double-teamed and triple-teamed every night. She’s not going up against a lot of kids her size, so a lot of teams have really focused on packing it in and taking her away, which is tough on a kid,” Bennett said. “But she battles every night to do the little things for us. There are nights when she scores and Maddie doesn’t, and vice versa. But I think the two of them together are a nice tandem to have.”
First up for South Fayette is a home game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday against West York (13-3), the eighth-place finisher from District 3. After that, the Lions would face either Mechanicsburg (19-7) — the third-place finisher from District 3 — or Woodland Hills (13-13), the WPIAL’s fourth-place finisher. South Fayette made easy work of the Wolverines in a 68-25 WPIAL semifinals win on Feb. 28.
Should the Lions win their first two games to reach the PIAA quarterfinals, all signs would likely point toward a must-see clash against District 10 champion Cathedral Prep (21-1), formerly known as Villa Maria Academy. Beating the vaunted powerhouse would be a major accomplishment for South Fayette, but the Lions are already as battle-tested as they come while riding the momentum of an 18-game winning streak. They certainly have a confident bunch, but Bennett just wants them to keep the same even-keeled approach that got them to this point.
“We’ve kind of kept it the same all season,” Bennett said. “That’s really what we’ve done all season. We never looked ahead in our schedule. We’ve always put our full focus on the opponent ahead.
“I just enjoy being around these kids and coaching them, so I’d like to see this last as long as possible.”
Class 6A gets tougher
North Allegheny (20-5) is only two years removed from winning the 2021 PIAA Class 6A title, and if the Tigers can match their level of play from their 71-45 upset win against Upper St. Clair (21-3) in the WPIAL Class 6A finals, they can play with just about anybody. But the road to a Class 6A state title will likely be tougher than ever this year, with two-time defending Class 5A champion Cardinal O’Hara (20-5) bumping up to Class 6A this season.
If you followed Chartiers Valley’s run to three consecutive state finals appearances, you probably remember how each of the Colts’ past two seasons ended against Cardinal O’Hara — a 51-27 loss in the 2021 finals and a 42-19 defeat in last year’s title game. Along with Cardinal O’Hara, both Perkiomen Valley (27-1) and Easton (27-1) appear to be legitimate title contenders on the eastern side of the bracket, along with the always dangerous Spring-Ford (24-5).
On the western side, Cedar Cliff (26-0) and Haverford (27-1) appear to be two of North Allegheny’s biggest threats in their quest to make it back to Giant Center — and don’t count out Upper St. Clair just yet, either. For now, the Tigers will host Manheim Township (17-10) while the Panthers host District 10 champ McDowell (19-6), with both games at 6 p.m. Friday.
Can’t stop Senaya
Samuel Fels (15-5) is only the fourth-place finisher out of District 12, and the school hasn’t been on anyone’s radar lately when it comes to basketball — until now. That’s because the team boasts one of the top scorers in the country in sophomore guard Senaya Parker.
A 5-6 phenom averaging 43.1 points per game, Parker has registered eight 50-point games this season. Fortunately for the WPIAL teams remaining in the Class 5A state playoffs, Samuel Fels is playing on the eastern side of the bracket, so the only way a local school would run into Parker would be if the teams met in the state finals.
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at email@example.com.