There is a collective sense of pride and school spirit shared by the student-athletes at Central Catholic and neighboring Oakland Catholic.
So when the Eagles took care of business in emphatic fashion with a mercy-rule victory in their PIAA Class 5A first-round game Saturday afternoon, the pressure was on the Vikings to uphold their end of the bargain in the second game of a playoff doubleheader at Gateway High School.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Central Catholic got the job done in a 50-28 win against Wilson (19-10), the seventh-place finisher from District 3. Backed by its suffocating defense and steady contributions from a handful of role players, the Vikings (17-9) advanced to face District 6 champion State College in the second round Wednesday at a site to be determined.
“This group wants to keep playing,” Central Catholic coach Brian Urso said. “As fun and great as winning [the WPIAL Class 6A championship over a week ago], we knew on Monday it was right back to work. … Our journey here is far from over.”
Junior forward Cole Sullivan is known more for his football talents, but he proved he’s no slouch on the hardwood with a game-high 13 points while controlling the boards and protecting the rim alongside 6-foot-7 senior forward Debaba Tshiebwe. Sullivan is a three-star football recruit with scholarship offers from Michigan, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Penn State, Pitt, West Virginia and more.
Although rushing the passer as a 6-4, 200-pound defensive end is Sullivan’s forte, he is more than just a one-trick pony. He displayed impressive athleticism while throwing down a monster dunk late in the first half, and he’s much more nimble on his feet than his imposing frame would suggest.
“We always talk about how shooting doesn’t always travel. We’re a good offensive team, but defense travels,” Sullivan said. “We’ve been bringing that energy every game in the playoffs, and we have to continue to do it. … We can do that to almost anybody [on defense].”
Senior point guard Dante DePante has been the driving force behind the Vikings’ run to the WPIAL Class 6A title this season, but DePante took a backseat to his teammates after a hot start with six points in the opening quarter. DePante and senior guard Tommy Kristian finished with 10 points apiece in the one-sided win.
“[Kristian] is a captain here for a reason. He’s the ultimate teammate and ultimate glue guy for us,” Urso said. “Whatever we ask of Tommy, he does it. He does it to the best of his ability, and he does it with a smile on his face the entire time.”
After a slow-paced start to the game, Sullivan’s thunderous dunk gave Central Catholic a 24-15 halftime lead along with some much-needed momentum. The Vikings continued to control the tempo throughout a methodical third quarter, with another buzzer-beating bucket by Sullivan stretching Central Catholic’s lead to 36-23 going into the fourth.
After a corner 3 by Kristian made it a 41-23 lead early in the fourth, the Vikings simply milked the clock on offense while stifling Wilson with their vaunted defense. Urso then emptied his bench to put in his reserves for the final two minutes.
“Today wasn’t very pretty. I think our guys actually had some nerves early on,” Urso said. “But we were able to be comfortable on defense and use it to our advantage today and hold a team under 30 points, so I’ll take it.”
Class 5A girls
Coming off a disappointing 64-49 loss to South Fayette in the recent WPIAL Class 5A championship, Oakland Catholic coach Eddie Benton relayed a message to his players reminding them that the season wasn’t over yet.
When he did so, Benton was speaking from experience.
A former star player at Perry and the University of Vermont, Benton endured a similarly frustrating loss when the Commodores lost to Schenley in the 1991 City League championship in his junior year. Shortly after that defeat, Benton and his Perry teammates went on to hoist the ultimate prize by winning a PIAA Class 3A championship after knocking off Blackhawk in a legendary showdown in the PIAA Western Region final.
Benton believes the Eagles have what it takes to repeat that feat this year, and they certainly looked the part on Saturday.
Led by a 20-point outburst from senior guard Halena Hill, Oakland Catholic (23-4) stormed to an early lead against District 3 fifth-place finisher Manheim Central (23-6) and never looked back. The Eagles activated the mercy rule with a 30-point lead midway through the third quarter before cruising to a 65-39 win.
“In practice the other day, I told them that right now reminds me of my junior high school,” Benton said. “We were one game short in the WPIAL. One game short. Great accomplishment, lost to a very good team. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a run and win the state championship.”
Star senior Alexa Washington helped spur Oakland Catholic to an early lead with a pair of interceptions on defense followed by a 3-pointer to make it 7-0. Hill then drained a 3-pointer to make it 16-5, and before long the Eagles had opened a 31-13 lead midway through the second quarter.
After missing two free throws late in the half, Hill corralled her own rebound and buried a buzzer-beating jumper to make it a 48-20 halftime lead for Oakland Catholic. Benton then allowed his reserves to finish the game for most of the second half as the Eagles advanced to set up a second-round showdown Wednesday against undefeated District 6 champion Hollidaysburg (24-0).
“We’re telling them right now, ‘There are two weeks left in the season,'” Benton said. “Don’t waste one day.”
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.