Going into the WPIAL Class 4A championship game against 21-time champion North Catholic, Blackhawk girls basketball coach Steve Lodovico called his team the underdog — despite the Cougars’ status as the No. 1 seed and defending WPIAL champions.

His sentiment was understandable, considering Blackhawk was playing without arguably its top all-around player in senior guard-forward Quinn Borroni, a Mercyhurst recruit who suffered a torn Achilles in practice just before the start of the postseason. And after a 51-35 loss against the mighty Trojanettes in that WPIAL title game on March 4, there weren’t many people who expected to see the Cougars playing three weeks later on the biggest stage of them all.

Yet here we are.

Thanks to an all-out team effort inspired by Lodovico’s masterful coaching and a mix of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance scattered throughout the lineup, Blackhawk (25-4) knocked off North Catholic in Tuesday’s Western Region finals, 45-40, earning its first trip to the PIAA championship game since 2015 while seeking to capture its third state title under Lodovico’s watch.

“It was amazing,” Lodovico said. “It’s like a storybook ending. Losing Quinn before the WPIAL playoffs started, nobody thought we’d be here. We kind of used that as our motivation.

“After Quinn got hurt, I was a little shaken. What would we be like? I slept on it, went into practice the next day, and my first message was, ‘So now what? Who is going to respond? Are we done? Can we keep going?’ And they were like, ‘Coach, we can do this.'”

The Cougars will face Philadelphia powerhouse Lansdale Catholic (27-2) at noon Saturday at Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. — and if they can find a way to get it done, there’s no doubt this one would go down as the most miraculous of the bunch.

Things certainly won’t get any easier for Blackhawk on Saturday against Lansdale Catholic, and Lodovico knows his team will likely be an even bigger underdog now than it was in the WPIAL finals. But the Cougars proved in Tuesday’s rematch against the Trojanettes just how potent their lineup can be, even without Borroni, who averaged 11 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 2 assists per game. Although junior Alena Fusetti scored only seven points in the win against North Catholic after averaging a team-high 17.4 ppg during the regular season, senior point guard Kassie Potts delivered a game-high 19 points to go with 17 from freshman Aubree Hupp, who has blossomed into a potential future star while filling in for Borroni.

“I talked to [Hupp] a lot at the beginning of the season. I told her, ‘In order to play here at Blackhawk, you can’t play like a freshman. You have to act like a senior.’ And it’s difficult. It took her a while,” Lodovico said. “When she was put in as a starter, her confidence just skyrocketed. She just took off. Every game she started, she’s had double figures so far. It’s an amazing story.”

Last year’s PIAA Class 4A runner-up, Lansdale Catholic has cruised back into the state finals with four double-digit wins in the state playoffs, including the past three by 20 points or more. District 2 champion Scranton Prep was no match for Lansdale in the Eastern Region finals, falling by a score of 60-28. The Crusaders feature one of the best players in the state in St. Joseph’s recruit Gabby Casey, who averages 21.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, and Jaida Helm (12 ppg) and Olivia Boccella (9.5 ppg) also provide plenty of production for Lansdale.

Needless to say, there won’t be many people picking Blackhawk to capture a fifth state title — but that’s just the way Lodovico likes it.

“I’m a realist. I understand how hard it is to get there,” Lodovico said. “We got there in 2014 and ’15. I know the gauntlet we went through, and I had an amazing team with the [Chassidy] Omogrosso crew. And we had some tight games. I told the girls, ‘In order to make it to Hershey, you’ve got to be special.’ … It’s amazing the adversity we’ve overcome.

“I’m excited to go back to the Giant Center and get under those lights and get that feeling again. And I’m really excited for the girls to get that experience of being there.”

Class 5A

Before the start of the PIAA playoffs, the Union Progress tabbed South Fayette as one of the newly crowned WPIAL champions with the best chance to make it to Hershey. The main reason for the prediction centered around Lions senior Maddie Webber, a Villanova recruit who is widely considered one of the top all-around players in the state.

Webber has done nothing but enhance her superstar status throughout South Fayette’s state playoff run, first shocking mighty District 10 champion Cathedral Prep with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from NBA range to lift the Lions to a 40-37 PIAA quarterfinal win. Webber then scored a game-high 24 points while knocking down another crucial 3-pointer late in the game to help seal a 58-54 win for South Fayette in a WPIAL championship rematch on Tuesday. The win secured the first PIAA championship appearance in program history for the Lions (28-2), who will now take on another juggernaut in District 12 champion Archbishop Wood (24-5) at 6 p.m. Saturday.

“We’re happy to be there, but the job’s not done,” South Fayette coach Bryan Bennett said. “Obviously a state title would be a dream come true for these kids and myself and my assistants. We’re going to make sure we give our best effort.”

Archbishop Wood is another perennial power from Philadelphia, one boasting as much tradition and prestige as any program in the state. The Vikings feature Albany recruit Deja Evans, a star senior who averages 16 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5 blocks per game. Kara Meredith and Ava Renninger also average double figures for Archbishop Wood, which also reached the title game with four consecutive wins by 10 points or more — including a commanding 52-35 win against District 1 champion West Chester Rustin in the Eastern Region final.

After winning back-to-back PIAA Class 4A titles in 2021 and 2022, the Vikings bumped up to Class 5A for the current two-year cycle, and many will likely favor them to pull off the three-peat against South Fayette on Saturday. After all, it’s hard to pick against a team that has won seven state titles in the past 13 seasons.

But before you count out the Lions, remember these eight wise words to live by — bet against Maddie Webber at your own risk.

“I’d love to reclassify her and have her for one more year,” Bennett said with a laugh. “She’s going to have a bright future.”

Class 1A

Like South Fayette, Union will be making its first appearance in the state finals when the Scotties take on District 4 third-place finisher Lourdes Regional (22-7) at noon Friday. It wasn’t looking good for Union’s chances after trailing by a score of 13-9 going into halftime, but the Scotties (22-6) came to life for a 45-31 comeback win against District 5 champion Berlin Brothersvalley on Tuesday night.

For Union coach Rob Nogay, this trip to “Chocolate Town” will be especially sweet, as the fourth-year coach has engineered a remarkable turnaround in short order for the Scotties. After posting a combined record of 14-112 in the six seasons prior to Nogay’s arrival, Union went 5-17 in his debut season before improving to 10-11 while reaching the WPIAL quarterfinals in his second year. The Scotties then ascended to the ranks of the WPIAL’s elite last year, finishing with a record of 22-3 while advancing to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals.

This year, Union completed its climb to the mountaintop with a 52-35 win over Aquinas Academy in the WPIAL title game, with Nogay’s first freshman class now serving as his trusted senior leaders.

“I couldn’t be happier for them, for the way they started here four years ago,” Nogay said. “I think we won five games. So for them to go out on top and be on the biggest stage in high school basketball in PA is just a great feeling.”

Both 5-5 sophomore guard Kylie Fruehstorfer (12.9 ppg) and 5-10 senior forward Zoe Lepri (7.9 ppg) have been vital to the Scotties’ success, but there’s no doubt this team is centered around 6-foot junior forward Kelly Cleaver. After transferring from Shenango prior to the 2021-22 season, Cleaver broke onto the scene for Union as a sophomore and has been even better as a junior, averaging 15.4 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks per game.

Lourdes Regional is making its fifth appearance in the state finals, with a record of 1-3 in its previous four trips to Hershey. Coming off a 34-33 win against District 2 champion Mountain View in the state semifinals, Lourdes doesn’t quite carry the same reputation as the vaunted opponents South Fayette and Blackhawk will be facing. Still, Nogay knows the Scotties will likely need to play their best game of the season in order to come home with their first PIAA championship trophy.

“Obviously they’re a good team,” Nogay said. “They’re in the championship game for a reason. They have a big who is really good and a couple guards who are really good. We’re going to go out and give it our best shot.

“It’s a good time to be a Union fan, I can tell you that.”

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.