GameTimePA.com's Matt Catrillo and Pat Huggins recap the Beavers' 55-43 win over Juniata Valley in the PIAA Class 1A Championship, winning the third state title in school history. Matt Catrillo/GameTimePA.com
HERSHEY -Back in 1992, the Lebanon Catholic girls basketball team won its first state title. Three years later, the Beavers would add another state crown to their collection.
But reaching the top of the mountain isn't nearly as commonplace as the Beavers made it seem back then, so the quest for a third state championship continued in vain for more than two decades.
Until Friday, when a new generation of Lebanon Catholic players took their rightful place in the tiny school's big and proud hoops history, topping Juniata Valley 55-43 in the PIAA 1A state final at Giant Center.
Down 6-0 just 2:13 into the game after turning the ball over on its first four possessions, Catholic (25-7) ran off 20 of the next 21 points, seizing control as Juniata Valley's shooting became ice cold, and never looked back.
Alexis Hill, who got the Beavers untracked with some brilliant play in the open floor, led the way with 20 points and Celine Mars added 14 to a win that featured tangible - points - and intangible contributions from all six players who saw the floor.
But it was also a triumph for all associated with the Lebanon Catholic program, past and present, including legendary 39-year head coach Patti Hower, who notched career win No. 712 alongside her longtime coaching staff/family of head assistant Mike Mohl, daughter Becky Kleinfelter and father Ed Werth.
"Great," was Hower's short but eloquent description of the feeling of adding another state title 25 years after the first. "At the end there, when I knew it was over, I just looked around and kinda enjoyed the moment. Because it goes so fast."
Indeed, things happen fast during the state finals as well, and the Beavers had to quickly gather themselves after defensive-minded Juniata Valley (23-6) quickly jumped on top to the aforementioned 6-0 advantage barely two minutes into the game.
But the distress was extremely short-lived as Hill got rolling in transition, following Neesha Pierre's ice-breaking free throws at the 5:33 mark with 7 straight points, including a fastbreak layup that put the Beavers ahead to stay.
After rolling to dominating wins throughout the postseason, the Beavers experienced some similar adversity to Friday's during the second half of Tuesday's semifinal victory against Jenkintown. So when the start was a little rocky, Catholic declined to become frazzled.
"It was a little rough with the start we had," said Hill, who grabbed 14 rebounds to go with her 20 points. "But we were ready for this game. We took what we did wrong against Jenkintown and put it into this game."
Juniata Valley further cooperated with an eight-plus minute scoring drought and ice-cold 3-for-27 shooting from the field before intermission.
“I’m really proud of the way we responded,” Hower said. “We were playing kind of tight, but then they couldn’t make any shots (in the first half)."
That led to a 20-10 lead at the half, but Juniata Valley pulled itself into the fight to start the second half, getting as close as 25-21 on a Maddie Mattas putback with 3:29 left in the 3rd.
"They wanted it just as bad as we did," Mars said. "We just had to start executing more."
And the Beavers did, running off six straight points to end the quarter - a Hill bucket off a slick pass from Mars and back-to-back scores by Pierre - to go back up 31-21 heading into the fourth.
"I wasn't concerned at all," Hill said. "Except for the end, when Neesha fouled out. That's when I got concerned because I had to play point guard. But we pulled through."
Although not without a few anxious moments. Though the Beavers were never in grave danger of surrendering the lead, Juniata Valley kept nipping at their heels, and was still within five points at 42-37 on two Hayden Taylor free throws with 1:27 left.
But Mars scored on the ensuing Catholic possession to push the lead back to seven and from there Hill, Hannah Callihan and Jayden Shellehamer combined to put the game away at the foul line and assure the Beavers of an opportunity for a lifetime memory of deliriously celebrating a state championship on the Giant Center floor.
"I was confident (at the beginning of the season) that we could get here," Hill said. "But actually doing it is great."
"Not yet, not until tomorrow morning," Mars said, when asked when it would all sink in. "This is unreal."
And for Hower, sharing the glory - and a place in history - with the 1992 and 1995 teams made it all the more special.
"They all were great, I enjoyed it with all of them," Hower said of her three state title teams. "But it was nice, I got a lot of notes from the 1995 players (this week). The one was from ('95 standouts) Sarah Wade, Nicole Wade and Marie Schlegel. They sent us chocolate and (the note) said, 'We hope you win, we're ready to share the trophy.'"
Trophy shared, place in history assured.
Lebanon Catholic 55, Juniata Valley 43
Juniata Valley (43)
Reed 2 3-4 9, Taylor 2 2-2 7, Leidy 3 0-0 7, Smith 3 3-4 9, Mattas 4-7 3-3 11, Reed 0 0-0 0, Jefferis 0 0-0 0. Totals: 14 11-13 43.
Lebanon Catholic (55)
Pierre 2 5-7 9, Hill 7 6-8 20, Turner 2 0-0 5, Shellehamer 1 1-2 3, Mars 5 4-7 14, Callihan 0 4-8 4. Totals: 17-40 20-32 55.
Juniata Valley 7 3 11 22 - 43
Lebanon Catholic 13 7 11 24 - 55
3-pointers: JV - Reed 2,Taylor, Leidy, LC - Turner