Lebanon Catholic's journey to the state title game
The Lebanon Catholic girls basketball team's 2016-17 season/journey will conclude on Friday at noon at Giant Center, when they take on Juniata Valley in the PIAA Class 1A state championship game.
Like most seasons and journeys, there have been plenty of memorable moments along the way, a good many of them thoroughly enjoyable, a few less so.
But without all of it, the good and the occasional bad, the Beavers wouldn't be where they are today - on the brink of their storied program's third state championship.
Moments after Tuesday's nail-biting semifinal win over Jenkintown, Lebanon Catholic head coach Patti Hower reflected on some of the early struggles as her team struggled a bit to mesh the talents of transfers Alexis Hill and Jasmine Turner with returning starters Neesha Pierre, Celine Mars and Jayden Shellehamer. Adding to the tinkering was the absence of Mariah Sholly, the starting point guard the previous two seasons, due to personal reasons.
But clearly, they figured it out, rolling to both their 19th district title and a berth in the state championship game.
"It took us a while to get the chemistry going on the court," Hower said. "They got along off the court, it wasn't anything like that. But just playing together and learning each other's tendencies. It takes a while. We do a lot of things, so it takes a while for them to pick that up. I'm proud of the way our players have really gelled as a team."
To get ready for Friday's battle for state gold, let's take a quick look back at the parts of the journey that helped the Beavers reach their desired destination.
Dec. 13: Mahanoy Area 44, Lebanon Catholic 29
The Beavers got off to a humbling start against 2A state semifinalist Mahanoy, dropping the season opener by 15 despite a 15-point debut from Hill.
This just in: Things got better. A lot better.
Dec.19: Lebanon Catholic 45, Northern Lebanon 42
Optimism was running high before the season, but this was the first indication something special could be in the works for Lebanon Catholic.
The Beavers not only knocked off the eventual 4A district champs, they did so by overcoming an eight-point early fourth quarter deficit with the help of 15 points from Hill and Neesha Pierre's halfcourt buzzer-beater to end the third quarter.
"It's huge because now we know we can," Hower said. "This is a group that really hasn't been together, hasn't won games together. I think now they realize we're right there with Northern Lebanon and Lancaster Catholic, hopefully."
Dec.30: Donegal 51, Lebanon Catholic 43
This one was a real turning point in Catholic's season. In the championship game of their holiday tournament, the Beavers played listlessly and without purpose in a setback that left Hower fuming.
"We're just a bad team right now. Our last three games we were bad," said a visibly upset Hower. "Fortunately, none of them were league games. We beat ourselves. Alexis played awesome, nobody else did anything. We're just a bad team right now."
Those words got the Beavers' attention, as they won 8 of their next 10 with the only two losses in that stretch narrow defeats to fellow powers Northern Lebanon and Lebanon Catholic.
Jan. 27: Lebanon Catholic 57, Lancaster Mennonite 43
It was a historic, emotional night on Assumption Hill as Catholic gave Hower her 700th career victory with a 14-point win over the Blazers.
Hill erupted for 33 points in the win, and Turner added 10 for Catholic, which improved to 13-5 and stayed in the thick of the Section 3 title race.
Feb.9: Lebanon Catholic 43, Cocalico 42
The Beavers ended up third in Section 3 behind Northern Lebanon and Lancaster Catholic, but still managed to grab a Lancaster-Lebanon League playoff spot. And they proved they belonged by edging Section 2 rep Cocalico in a play-in game.
Hill pumped in 22 points, including the 1,000th of her career, as Catholic earned a quarterfinal matchup with unbeaten Cedar Crest.
Feb. 11: Cedar Crest 63, Lebanon Catholic 54
In front of a packed house at Cedar Crest, the Beavers were unable to stop the eventual L-L champs, but they gave quite a good account of themselves in defeat.
It was a performance that seemed to signal Catholic was primed and ready to defend its district title and perhaps make a state run. And, well, the Beavers haven't lost since.
March 3: Lebanon Catholic 55, Halifax 27
The Beavers cruised to their third straight 1A district title and 19th overall by battering Halifax in the championship game at Giant Center for a second year in a row.
Hill led the way with 16 points and Turner chipped in with 10 in a performance that was so dominant it had Hower thinking her squad was capable of returning to Giant Center for the state final. She was right.
"I felt we had a shot at getting to the final," Hower said. "I felt we were as good as anybody in the East and I would have been a little disappointed had we not made it to the final."