NEW HOLLAND >> The Christian Academy girls put Jason Wilt on the spot this season by asking as often as possible if they were the best team that he’s ever coached.
The answer arrived Saturday, disguised as a 50-33 loss in the school’s first trip to the PIAA Class A quarterfinals at the hands of defending champion Lebanon Catholic.
With 2:29 left in the third quarter, the Crusaders trailed, 38-21, to a program that plays like it can compete several classifications higher. And it looked like it was going to get uglier.
But junior Grace Gormley scored six of her 16 points, and her teammates played in-your-face defense to ignite a 10-0 run that got the Crusaders within seven points on the first of two occasions early in the fourth quarter.
“They have the biggest hearts,” Wilt said with a touch of emotion in his voice. “I’m so proud of the effort today, proud of the effort all season. It’s the furthest we’ve ever been and could be the furthest we’ll ever go. This isn’t a guarantee, to get to the quarterfinals of states. So I’m definitely proud of us doing as well as we did this year.”
Both times that the Crusaders had chances to cut the deficit to five points, they couldn’t. Leaving it all on the floor earned them a place in Wilt’s basketball hall of fame.
“It just wasn’t enough,” Wilt said. “They are tough matchups. We’re outsized at every position, really. It was an uphill climb. We did a good job to make it as ugly as we could and keep it close for as long as we could. It just wasn’t enough.”
On paper, the Crusaders (19-10) weren’t given much of a chance to advance. The entire starting lineup for the Beavers (25-6) is composed of scorers. Good luck trying to stop Neesha Pierre (11 points), Alexis Hill (14), Jasmine Turner (14) and Celine Mars (11) on the same night.
And it’s safe to say that Beavers coach Patti Hower knows when to call timeout. She has over 700 career victories.
The Beavers torched their portion of the bracket, holding one opponent to 16 points. The Crusaders looked at the numbers, looked at each other and made a pact to work as long and as hard as they could to gain respect. And TCA led 4-0 and 5-3 before the Lebanon Catholic started pounding the boards.
“We knew they were really good,” senior guard Lindsay Haseltine said. “Once we knew we could hang with them, like in the first quarter and the second quarter, we just kept on fighting. It was tough. Everyone was putting in a lot of work. Grace was doing really well putting points up and playing great D. Everybody was putting a lot of effort in.”
Everyone watching the game realized the bill would come due. The Beavers were the better team. They spread the floor, found the open player and made their free throws. And the runs that the Crusaders made to stay in contention drained them.
“We got to seven points but we didn’t get any closer and that’s hard on you,” Gormley said. “You try so hard out there, and you don’t get there. But we were all working hard and working together and that’s all we could have done. We gave it all we’ve got. We played with all our heart and worked as a team.”
Haseltine, who scored six points, and Dejah Burley-Chambers, who tallied eight, played their final games for TCA. The same for Hannah Sareyka, another senior leader who didn’t panic under the onslaught of Lebanon Catholic.
It was rough for Gormley to even try to imagine what the future will look like without that cast.
“This team is my family, really,” Gormley said. “It was just a fun season. We grew really close as a unit, and it’s going to sting losing our seniors, Hannah, Lindsay and Dejah. They’re the heart of the team. It’s going to be hard next year.”
Gormley can always tell her new teammates about the legend of mighty Lebanon Catholic, and how the Crusaders got their attention. She can tell them how they put Wilt on the spot when he least expected it.
Coach’s best team ever?
“Oh, always,” Gormley said. “We’re always asking him that. Actually, he says yes. So, we’re all like, ‘we’ve got to work extra hard to prove him right.’”
Haseltine thinks the Crusaders can make a pretty good case for being a great team with their first two PIAA tournament wins. But that’s not what she’ll remember most.
“I think it’s that as a team we really came together,” Haseltine said. “And the huge thing is, we’re all playing for the same reason. We’re all trying to glorify God. If we’re all playing for that, and we’re playing for each other we’ll uplift each other.
“We’ll give it everything we’ve got.”
That’s a dream team, at least in the eyes of Wilt.
“Just resiliency and just stuff that’s not really measurable on a stat sheet,” Wilt said. “That’s what I think this team is the best at.”
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