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Polin clutch as Upper Dublin wins PIAA-6A championship

Upper Dublin celebrates after winning the PIAA-6A championship with a 41-39 victory over Central Bucks South at the Giant Center in Hershey on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Kirk Neidermyer/For Digital First Media)

HERSHEY >> The ball landed in Jess Polin’s hand, the buzzer sounded and then pandemonium.

Central Bucks South’s final shot was off the mark as the Upper Dublin freshman grabbed the rebound, securing victory for the Cardinals then ran into a jubilant celebration just across halfcourt. This time, it ended with a state title.

Upper Dublin survived the Titans with a 41-39 win in the PIAA-6A championship game Tuesday night at Hershey’s Giant Center.

“I’m just so proud of the girls, with the run we just went on, I thought they deserved a special day regardless of what the outcome was going to be,” UD coach Morgan Funsten said. “In all five state playoff games, we were probably the underdog. Next year, maybe we’re the favorite and the games may not be as fun because there’s pressure on. We just tried to enjoy the moment and enjoy the ride.”

Polin again proved clutch, hitting the game-winning free throws with 33.4 left in the game. It came as the end of a back-and-forth thriller that saw both teams trade shot after shot for the entire game.

“Honestly, I didn’t even think about it,” Polin said. “This is a state championship game, I know I can make it. I’m glad I did because we won and it’s so exciting.”

The team that couldn’t win a close game early in the season won it’s fifth straight gut-check contest in a row, capping an improbable run to Hershey and shocking a whole lot of people along the way. On the back of their cherry red shirts, “Heart + Team = Dub”, the rallying cry they adopted on this state title run.

UD’s defense came up with a couple of big stops following Polin’s freebies, but it still took a final miss to hand the Cardinals (27-5) their first state title in the program’s history. While it was the first state title game won by a Cardinals team, it wasn’t UD’s first team state title. Upper Dublin won girls’ track (1979), girls’ swimming (1977, 1993) and boys’ swimming (1993) titles prior to this year. Polin led UD with 17 points, shooting 5-of-6 from the floor. The free throws were the winner, but the guard also buried a three at the halftime horn that sent UD into the break at a 20-20 deadlock.

Upper Dublin celebrates after winning the PIAA-6A girls championship at the Giant Center in Hershey on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Kirk Neidermyer/For Digital First Media)

Polin’s scoring average for the season was about 4.5 points per game. It didn’t matter on Tuesday. When the Cardinals needed a money shot, the Maple Glen resident took the bet and cashed it.

“It was the will to win, I wanted to win for our seniors and for Mr. Funsten and (assistant coaches) Moni and Shi (Newman),” Polin said. “I wasn’t thinking about anything else. I just shot the ball and followed through. We fought, we had so much fight in us, so much heart and we just weren’t going home with a loss.”

The Cardinals got off to a slow start, going down 5-0 and committing a couple of turnovers that they hadn’t been having in several weeks. After the Titans (28-5) built a 9-3 lead with 4:44 left in the opening quarter, UD put the clamps down and rallied back to tie it 9-9 at the first quarter break.

“It’s so rewarding and shows how far we’ve come this year,” senior co-captain Nicole Kaiser said. “We were down seven tonight and if you looked at us earlier in the season, you definitely would have counted us out, I don’t think we would have ever finished a game like this. It was so awesome to see our hard work pay off.”

How much did the game mean to Kaiser and fellow captain Maggie Weglos? Well, Kaiser was supposed to be in the United Kingdom on an exchange program this week and postponed her departure to play for a state title. The senior, who scored seven points to close her career, is leaving Wednesday morning and joked she wouldn’t sleep until she got on the plane.

As for Weglos, she had to wipe away a few tears while waiting for her medal and shared a long embrace from Funsten when she was the last player to have her name read off. The described “heart and soul” of the team, it was her unshakable confidence in her teammates that spurred UD’s eight-game win streak to end the season after a district second round loss.

Weglos didn’t score, but had four rebounds and six assists and navigated through four personal fouls in the fourth quarter.

“I couldn’t just shut it down this deep in the season, I had to shake it off for my team and not make it about myself,” Weglos said. “I shook it off and kept playing.”

Upper Dublin’s Jess Polin and Central Bucks South’s Natalie DiSandro battle for the ball during the PIAA-6A girls championship game at the Giant Center in Hershey on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Kirk Neidermyer/For Digital First Media)

CB South built a 32-25 lead when Haley Meinel scored with 2:54 left in the third quarter. Meinel, who played three quarters on a bad ankle, did all she could to win her last game for her teammates and program. The future Jefferson Ram scored 13 points, had five rebounds, two blocks and three steals.

Junior Alexa Brodie was just as dangerous for South, scoring a game-high 20 points with four steals. The dynamic tandem had all 20 of the team’s first half points.

Trailing by seven, Weglos found Dayna Balasa for a three, Polin scored on a putback and finally, Jackie Vargas found Kaiser in the corner. The senior buried the triple and somehow, the Cardinals were in front.

“I wasn’t expecting Jackie to pass it so when it came to my hands, I was a little surprised,” Kaiser said. “I had a lot of time. I took my time on the shot and it felt good leaving my hands.”

Upper Dublin’s Jackie Vargas goes up for the shot during the PIAA-6A girls championship game at the Giant Center in Hershey on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Kirk Neidermyer/For Digital First Media)

The run turned the game on its head, but also showed Funsten just how tough his team’s resolve really was. He had never questioned it, but to do it in that manner in Hershey, he also realized he hadn’t fully grasped it.

“I told them I knew we had fight in us, but I didn’t know we had this much fight,” Funsten said. “Our body language wasn’t great at 32-25, nothing was going right and all of a sudden, it was like 33-32. With all the fight we have in us, I still didn’t realize we had that much fight in us until that point.”

The season turned around on the leadership of Weglos and Kaiser, but it was the underclassmen who stole the show Tuesday. Polin was money every time it mattered, Balasa hit some huge threes and Vargas added eight points and countless defensive moments that added up.

Win or lose, the Cardinals were determined to make the most of their day in Hershey. The arrived plenty early, ate lunch together and toured Chocolate World. They went to the Giant Center early, occupying some seats to watch the end of Constitution’s win in the 2A boys final then getting their first steps on the arena floor.

“We were kind of mellowed up, just chillin’ and when we got to Chocolate World, our energy and excitement really picked up,” Weglos said. “We realized we worked so hard to get to this position, we have to soak it in, take a breath. The first few minutes of the game, we needed to settle in and from then on we just re-focused, realized it was another game, our last game, so let’s go out and win a state championship. We did that.”

“Mr. Funsten actually encouraged us to do something silly like fall on the court or something,” Kaiser said. “That’s the worst that could happen to you there, so he wanted us to get the nerves out.”

Brodie and Meinel poured out all they had on both ends, as did South’s other seniors — Lindsay Scott, Natalie DiSandro, Maddie McShane and Mackenzie Ehresman. Yet for every big shot they hit, Upper Dublin kept finding an answer.

“It didn’t really even hit me until we got in the locker room like 50 minute before the game that, ‘wow, we’re here,’ it didn’t hit me the past couple practices,” Polin said. “I was ready to work, everyone was ready to work. It’s so crazy to me that we brought home the gold.”

Upper Dublin’s head coach Morgan Funsten gives Maggie Weglos a hug after winning the PIAA 6A girls championship at the Giant Center in Hershey on Tuesday, March 27, 2018. (Kirk Neidermyer/For Digital First Media)

After the final horn, they raced toward each other, the last team standing in Pennsylvania.

“I’m just in shock honestly, every game you’re in that focus and when the buzzer goes off, you almost ask ‘what just happened?’,” Weglos said. “The fact the final horn went off and there was nothing left but us winning states, it was unreal.”

Upper Dublin     9 11 13 8 — 41
Central Bucks South        9 11 12 3 — 39
Upper Dublin: Jess Polin 5 4-4 17, Nicole Kaiser 3 0-1 7, Dayna Balasa 3 0-0 9, Jackie Vargas 4 0-0 8, Maggie Weglos 0 0-0 0, Sarah Eskew 0 0-0 0, Kara Grebe 0 0-0 0. Totals: 15 4-5 41.
Central Bucks South: Alexa Brodie 6 4-4 20, Haley Meinel 5 3-3 13, Maddie McShane 2 0-0 4, Lindsay Scott 0 2-4 2. Nonscoring: Natalie DiSandro, Sofia Sonnet, Caroline McSorley, Mackenzie Ehresman. Totals: 13 9-11 39.
3-pointers: UD-Balasa 3, Polin 3, Kaiser; CBS-Brodie 4.

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