One game is all that separates neighborhood rivals Mount Lebanon (22-3) and Bethel Park (23-3). It's all that separated them in the AAAA-Sec. 4 girls' basketball standings, and it's all that separated the Blue Devils from a shot at another district crown.
But after living in their shadow for years, the Black Hawks finally saw their own path to glory when Mount Lebanon was upended by Chartiers Valley in the semifinals. Bethel Park held off Penn-Trafford, then suffocated the Colts in an unprecedented 48-34 WPIAL Championship win at the Palumbo Center, setting the stage for a rubber match with Mount Lebanon Friday at 6:00 P.M. in the PIAA Class AAAA First Round at Baldwin High School.
"We have been surrounded by a lot of good competition. This year certainly was no different; I thought we played in the best section in Quad-A this year. To come out of it on top...it's special," Bethel Park head coach Jonna Burke, a Class of '90 alum, said after capturing her first title. "It's something you work for every year.
"We always say our goal is the WPIAL championship. I've been doing this for 18 years, and, this being our first one, we're just excited, because this doesn't happen very often."
It should be an exciting contest, especially if you appreciate defense. The Hawks are led by 5'11" guard Megan Marecic, who averaged 15.5 points per game during the regular season, but 5'6" guard and fellow junior Harper Zimmer was a real catalyst in the team's historic victory, and has been an integral part of that stifling Bethel Park defense.
Zimmer chipped in 11 points against Char' Valley, helping her team establish an early lead it never surrendered. With her strong play in the backcourt, the Colts were unable to get a field goal from any of their starters until there was 3:05 left in the first half. Bethel Park, throughout the postseason, and in eight of its last nine overall, has not allowed its opponent to reach 40 points.
"Harper is our defensive spark plug often. She plays great D, but she's also our fiery leader...the kind of [player] that's always talking in the huddle and saying 'let's go,'" Burke said. "A lot of teams try to key on Megan, and they think if you can take Megan out that [we] might struggle. But I think we've proven we have some other kids that can put the ball in the hoop. It's nice to see some other kids stepping up."
If you appreciate good defense, this is the game for you. Mount Lebanon, going for an amazing fourth state championship in five seasons, and sixth PIAA Final berth in a row, allowed just 37.8 points per game during the regular campaign--just one point more than the Hawks--and it has sliced down that average in tournament victories over Franklin Regional and Fox Chapel.
A 60-54 loss at Bethel Jan. 3 represented the most points allowed by the Blue Devils this season. Lebo got revenge, and got back on its game by routing the Hawks, 49-35, at home Jan. 28.
In that last meeting, Dori Oldaker's Blue Devils bottled up Marecic, and got 11 points from 5'9" senior guard Alex Ventrone, who has been a driving force behind their offense all season, along with ten from 6'1" junior forward Christine Ehland.
Ehland, a veteran of those PIAA championship squads who could challenge Bethel Park's strong man-to-man defense, pumped in 13 points in the losing effort against Char' Valley.
Once upon a time, that was the norm, as Mount Lebanon owned Bethel Park to the tune of 11 straight wins. Once upon a time, Mount Lebanon owned the rest of Quad-A, having posted 15 straight wins overall. Both streaks have vanished. Will its streak of road trips to State College end as well Friday night?
It's bound to come down to which team can stay patient and value possessions the most.
"Our defense has been something that we've relied on, and the kids really believe in it, so I think that helps it. We try to close up the middle, and try not to allow too much penetration," Burke said.
Mount Lebanon enters the state playoffs ranked No. 5 overall in the Commonwealth by MaxPreps, with Bethel Park coming in at No. 18.
Meanwhile, in other girls' action Friday night, new WPIAL Class AA champion Bishop Canevin takes on Westmont Hilltop at North Hills High School, also tipping off at 6:00 P.M., while, at the same time, former two-time champ Seton-LaSalle hosts Kane at North Allegheny High School.
Check back later with Mr. High School Sports as he covers the PIAA Class AAAA Boys' First Round game between reigning district champion--and still, historically, perfect--New Castle and recent two-time WPIAL champ Gateway Saturday, 3:00 P.M., at N.A.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)
for more features.