Crusaderettes advance to state championship

JOE ALBRIGHT The Marietta Times Parkersburg Catholic's Paige Stotts (2) guards Trinity's Leighton Croft (40) during the Crusaderettes' 51-39 W.Va. Class A state semifinal win over the Warriors Friday in Charleston, W.Va. Catholic plays Huntington St. Joe in the state championship game at noon Saturday.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Parkersburg Catholic had to solve one big 5-foot-4 problem in order to advance to its first state championship game since 2007.

Crusaderettes head coach Marty Vierheller and assistant Tom Carr’s ability to cripple Trinity’s main offensive weapon in Reagan Sharp proved critical.

Sharp already burned Catholic for 21 points during the Crusaderettes’ lone regular-season loss. In addition, she entered the state semifinal matchup on fire after a 40-point performance in her team’s quarterfinal win over Magnolia on Wednesday.

Leslie Huffman proved more than capable of taking the fight out of the Warriors’ offensive game. Catholic’s freshman defender stuck like velcro to sharp as she scored just 10 points on 5 of 18 shooting. The performance left older sister Madeline speechless when asked to talk about the performance.

“I am not usually one to complement her,” she said with a chuckle.

“But I will hand it to her. I think she really stepped it up. She really has bought into what this program is about. We needed this performance.”

Preparation time was limited to before the game. Coach Vierheller informed her of her assignment in the locker room shortly before tip.

“We watched film and I got the feeling I could not let her turn the corner and get open shots. That killed us in the first matchup,” said Leslie Huffman. “I knew it just couldn’t happen today if we would reach our goal.”

Leslie’s effort came in a much larger defensive effort as Catholic earned the right to play for a title for the first time in 12 years after the 51-39 win. PC’s intense defensive pressure forced 26 turnovers and forced Trinity into a 16 of 57 shooting performance (28.1 percent).

“Catholic’s pressure just really got to us. We just got to ourselves,” said Trinity head coach Mike Baldy. “It just seemed like when we started to chip away, the pass was flying over someone’s head or into the hands of a Parkersburg Catholic player.”

Missing second solid ball-handler Paige Dixon due to concussion symptoms hampered the Warriors’ effort even more.

Trinity’s hope for the same 7-2 beginning advantage from December never materialized, though the Warriors scored three of the first five points. Madeline Huffman and Aaliyah Brunny scored six of the next eight points as Catholic jumped out to a 10-3 lead.

Trinity then went scoreless for the next 6:46 until Sharp’s deuce with 16 seconds left in the first ended the drought. Huffman added one more bucket for a 12-5 Catholic advantage after one period.

Rachel Rosen’s short jumper at 4:48 drew the Warriors within a point in the second quarter as the Crusaderettes went cold from the field.

Catholic then found some shooting touch.

Madeline Huffman’s 3-point goal kicked off a 7-1 run. The Warriors managed a response on a pair of free throw makes from Jaclyn Smith and another Rosen jumper as Baldy’s crew trailed 24-18 at halftime.

Sharp scored just four points in the opening half.

Rosen stepped up the entire game with a 12-point, 14-rebound, six-block effort. She fared far better against Catholic’s smaller players than against Magnolia’s Mady Winters in the first-round matchup. The senior used Wednesday as a motivator Friday morning.

“Yeah maybe a little bit,” said Rosen about her tough day in the quarterfinals. “I also knew I would have a really good advantage there. I first went in and tried to play my best. And knew it would get better for me.”

Trinity’s ability to rebound kept them in the game much of the first three quarters. Overall, the Warriors outrebounded their opponents 51-39.

Though his team’s season ended two steps shy of the ultimate goal, Baldy celebrated his team’s effort. “I took over a program that was falling apart and wasn’t going to have a team,” said Baldy. “Reagan and I literally had to talk girls into playing. It is a group that has come a long way and we have done it with a tight knit community. It is really rewarding to see them achieve so much.”

Catholic received an unexpected boost from down low as well. Emma Gardner went from zero points against Summers County to 15 markers against the Warriors. She led the team in scoring and her voice greatly impacted both sides of the ball.

“Without Emma I don’t think we would be able to function,” said Brunny. “Her communication skills are crazy good.”

Brunny’s jumper with 3:30 left in the third quarter established a lead which never fell below double digits again. Catholic’s lanky sophomore continued a solid tournament run. She finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and seven steals.

Huntington St. Joe awaits in the championship game at noon today. The Irish knocked out defending state champion Wheeling Central, 75-45, Friday afternoon.

“This is a very special moment for Crusader nation,” said Vierheller on the opportunity. “I would be cheating my girls if I came across as making it to Saturday was good enough. It won’t do with this group.”