Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Lancaster Catholic Completes Its Mission to Win a State Championship

Almost 50 years to the day, the Crusaders of Lancaster Catholic won the school’s first ever PIAA girls’ basketball state championship when it beat Baldwin High by 43 points to leave Pennsylvanians little doubt as to who was the best team in the state.

Much like that 1974 team, the 2024 Crusaders were on a mission to not be denied a state championship victory in Hershey at the Giant Center against Westmont Hilltop on Thursday, March 21. Denied this team would not be, as the Crusaders cruised to a 55-39 convincing victory that led nobody doubting who the best team in Class 3A girls basketball was.

The mission began last March, when the Crusaders were upset in the state semifinal game to the Dunmore Bears. That loss did not sit well with a senior class, whose goal it has been to win a state championship since they were freshmen. Point guard Mary Bolesky and forward Rylee Kraft dropped 22 points each to lead the Crusaders offensively, but it was their tenacious man-to-man defense that won this game against the District 6 Hilltoppers from Johnstown, whose 6-foot, very athletic Christiana Gordon has been scoring at will as they stormed through the PIAA western bracket enroute to Hershey’s state final. But Kraft held the star to nine points, 0-9 from beyond the three-point arc and forced her into coughing up 12 turnovers, which was a key to Catholic’s dominant win.

Yet, it was Bolesky, at only 5”4’, whose defensive grit and relentless pressure helped cause the Hilltoppers to commit 28 turnovers. Lancaster Catholic, for the past 50 years, beats teams with great defense which creates turnover-fueled transition offensive that comes at teams relentlessly like ocean waves rolling onto the beach. You do not get a break when you lace up the sneakers against Lancaster Catholic.

Lancaster Catholic buried its first three three-pointers to build a 9-4 lead mid-way through the first quarter, and the Hilltoppers trailed the entire game as the Crusaders continued their patented full-court press and up-tempo attacking offense that gave Westmont little hope of climbing back.

But the Crusaders did not play their best, especially so in the first half. They did not handle the basketball well, turning it over 17 times, and got into foul trouble in the second quarter, forcing head coach Charlie Detz to go to his bench. That ability too was a difference maker, as Catholic’s depth was another deciding factor as the Hilltoppers had only five strong.

“We have been preaching all year that you never know when your number is going to be called to contribute in a big game,” Detz said afterwards, with a bright gold medal around his neck. “Some of our players may not play for several games in a row, but they always come to practice and work, prepare and today it really paid off. I am super proud of our bench because our depth helped us win.”

Fifty years ago, the girls who won that state championship pinned the initials “IBD” on their school uniform sweaters as they made their memorable winning run. Intense, burning desire was their acronym motto, and this 2024 team echoed that competitive creed every bit and more. This state championship marks the school’s fifth in girls’ basketball history, proving the remarkable winning tradition that has been passed down this half century. The back of the 2024 Crusaders warm up shirts simply state: Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together. This great basketball team will be remembered for many years for fulfilling this motto too, and accomplishing a mission begun when they were just freshmen.

“We were very hungry for this, to get this done, and it shows how hard we worked to win this,” Kraft said after the game. “We just stayed calm and were together focused on our mission.”

The team’s spark plug, Bolesky, might have proven that actions always speak louder than words when, with 1:16 left in the game and the Crusaders up 14 to a defeated Hilltopper team, a loose ball came free on the floor. Diving headfirst on the floor, the dynamo came up with the loose ball and, with her signature no-fear style, drove hard to the basket to score and draw the foul. It was a telling moment. Most of all it was visual proof of the kind of basketball that has been played by the purple and gold for 50 years. That they have five state gold trophies to show for it, nobody should doubt why.

“It was just so motivating to do better, having lost last year,” Bolesky said. “And that was a blessing…, and it was a blessing to be able to play here and be here tonight.”

There was no “almost” this season for Pennsylvania’s best Crusaders.

(State finals photos by Carl Minieri; semifinals photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)

By Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness

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