The Cardinal O’Hara girls basketball team has already made history. Now they’re looking to make some more.
The Hawks became the first team in 43 years of Cardinal O’Hara girls basketball to win the Monsignor Martin Association championship. Then O’Hara became the first Monsignor Martin Association team to win the New York State Catholic High School Athletic Association Class A girls title when it won two games downstate two weekends ago.
This weekend, O’Hara heads to the Federation Tournament of Champions in Albany, where it will try to become the first Western New York girls team to win an overall state title since 1997.
The Federation tournament determines a true overall state champion as it includes the champions from the state’s public, Catholic and independent associations as well as New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League.
Five local girls schools have won Federation championships, with only one of those coming in a large-school division. Holy Angels won the Class B title in 1997 when there were only four state-wide classes (A, B, C and D).
“It’s certainly something we’ve talked about at the last couple of days at practice,” O’Hara coach Dan McDermott said of the challenge of joining that short list of champions. “We need to be as totally prepared to have a chance for this to happen, to perform at the highest level to come out of this weekend the way we want – which would be groundbreaking. There’s a lot at stake.”
O’Hara’s opponent in Friday’s semifinal is Section V (Rochester area) champion Pittsford-Sutherland (24-1), which routed Williamsville South, 58-36, in the Far West Regionals before winning two games to claim the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Class A championship in Troy.
O’Hara was able to watch Pitt-Sutherland’s 57-41 NYSPHSAA championship victory over Section III (Syracuse area) winner Jamesville-Dewitt because the game was televised on Time Warner Cable.
“We watched on TV — we all watched from different houses and got a first-hand look,” said McDermott, whose team was upgraded to large-school Class A status after winning the NYSCHSAA Class B title the last two years and responded by holding the No. 1 spot in The News large school poll all season long. “We were all very impressed. Obviously to make it to where they are, and with only one loss, they are obviously a very good team. In a lot of ways they are very similar to us – a couple of really good players on the perimeter, a really good post player, and they play really good man-to-man defense. We know that we definitely have our hands full.”
Sutherland is led by senior 5-11 guard Liz Greendyke, who has scored more than 1,200 points, while 6-1 junior Santita Ebangwese is strong in the post. Senior 5-10 forward Abby Judd is a top rebounder and the daughter of Knights coach Dan Judd.
Sutherland’s only loss was to Webster Thomas, 51-45, on Feb. 4. All three of Cardinal O’Hara’s losses are to out-of-area teams, with two to Section V Class AA powers Penfield and eventual Section V champion Gates-Chili (which beat Jamestown to advance to the state semifinals, where it lost to eventual NYSPHSAA champion Ossining). Sutherland played a handful of Section V Class AA teams, including Thomas, but it and O’Hara had no common opponents.
O’Hara’s starting lineup includes Monsignor Martin all-time leading scorer Jontay Walton (2,010 career points), who committed to Division I UMass-Lowell last week, as well as fellow senior and returning first-team All-Western New Yorker Keyonte Edwards (1,113 career points) and senior center Kelsey McCarthy (1,031).
In the CHSAA tournament in New York City, O’Hara scored a 72-55 semifinal victory over a Cardinal Spellman team which included 6-2 University of Michigan signee Maria Backman (O’Hara held her to seven points). In the final, O’Hara grinded out a 62-59 victory over Kellenberg, which included 6-2 Saint Joseph’s signee Candace Belvedere. Edwards had 10 of her 15 points against Kellenberg in the fourth quarter while McCarthy came back from an ankle injury early on to score 10 of her 12 in the second half. McDermott also credited senior Jailyn Dickson and freshman Anndea Zeigler for their defense downstate as well as the shooting of freshman Cori Dickson (27 points and five three-pointers in the two games), which was critical as Aisha Shabazz was unable to make the trip.
“We’re just looking at it like kind of another step in the ladder,” said McDermott. “It’s just a credit to the work ethic that the girls have shown the last couple of years. They’re an unbelievable group of girls, always stepping up when needed and putting work and time and effort and sweat in … it’s a talented group, but they’ve worked very hard to achieve what they have achieved. It’s an honor and privilege to be their coach. We’re just going to go out there and try and play our game and let the chips fall where they may.”
Mercy returns to Fed
Mount Mercy will also head to Albany in Class B after winning one game to claim its first CHSAA title since 2009.
On that team, current head coach John Glose was an assistant while current assistant Melissa Graham was a senior (she later starred at Geneseo).
“We feel good, we’re working very hard to get better every day, which has been our goal all year,” said Glose, whose Magic will take on state independent representative Staten Island Academy at 11:45 a.m. Saturday. “Our girls love to compete and they’er not intimidated or scared of anybody. If we go out and compete and work our butts off and I’ll be happy.”
Around the Federation
• There can be somewhat of a letdown for NYSPHSAA champions at the Federation tournament. I’ve seen it several times, including with McKinley last year — the Macks played excellent basketball to win the Class A championship before sizable crowds in Glens Falls, then did not play as well in a Federation semifinal with a much different atmosphere. Pitt-Sutherland, for example, will go from playing before big crowds in Troy to a 10 a.m. Friday game against O’Hara played before likely a couple hundred people in a largely empty Times-Union Center.
• The schedule for the Class A girls bracket received double-takes by many, including me. The winner of the first game of the weekend event at 10 a.m. Friday will advance to a championship game at noon on Sunday. Unfortunately for Friday’s winner, they will have to wait two days (and their school will have to pay for an extra night of hotel rooms) to play in Sunday’s final, where PSAL champion Martin Luther King is waiting. Because the state’s independent association did not field a Class A team, the PSAL champion received a bye to the final.
• Aside from Holy Angels’ 1997 crown, all of the other Federation titles won by Western New York schools came in small-school divisions: Nichols (Class D in 1997 as a member of the Alliance of Independence Schools), Sacred Heart (D in 1992), Holy Angels (C in 1991) and Salamanca (C in 1998). There was a four-class CHSAA – and Federation – format until the Federation rightly went to three classes (AA, A and B) in 2004.
• There have been 15 Federation champions from Western New York on the boys side, with only five coming in large-school divisions: Nichols (A in 2010), Niagara Falls (AA in 2005), Turner-Carroll (B in 1999), La Salle (B in 1998) and Bennett (B in 1984).
• The News will have gameday capsule Federation previews for Cardinal O’Hara (Friday) and Mount Mercy (Saturday).