Girls basketball

John Knebels
Sports Columnist


That was the word that Stephanie Keyes used to illustrate Archbishop Wood’s 2010-11 basketball season.

“After we won the Catholic League championship, we put up another number on a banner that had been hanging there since 1982,” Keyes said. “When we put up the banner for winning states last year, that was amazing. Now this.” {{more}}

“This” was the final exclamation point on a season that had included a stunning, last-second, 33-31 victory over nemesis Archbishop Carroll in the Catholic League final; a District 12 championship; and, thanks to a closer-than-it-appears 53-41 triumph over Erie’s Mercyhurst Prep Saturday in University Park, a second consecutive PIAA Class AAA state title.

When the season began, many people doubted that Wood (27-4) could accomplish such a feat, and for good reason – it had never been done before.

“People kept telling us that it was impossible to do this,” said senior Caitlin McCartney. “But we went out and did it anyway. It’s so awesome. Everything about this team, especially over the past two years, has been awesome.”

McCartney was one of several key starters returning from last year. Early on, even though they were defending state champs, most of Wood’s seniors stated that as fun and exciting as was being deemed the best in the state at the Class AAA level, what they really wanted most was to win a Catholic League championship. Three of the past four years had ended with losses to Carroll in the CL’s premier contest.

So when junior Taylor Kaminski dropped in a game-winning layup with two seconds left to give Wood the elusive Catholic League title for the first time since 1982 on Feb. 28 at the Palestra, all of the demons had been exorcised.

But a funny thing happened after Wood finally prevailed in the CL championship. The Vikings never lost their hunger. Instead, they became even hungrier.

Fifth-year head coach Jim Ricci wasn’t a bit surprised.

“We have a special group, especially our seniors,” Ricci said. “There may not be a spanision 1 player in the mix, but they have spanision 1 hearts. They go out and win. That’s what they do. These girls are winners.”

That would be impossible to argue.

Matching up against a Mercyhurst team that entered the game 27-1 and has an exceptional reputation on its own, the Vikings fell behind early and actually trailed by seven points in the second quarter before forging a 24-24 tie. Entering the fourth quarter, Wood trailed 33-32.

The Vikings responded with arguably their best stretch of basketball in two years, which is really saying something profound for a team that has amassed a sterling 53-9 record over the past two seasons.

Combining a fluid offense with a tenacious defense, the Vikings suddenly dominated their stunned foes. By the time Mercyhurst (27-2) called two timeouts, Wood led by 12 points. The look on the Vikings’ faces was markedly different than it had been just minutes earlier.

“Before the fourth quarter, we looked at each other and said, ‘Come on. This is our last game together. Let’s make it special,'” McCartney said. “There was no doubt in my mind that we would come out and win the game.”

Offensively, the Vikings were carried by Keyes (13 points, including a trio of three-point field goals; four rebounds), Christine Verrelle (16 points, including a perfect 10 for 10 from the foul line, eight in the pivotal fourth stanza; six rebounds, four assists and four steals) and Tori Arnao (10 points, 12 rebounds). McCartney contributed an all-around effort highlighted by nine points and a pivotal blocked shot early in the fourth quarter.

Among others, Jenna Swope and Aubrey Howland (eight rebounds, two blocks) annoyed Mercyhurst with aggressive defense to the tune of only five baskets in the second half. The Vikings forced the Lakers into 17 turnovers, 11 in the second half.

Keyes was asked to add another descriptive word to summarize the Vikings’ season.

“Our coach has been saying something all year,” Keyes said. “He says since this is going to go down in history, this is legendary.”

Indescribably legendary. Not too shabby.

Pursuing its second AAAA state title in three years, Archbishop Carroll lost a heartbreaking 47-46 decision to Mount Lebanon March 25 at Penn State University.

Trailing by nine points in the third quarter, the Patriots (23-8) meticulously fought back and actually had a chance to win the game with a shot in the closing seconds, but it wasn’t to be.

Carroll was led by Mount St. Mary’s University-bound Jen Carney, who notched 17 points, and scoring from six other players, including nine by Emily Fazzini, whose three-point field goal midway through the second gave Carroll its last lead of the contest at 17-16.

John Knebels can be reached at