When the season began, most Western Pennsylvania high school basketball observers figured Beaver Falls didn't have a prayer of returning to the PIAA championship game for the second year in a row.
Well, the Tigers went on not only to reach the Class AA state final, but to win the title.
Coincidentally, the championship win came against a school named Holy Cross.
Beaver Falls won its fourth PIAA championship by defeating Holy Cross, 69-63, in the Class AA final Saturday at Giant Center in Hershey.
The Tigers, who finished 28-3, had heard plenty of reasons why they wouldn't have this kind of success this season. Among them was a lack of experience.
The Tigers had lost six of their top eight players from last year's team. One of them was Post-Gazette Player of the Year Sheldon Jeter. And then there was the size issue. The team's tallest player was 6-foot-3.
"We just tried to prove everybody wrong," senior guard Drew Cook said.
It wouldn't be all that wrong to call this a group of overachievers. Beaver Falls was far from flashy and didn't have any so-called superstars. But what the Tigers lacked in stardom, they made up for with excellent defense and scrappiness. More than anything, this team just flat-out played hard and gave maximum effort.
"I never had a team that got after it defensively at all five positions like this team does," Beaver Falls coach Doug Biega said. "There are no weak spots on defense. All five are harassing and they are getting in your face. And we can all shoot the ball. That's something that we didn't have last year."
A year earlier, Beaver Falls was edged by two points in overtime in the PIAA championship game. This season, the Tigers did something they didn't do in that previous final -- finish strong.
The outcome at one time appeared bleak for Beaver Falls, which trailed District 2 champion Holy Cross, 48-38, late in the third quarter. But the Tigers never gave up ... or let up.
The Tigers overcame a four-point deficit midway through the third quarter to defeat West Middlesex in the semifinals, and rallied once again against Holy Cross (27-6), a school from Dunmore, a Scranton suburb, formed in 2007 by the merger of Bishop O'Hara and Bishop Hannan high schools.
"It's just our team and identity to keep fighting back," Cook said.
Beaver Falls began its comeback when junior forward Danny Stratton made a 3-pointer with 1:46 left in the third quarter to make the score 48-41. That basket foreshadowed what would take place in the fourth quarter.
"At the end of the third quarter we just came out and turned it up even though we were down 10," junior guard Elijah Cottrill said. "We knew we had to come back and do it for the hometown."
The Tigers made their hometown proud by going on an 8-2 run to begin the fourth quarter, which gave them their first lead, 51-50, with 5:09 left.
After some back-and-forth action between the teams, Beaver Falls took the lead for good on Stratton's 3-pointer with 3:23 left. The Tigers outscored Holy Cross, 28-15, in the fourth quarter.
Five players scored at least nine points for Beaver Falls: Cook (15), Stratton (14), senior guard Micoy Mason (14), Cottrill (12) and sophomore guard Javon Turner (9).
It was the fourth PIAA title for Beaver Falls. The Tigers' most recent previously was in 2005.
Cottrill (16.3 points per game) and Cook (15.8) finished as the top two scorers for Beaver Falls this season and formed one of the best guard duos in the WPIAL. Cottrill, a Division I prospect, will be back next season, but losing Cook, a four-year starter, will be tough.
"It's seems like Drew and I have both been at Beaver Falls for 14 years," Biega said. "His demeanor is unflappable, which is huge in games like this. Cottrill's is, too. And, truthfully, so is this team's."
Senior guards Zach Miller and Cadee Akins also played key roles for the Tigers, who won the WPIAL championship for the second season in a row and closed the season with 18 consecutive victories.
First Published March 28, 2013 4:00 AM