West Xtra: Cougars still have goals to meet

GIRLS CLASS AAA

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An outright section title, a shared section title, 51 wins, two trips to the WPIAL semifinals and a trip to the PIAA semifinals, that adds up to a very successful high school basketball career.

But for Bridgette Shaffer, Chassidy Omogrosso and Courtney Vannoy, it simply marks the halfway point of their high school basketball careers.

This trio of sophomores started a year ago as freshmen when the Cougars finished 24-5 and shared the Class AAA Section 2 crown with Hopewell.

They were starters again this season as sophomores and the Cougars finished 27-2 and won the Class AAA Section 2 title outright. But for all the success the young Blackhawk team has had, there has been plenty of close calls and what-ifs.

Two years in a row it was one game away from the A.J. Palumbo Center and a chance to play for the WPIAL Class AAA title. Blackhawk lost to South Park by seven points last year in the WPIAL semifinals and after earning the top seed in this season's WPIAL tournament, the Cougars were stunned by Elizabeth Forward in the WPIAL semifinals.

Last year Blackhawk lost, 35-34, to Chartiers Valley in the PIAA quarterfinals and on Tuesday night its season came to an end when it could not hold onto a 14-point lead in the PIAA semifinals and lost, 63-59, to South Park.

For all the success this group has enjoyed, there was plenty of disappointment in falling one game shy of the PIAA final, especially for the lone senior starter on the team, Alexis Graham.

Graham was one of the top scorers on the team and a team leader. She scored 16 points in a 78-52 win over Lancaster Catholic that got Blackhawk into the PIAA semifinals.

With all five starters back this season, including Graham, Blackhawk was the Post-Gazette preseason No. 1-ranked team in Class AAA. The Cougars lived up to the hype, finishing the regular season 22-0, the only WPIAL team to enter the playoffs unbeaten.

The Cougars got past West Mifflin and Belle Vernon in the first round and quarterfinals by 21 and 25 points, respectively.

But in the WPIAL semifinals, the Cougars started slow and could never recover. They fell behind Elizabeth Forward, 10-2, and trailed 19-10 after the first quarter. They were down 39-29 at halftime and down by as many as 17 in the third quarter.

Omogrosso, though just a sophomore is already a University of Pittsburgh recruit and one of the top talents in the WPIAL, was held to 16 points, below her season average of 22 points.

Blackhawk was not about to let that upset loss define its season.

The Cougars had 10 days to prepare for the PIAA playoffs.

"If was a very long time," Blackhawk coach Steve Lodovico said. "When you have to wait 10 days after a loss, you want to bounce back and just a play a good game. The girls did a good job of focusing."

Blackhawk was a team on a mission in the PIAA playoffs. It defeated District 9 champion Bradford by 40 points, District 6 champion Forest Hills by 30 points and District 3 Lancaster Catholic by 26 points.

"Any time you lose a game it is hard," Lodovico said. "Especially with the first one coming in the WPIAL semifinals. But it was good for us, it woke us up."

Junior guard Halle Denman was one of the top players in the playoffs. With Omogrosso scoring more than 20 points per game and averaging eight assists in the playoffs, Denman was adding another 20 per game while being one of the top defenders on the team.

With three sophomore starters along with Graham and Denman, Blackhawk was one of the youngest teams in the WPIAL but the Cougars were far from inexperienced, especially when it came to the postseason.

"They were very calm," Lodovico said. "With so many young kids, they don't get nervous, they don't get rattled. They are a very confident group of kids."

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