More than 100 Penn-Trafford students waited patiently at their high school Saturday night for the arrival of the girls basketball team.
They waited until just a few minutes before midnight when the team bus carrying the WPIAL champions returned. No one seemed to mind the hour -- after all, they waited a long time for this.
The Warriors topped section rival Hempfield, 56-45, Saturday night in the WPIAL Class AAAA championship at Palumbo Center. It was the first WPIAL championship in program history.
"It was special and just a great atmosphere," coach John Giannikas said. "It is something I think they will remember for the rest of their lives. I couldn't be happier for our 14 kids. We got so much support from the community. It is a special place and the community deserves this."
Nothing came easy to Penn-Trafford in these WPIAL playoffs. It escaped a scare against Plum in the first round with a 46-43 win. Against an always strong Mt. Lebanon team, Penn-Trafford prevailed, 32-24. And then it won a one-point game against Fox Chapel to advance to the WPIAL final for the first time.
The championship was moved to 9 p.m. to accommodate an overflow crowd expected for the boys Class AAAA game that was moved from 9 p.m. to 7 p.m.
"I think once the game was started, I don't think anyone was thinking of what time it was," Giannikas said. "Even though it was 9 p.m., it didn't feel like it."
While the game started right on time, it took the Warriors a little longer to fully wake up. Penn-Trafford missed eight of its first nine shots and fell behind, 13-2. Hempfield continued to extend its lead, going ahead by as much as 15 late in the third quarter. That's when Penn-Trafford launched one of the greatest comebacks in WPIAL final history. The Warriors ended the game on a remarkable 31-5 run. All the shots that didn't fall early on started falling. They made 16 of 21 from the free-throw line. All the Hempfield shots that were going in early on stopped falling. The Spartans did not have a field goal in the fourth quarter, missing all 11 shots.
"We started making some shots," Giannikas said. "We stuck to man-to-man defense; the kids played it as well as they could have. We started chipping away and we rebounded really well in the second half and that led to some fastbreaks."
Senior guard/forward Maria Palarino led all scorers with 21 points. A Palarino layup with four minutes to play gave Penn-Trafford its first lead of the game, 45-43.
"They are a resilient group," Giannikas said. "When we were down 15, I just told the girls our goal is to cut it to 10 or under by the end of the quarter, we had our run coming. That is what they did, they stayed poised. Once we got it to a six-point game, it was anyone's game."
The Warriors now enter the PIAA playoffs, where they will meet North Allegheny (22-2) at 6 p.m. Friday night at Baldwin in the first round. North Allegheny was the No. 1 seed in the WPIAL playoffs, but lost to Hempfield in the semifinals.
"Winning WPIALs, you get a great reward by having to play North Allegheny on Friday," Giannikas said with a laugh. "The playoffs are just as tough mentally as they are physically, and this is just another mental challenge.
"We have to find a way to block out all the excitement and get ready to play against a really good team. We have been mentally strong all year. I think we will be ready to go."