South Xtra: Championship feeling returns for Seton-LaSalle girls

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Since the final horn of the WPIAL championship game a year ago, there has been a noticeable drive among the players on the Seton-LaSalle girls basketball team.

That drive, stemming from the disappointment of an upset loss to section rival Bishop Canevin in 2013, brought the Rebels all the way back to Palumbo Center this season.

And on Friday, when the final horn sounded after the WPIAL Class AA title game, there was no disappointment, but instead celebration as Seton-LaSalle topped previously unbeaten Burrell, 55-34, to capture its third WPIAL title in four years.

"Losing last year was a huge driving force and that is something that has helped us all year," coach Spencer Stefko said.

Stefko was not at Seton-LaSalle last year, but he could relate. He led Chartiers Valley to the WPIAL Class AAAA final only to come away with a silver medal. But that situation was different; the Colts were the underdog. They finished third in their section and it was the first WPIAL final appearance in Chartiers Valley history.

Seton-LaSalle was a heavy favorite last year and making its sixth consecutive WPIAL championship appearance. The Rebels won their section title, defeating Bishop Canevin twice in the process along with every other WPIAL team they faced. But in that third meeting against Bishop Canevin, the Rebels stumbled.

"Considering what happened last year, we had a ton of energy," said Cassidy Walsh, a 5-foot-7 junior guard and team captain. "Having the experience last year, you don't want that again. That was always in our mind and why we kept pushing."

With three Pitt recruits on the team -- Walsh, 6-0 senior guard/forward Naje Gibson and 5-10 senior guard Yacine Diop -- sometimes the Rebels would be able to get past a lesser opponent without playing their best game and just relying on overall talent.

"When we would maybe do something wrong and things would still work out right, I told them, that is not going to work against Canevin, that is not going to work against Burrell," Stefko said.

Against Burrell Friday, everything was working.

The Rebels used pressure defense to force 24 turnovers and hold Burrell to 34 points, its lowest total of the season. Diop, playing in her first WPIAL final after being ruled ineligible last season after transferring, shined brightest on the big stage, scoring 15 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Shaunay Edmonds, a 5-0 sophomore guard, added 15 points.

Stefko is Seton-LaSalle's third head coach in as many years.

"There have definitely been transitions," Walsh said. "Every coach is different, their philosophies are always different."

The one constant has been winning. The Rebels are now 79-7 the past three seasons.

Now they will try to add to that win total in the PIAA Class AA playoffs. They will play Blairsville, the third-place team out of District 6, Friday night at Stefko's old stomping ground, Chartiers Valley. Stefko still teaches at the school.

"[Winning the WPIAL championship] was a heck of an experience," he said. "The challenge now is not to make it feel like a culmination of a season but to get focused on the next run that we hope to make.

"With all the television and radio interviews and medals ceremonies and celebration, it creates its own set of challenges, but it is a problem a lot of teams would like to have."

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