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To Go Where No North Clarion Girls’ Basketball Team Had Ever Gone Before: The Story of the 2017 She-Wolves
FRILLS CORNERS, Pa. (D9Sports) – For a month from Fryburg to Leeper, from Marble to Tylersburg from the County Line Market to the Antlers Club all anyone in the North Clarion School District wanted to talk about was the girls’ basketball team.
(Click on video above for a sit-down conversation with the five starters of the 2017 North Clarin girls’ basketball team)
And for good reason.
The 2017 She-Wolves went on a journey no North Clarion girls’ basketball team has ever been on.
From winning their second straight KSAC North title to a freshman hitting the shot heard around the KSAC to bring home the school’s first-ever conference title to the celebration after winning the school’s first girls’ district title to 20-0 vs. Sewickley Academy and a 20-point second-half lead on Cornell, heck even going from down 23 with 13 minutes to play to getting with seven nine minutes later against Bishop Carroll this group of 17 players captured the hearts, minds and spirits of the school next to the corn field like none ever has before.
There is only one team, one group of players and coaches that can be the first to do something. And this group is it at North Clarion. This group will go down in history as the group that made history. The group that took the road no one has ever taken at the school before.
“I was telling Michaela (Higgins) right after the (Bishop Carroll loss that ended North Clarion’s season), it was terrible the way it ended but we have to think about the positive, look at everything we accomplished,” senior forward Cassie Wagner said. “We accomplished almost every single thing we wanted to do this year except a state championship game. That is something to be so proud of.”
Don’t let anyone fool you, this team knew it was making school history.
“(There so many moments) winning the KSAC, winning District 9 even winning the game against Cornell (in the second round of the PIAA playoffs),” junior Tori Obenrader said. “Everyone was like you guys got so excited, it’s like you won the state championship. We were like we went the farthest anyone has ever gone.”
It was a tight-knit team built on a team chemistry that was hard to describe.
“We are all close,” Obenrader said.
“We don’t fight,” freshman Abby Gatesman added.
“We always joke that there is no drama on this team,” Higgins the senior point guard chimed in. “We always say no boyfriends during basketball. They bring drama.”
That chemistry was evident throughout the season but maybe none more so than before the second-round playoff game against Cornell, a 68-58 win at Slippery Rock University’s Morrow Field House that saw the She-Wolves go up 20 midway through the third quarter.
Prior to the game, even before starting warm-ups, the team was on the court joking with each other and the assembled media with Higgins even handing out autographs.
“I was pretty sure I was showing Abby how to throw the shot put,” Obenrader said.
“It’s a way to shake the nerves,” Higgins said about the team’s playfulness.
Don’t think the team was loose just because it believed it had nothing to lose because there were high expectations for this group coming into the year.
In 2016, North Clarion won the KSAC North, the first division/conference championship in school history, but fell short of its goals of winning the KSAC title – falling to Karns City in the title game – or the D9 title – losing to Elk County Catholic in the semifinals. Despite a 22-5 record, the team believed it could have done better.
“That (losing to ECC in the semifinals) was definitely a lot of motivation for us,” Wagner said. “It really hurt when we worked our butts off to get there and have that suddenly happen. We knew we could have won that game. It was just a disappointment when we didn’t. We just wanted to work harder and go farther this year.”
The team knew it had the potential to be District 9 champions, but it also knew it would have to replace three of the top five scorers from a year ago including leading scorer Abbie Schmader, who averaged 17.9 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
“I knew I was going to have to work my butt off and try to really support the team as much as I could,” senior Ally Carll, who stepped into a starting role this year after playing in 23 games as a junior scoring 59 points before averaging 5.2 ppg this year, said.
Carll was one of five key role players for the She-Wolves that surrounded and supported Obenrader, arguably one of the top Class 1A girls’ basketball players in the entire state.
Obenrader, who averaged a double-double of 16.4 points and 16.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore, took her game to another level this year leading District 9 in scoring at 23.5 points per game while adding 15.8 rebounds per game and recording a double-double in 28 of her 29 games. She was even better in the postseason scoring 26.5 points per game to go with 15.9 rebounds per contest.
“Coach (Terry Dreihaup) always yells at me at practice because I stand out at the 3-point line and just watch (Tori) drive,” Gatesman said.
Higgins, who averaged 6.9 ppg this year up from 3.2 as a junior, echoed those sentiments.
“He yells at us for that,” Higgins said. “He says you can’t just stand there and watch Tori.”
And they didn’t stand there and watch Tori partly because Obenrader wouldn’t let them.
“You just learn so much from her and the way she plays,” Wagner, who also saw her scoring average go up from 5.5 ppg as a junior to 8.3 as a senior, said. “She is not just a leading scorer, she also hands out multiple assists a game. She just makes all of us better. That is something that anyone who watches her play can learn from.”
With Obenrader leading the way and all the returning players raising their level of play, North Clarion’s success seemed destined and was only helped with the addition of Gatesman, who, to no one’s surprise, moved right into the starting lineup as a freshman and scored 5.7 ppg while hitting the game-winning shot with 7.3 seconds left in the KSAC Title game to beat Moniteau.
“We were calling it that she was going to start this year in summer league and practice during the summer,” Wagner said. “This little freshman is going to start.”
Like any championship run, this season at its key moments both good and bad for the She-Wolves.
During the regular season, the good included a 49-47 double overtime win over Keystone Dec. 22 at North Clarion, the second time the teams had gone to double overtime in less than a year. Senior Lindsay Zacherl was the hero that night hitting the game-winning layup as time expired in double overtime.
There was also a 41-36 win over Karns City, the eventual D9 Class 3A champion, Jan. 11 that kept the She-Wolves perfect at 11-0 (they went 12-0 before losing) and the night Obenrader scored her 1,000th career point at Keystone Jan. 13 on a night where her mom, Terri, was the acting head coach because Dreihaup was sick.
There were also some down moments, especially the two-game losing streak that followed the win at Keystone were Obenrader scored her 1,000th point.
Moniteau ended North Clarion’s perfect season beating the She-Wolves 52-47 at North Clarion in a game that Obenrader played despite being so sick she needed an IV after the game.
But as hard as that loss was to take, the one two days later at A-C Valley might have been harder.
Trailing by three late, Obenrader, who scored 41 points on the night, hit a big time 3-pointer that appeared to send the game to overtime. But with time winding down, A-C Valley’s Olivia Boocks pushed the ball up court and was fouled (or wasn’t depending on your perspective) by Gatesman as time ran out. Boocks hit the first of what could have been three free throws to give the Lady Falcons the upset win.
Gatesman, understandably, was upset following the loss and went into a bit of a funk. But showing her true grit and determination pulled herself out of it starting with the KSAC-winning shot against Moniteau, and she averaged 8.3 points per game over her final four postseason contests to help the She-Wolves make their quarterfinal run.
“I think the way (the A-C Valley) game ended, Abby might have los some confidence there for a little bit,” Obenrader said. “But, once she was able to make that winning shot for us in the KSAC game, that really regained her (confidence) and got her that experience she needed just being a freshman.”
When the District 9 playoffs started, North Clarion, the top seed, dispatched Smethport, 48-32, in the quarterfinals to earn themselves a third crack at A-C Valley – after the tough loss North Clarion beat the Lady Falcons by eight 10 days later – in the D9 semifinals
“I think there were definitely some nerves,” Higgins said. “We knew what they were capable of, and we realized that it probably should have been the championship game. I was definitely nervous that it was going to be a replay of last year and we were going to get knocked out.”
The Lady Falcons came out on a mission and led 32-25 midway through the third quarter. But suggestions by Higgins and Gatesman to Dreihaup on a change of strategy paid off in a come-from-behind 57-50 victory.
“A-C Valley played like they had nothing to lose that game,” Wagner said.’ They are a great team.”
In the District 9 title game against Otto-Eldred, Obenrader, who finished the game with 20 points and 17 rebounds, scored 10 first-quarter points to help the She-Wolves grab a 12-3 lead after one quarter on their way to a 53-40 victory.
“I was so proud,” Carll said.
“I have to give credit to even the JV girls,” Obenrader added. “They don’t really get into those games but they work us out in practice every day. They deserve the credit too that we get. It was so exciting. I can’t even put it in words.”
Those JV girls got a chance in the PIAA opener against Sewickley Academy, as Dreihaup was able to fulfill his goal of getting everyone into a state playoff game thanks to a 20-0 start to the game that allowed all 17 players in uniform the opportunity to experience the PIAA playoffs.
Moving into the second-round game against Cornell, the WPIAL runner-up, Obenrader led the way with 37 points and 19 rebounds in the 10-point win.
Perhaps her great night had something to do with the PIAA postponing the game 24 hours because of a snowstorm that never came in Western Pennsylvania.
“I was really upset about that,” Obenrader said. “It was hard to keep ourselves focused, especially in practice. We knew we had to prepare for them, but there is only so much you can do for it.”
In the PIAA quarterfinals at a sold out DuBois High School, North Clarion found itself down 18-2 right out the gates against Bishop Carroll, a team favored by some to win the state championship and was down 23 with 13 minutes left.
“I’m not going to lie, that was the most nervous I’ve ever been in my life,” Obenrader said. “I think it was just how packed the gym was. I feel like we’ve had more fans watch us but not in that kind of area where it was so packed and so loud and so close to the court. I think the nerves got us.”
Instead of folding, North Clarion fought back and got within seven with four minutes to play and within six with just under a minute left before running out of time.
“We were saying we don’t want this to be our last game,” Higgins said. “We have to keep fighting for it. Just because we were down by 23, we’ve come back from deficits before. We can come back from this.”
The team believes if it had a few more minutes it might have completed the comeback.
“When we had it down within six points, if we would have just had more time I feel like our momentum would have kept us going and we would have taken the lead and hopefully, probably would have won the game,” Wagner said.
The loss is something Obenrader and Gatesman and the rest of the underclassmen hope they can use as motivation to going even farther next year just like the ECC loss in 2016 was motivation for this season.
“We really feel like we can be part of that (state title) conversation next year,” Obenrader said. “We are losing these three and another senior, and it’s going to take a toll on us, but I was telling Abby we can come back next year and get it next year.
“It’s a lot of hard work. We have to get other girls willing to put in the amount of work that is needed. I really think we have girls that are willing to do that.”
(Photos by Paul Burdick. Check out more of Burdick’s work here)
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