Cleary goes for fifth WPIAL title but must go through Vincentian
Even though Bill Cleary knows the end is a lot closer than the beginning, the 26-year coach of the Serra Catholic girls basketball team promises that there will be no Ray Lewis or Jerome Bettis ending for him — at least not this year.
But don't mistake that for doubting that his team is capable of winning a fifth WPIAL championship — first since 2005 — Saturday when No. 2 Serra (23-2) plays No. 1 Vincentian (24-1) at the A.J. Palumbo Center.
“I still have some years left in me,” said Cleary, who has 523 career wins.
And why not?
Cleary is back in the title game for the first time since losing to Monessen in 2006 and has done it with underclassmen.
Serra's top four scorers are either juniors or sophomores, but the Eagles have yet act like the stage is too big for them.
Cleary doesn't expect that to happen again Saturday even though Vincentian is the defending champ and handed Serra one of its two defeats earlier in the season.
“I am not surprised at all with we have done because we have good girls who are good athletes,” Cleary said. “They've always kept their composure no matter what. Nothing has really excited them or impressed them that knocked them off their game. They always have the same focus and same demeanor.”
Serra trailed in two of its three playoff games leading up to the finals, including by double digits Wednesday against a North Catholic team that played in four consecutive Class A title games.
“We always seem to start of games slow,” junior center Nicole Pero said. “But we know that we eventually will turn it around.”
Serra might not have that luxury against Vincentian.
The Lady Royals are led 6-foot-1 sophomore forward Brenna Wise. Wise is averaging 22.8 points per game and had 22 points and 20 rebounds in the semifinals against Quigley Catholic. In a first-round game against West Greene, she scored 18 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked 10 shots.
“We are going to have to guard them in the entire half court,” Cleary said. “Wise is very good and has to be accounted for. They are very similar to us.”
That was evident early in December when Vincentian used big runs in the second and fourth quarters to beat the hosts at their tip-off tournament, 67-59.
Vincentian coach Ron Moncrief figured he would see Serra again after that.
“We knew back then that Serra was one of the top teams in Single-A,” Moncrief said. “It was a close game back-and-forth, and we just made a few more plays than they did. We really didn't do anything special. It was early in the season and both teams were trying to figure out the chemistry. I do believe that I can still use stuff we learned in that game this time around.”
One thing Moncrief learned was that Serra likes to spread the ball around.
The Lady Eagles have four players who average double figures, but none who averages more than 12 points per game.
“They are an all-around good team,” Moncrief said. “They have good guards and also a nice inside game. Every player they have on the court is a threat. We need to play good defense. All of their kids can score, and we are worried about it.”
Cleary doesn't think December's game will mean a lot Saturday.
“Everybody has changed,” Cleary said. “It has been a couple of months, but they play the same way. They come at you with a lot of pressure and see how you are going to handle it. We play the same way they do.”
Cleary would love to win his fifth WPIAL title but would enjoy seeing his players win one more.
“They deserve something like this with all the hard work they did,” Cleary said.