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Trib Cup: Oakland Catholic girls emerge as contender in Class 5A

| Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, 10:12 p.m.

The Oakland Catholic girls basketball team had accumulated just eight total wins — with only four in section play — over the past two seasons.

But with a strong sophomore class to support their upperclassmen, the Eagles' 11 wins this season have positioned the team as one of the best in WPIAL Class 5A.

“We have a very big core group of sophomores complementing our upperclassmen,” Oakland Catholic coach Shannon Kearney said. “I think it's tough to come in as freshmen, but now that we have gotten to be with them and train them through their freshman year and now into their sophomore year, I just think that the players have really improved a lot over the past couple of seasons.”

“Last year they got a little bit of varsity experience, and then this year they definitely helped us turn it around and use their experience to help us,” senior guard Gabrielle Gevaudan added of the sophomore class.

Tied for first place in Section 2-5A with a 4-1 record (and 11-2 overall), the Eagles are highlighted as this week's Tribune Review High School Sports Award feature team, and are a big reason for Oakland Catholic's second-place ranking in the Class 3A standings.

Along with upperclassmen like seniors Haley Zoglmann and Gevaudan, along with junior Mia Cuccaro, Oakland Catholic's sophomore class is led by forward Sierra DeAngelo and guards Alexis Sestric, Jayde Boyd and Anna Sproule, as they seek their first trip to the postseason since 2013.

While DeAngelo — who is averaging close to 13 points and 10 rebounds — along with Sestric and Boyd are regulars in the starting lineup, Sproule is a rotational starter, often placed in the starting lineup with the assignment of guarding the opposing team's best player.

“We kind of call her our defensive specialist,” Kearney said. “If we've scouted a team that has a really strong player, we like to start out with our defensive specialist on her, and she does a really good job with that role.”

Sproule's defensive mentality is representative of the Eagles approach to defense as a whole. Allowing just 33.3 points per game — the second-fewest of any team in Class 5A behind only section rival Gateway — it's been defense that has propelled the Eagles to as many section wins this year as they had the previous two years total.

“It's tough being down and talking to your team and making them believe that their hard work will pay off,” Kearney said. “You just have to keep after it and keep working hard and focusing on your defense and letting your defense create your offense. I think now we've come to a place where they really believe in their defense and are seeing their defense create their offense, and that's really been a turnaround for us.”

Now in her seventh season as the team's head coach, Kearney is an example to each of her players as to the tradition they are trying to reestablish this season.

A member of former Oakland Catholic coach Suzie McConnell-Serio's teams — a tenure that saw the Eagles claim three PIAA Class AAAA titles and two runner-up finishes from 1990-2003 — the players on the current team don't need any more motivation than to look up at the rafters to understand the legacy that they carry on.

“It's great to be able to tell them those stories and to look at the banners hanging in the gym and seeing my years of playing basketball on there, seeing years that I've coached on there to motivate the players now to say that you want your year to be up there next,” she said.

Alex Oltmanns is a freelance writer.

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