As difficult as it can be to beat an opponent three times in one season, the teams in the Section VI Class AA girls basketball playoffs are finding it’s even tougher to defeat the top-seeded Frontier Falcons.
Frontier reached its third straight sectional championship with a 37-20 semifinal victory over Jamestown on Thursday night at Kenmore West.
After winning the ECIC I division title with a 12-0 record and a 26-point victory margin, the Falcons triumphed for a third time against quarterfinal foe Lancaster and Jamestown.
The Falcons, ranked fifth in The News’ large school poll, will face another division rival for a third time in the AA final on Wednesday night at Buffalo State.
Third-seeded Williamsville North knocked out defending champion and No. 2 seed Orchard Park, grinding out a 53-36 victory, the Spartans’ seventh in a row, against a team it lost twice against during the regular season.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this team than I am right now,” Williamsville North coach Bill Shaw said. “They really stuck together and it’s the culmination of a lot of work.”
The Spartans will play for a sectional title for the first time since winning the AA crown in 2016. They won just eight games over the past two seasons.
“It feels amazing,” said junior center Courtney Herlan, who led North on Thursday with 12 points, eight rebounds and six blocks. “It’s my first final game ever, so I’m very excited to go.”
Freshman point guard Jada Ghee scored eight of her 11 points in the opening minutes as the Spartans built a 15-4 lead and never let the Quakers get closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“Jada played an outstanding game tonight,” Shaw said. “Courtney Herlan worked her tail off to be a force on the court. If she made two mistakes, I’d have a tough time trying to find where they were.”
Lily Flannery scored 13 points to lead Orchard Park. which finished 15-7 and reached the sectional semifinals after graduating six seniors from last year’s championship team.
Madison Stevenson, the Quakers’ 6-3 freshman center, got into foul trouble going up against the 6-1 Herlan and finished with five points after posting double-doubles against Niagara Falls in the quarterfinals and the last regular season meeting with the Spartans
“It was definitely harder when I first met her earlier in the year,” Herland said. “I’ve learned more about defending people my height. It’s more about keeping my arms up instead of trying to take the ball away from them.”
Frontier won’t pose as formidable of a challenge inside but boasts one of the area’s best backcourts in senior Kennedy Izzo and junior Claire Kruszka, who both reached the 1,000-point milestone this season.
The pair produced 13 points each in the semifinal victory despite being double-teamed throughout.
“They played really good defense against us tonight,” said Izzo, the Falcons’ all-time leading scorer who has committed to play for nationally ranked Niagara County Community College next year. “I’m just glad we got back to where we were the last two years. Hopefully, we can come home with a win this year.”
Even while scoring a season-low 37 points, the Falcons were never threatened. They allowed just a single free throw in the first quarter and led 17-5 at halftime.
Senior captain Allison Stockwell scored 13 of the Red Raiders’ season-low 20 points, which also marked Frontier’s best defensive effort of the year.
“We did a great job defensively, as did they,” Frontier coach Rick Mihalik said.
Izzo and Kruszka were both part of the Frontier teams that lost by three points against Clarence in the 2016 sectional final and got beat by 35 against Orchard Park last year.
“We have a lot more confidence and we have been playing as a team really well this year,” Kruszka said. “I’m really excited to get back to Buff State.”
Shaw, who has reached the sectional final in 19 of his 38 seasons coaching at Lockport and Williamsville North, said his Spartans “can’t led Kennedy Izzo and Claire Kruszka beat us. You’re not going to neutralize them completely, but we have to figure out a way to not let them control the game.”
Mihalik spoke reverently about the coaching matchup with Shaw, who ranks third all-time in Section VI with 521 victories.
“Our experience favors us,” Mihalik said. “But we are going against Bill Shaw, who is in my opinion, the best coach in the area. I’m expecting another low-scoring, tight game Wednesday.”