Hard second-half effort takes Freedom to state semis
NORTH HUNTINGTON — If you had told Renae Mohrbacher she would be one win away from an appearance in a state title game in her senior year, she would have believed you. … If you said it would be in football.
Although things didn’t go their way on the court, Mohrbacher and her teammates continued to shock themselves and many others on the hardwood Tuesday night, advancing to the basketball semifinals. PIAA Class 3A Women’s Championship with a 56-50 win over River Valley at Norwin High School.
“Last year you could have been like, ‘Next season you’re in the semifinals for state, and I would have said you were lying,’ Mohrbacher said with a smile on his face. “But we’re here, and it’s great.”
The Bulldogs’ victory (21-5) comes down to the two words displayed on their warm-up jerseys: “Don’t Quit”.
After taking a 12-point lead in the first half, things seemed to be moving away for Freedom Area as time ticked on. The Bulldogs were outscored 14-3 in the third quarter. The Panthers (23-5) then took the lead with a bucket and-1 early in the fourth quarter.
For a moment, it seemed the Bulldogs’ magical run was over. Key players Shaye Bailey and Julz Mohrbacher were both in foul danger and their opponent had all the momentum.
It was then, at the start of the fourth quarter, that Renae remembered her team’s slogan. She didn’t give up.
“I was like, ‘how badly do I want it,'” said Mohrbacher, who finished with a game-high 20 points, “And I want it really badly. I’m just using this and trying to away from it and push me further.
“I was just exhausted,” Mohrbacher said. “My body is completely beaten. It was tough but we worked on it and ended up getting the win.
Mohrbacher scored 14 of his team’s 20 points in the second half, including 12 in the final quarter. There were times when the elder struggled to get up due to exhaustion. Yet when the on-court action resumed, she kept finding a way to raise the dial. A pair of big baskets to keep his team afloat, plus a perfect eight-on-eight from the foul line was enough to get the job done.
“As a four-year starter, she knows when to pick up the slack and finish,” Freedom Area head coach John Kaercher said. “When it was the critical moment, we made sure the ball was in his hands, Shay or Julz.”
Mohrbacher stole the show in the second half, but early on when Freedom was really buzzing, it was the other two members of his “big three” who were on fire. Julz Mohrbacher started the Bulldogs in the first quarter, where she scored seven of her 14 points.
In the second quarter, the baton was passed to Bailey, who had 12 of his 19 points in less than four minutes of play.
“I hit that first 3-pointer and realized I could keep hitting them,” Bailey said with a laugh. “I fired another shot from outside and caught fire.”
The trio of Bailey and the Mohrbacher sisters took Freedom to heights few would believe. Perhaps the only one who knew a state semifinal appearance was possible was their head coach.
“We thought we were one of the best, if not the best Class 3A team,” Kaercher said. “So far we are maintaining our weight. At the start of the year, when no one believed in our team except coaches, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, fans and players, we knew we had something thing.
“We haven’t been respected all year. It was this or it was that. To continue the run we’ve had and reach the last four in the state playoffs for the first time in school history, we just keep getting better with every game.
As Freedom Area celebrated on the field after the final buzzer, their next opponent was in the stands watching. WPIAL Class 3A champion North Catholic, who beat Forest Hills in the opener at Norwin High School on Tuesday night, decided to stay and scout a team he already knows very well.
The Bulldogs and Trojanettes have faced each other three times already this year, with North Catholic emerging victorious in each contest. The one-sided rivalry would discourage some, but don’t tell Freedom that. Knowing that the only thing separating them from a trip to Hershey was a big game against a Section opponent on Friday night, Kaercher couldn’t help but be optimistic.
“Every dog has their day,” Kaercher said, “and I hope it will be those dogs that have their day on Friday.”