Lady Dragons seek more history in first round of state playoffs

Riley Childress and the Warren Lady Dragons battle Oakland Catholic in the first round of the PIAA playoffs on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Edinboro University's McComb Fieldhouse.

There are 131 Class 5A girls basketball teams in Pennsylvania. The Warren Lady Dragons are one of 32 still playing.

Fresh off their second District 10 title in program history, Warren will attempt to make some more history with a state playoff win when they battle Oakland Catholic today at Edinboro University (3 p.m.).

“It’s definitely weird because everyone else is pretty much done and moving on to different sports,” said senior Margo Loutzenhiser. “You feel accomplished and proud to get to where we are.”

For Loutzenhiser, as well as head coach Lisa LaVan, this will be their second trip into the state playoffs together.

“It’s one of those things where so many teams aren’t playing anymore and we are, so it’s pretty awesome,” LaVan said. “Having them in the gym for at least another week is pretty sweet.”

So, what have they been doing with a week to prepare?

“We’ve watched a lot of film, going over personnel for Oakland Catholic, because we don’t really know them,” Loutzenhiser said. “Just trying to get familiar with them as best we can.”

They will be facing an Oakland Catholic (20-4) team that, after beating defending state champion Mars in the WPIAL quarterfinals, was upended by Thomas Jefferson in the semis, 68-55.

With Warren coming in at 22-3, this matchup features the highest combined winning percentages of the 16 first-round games.

“Honestly I haven’t looked at the bracket,” Loutzenhiser said. “It’s pretty cool that we’re here, especially since we haven’t been here in a few years. People are starting to realize that hey, these guys are for real.”

The Lady Eagles have a 3-headed monster of seniors in 6-foot forward Sierra DeAngelo and guards Alexis Sestric (5-7) and Jayde Boyd (5-10).

Sestric, who will be playing at Division 3 University of Rochester next season, is the leading scorer on the team and a strong outside shooter, checking in at 16.9 ppg.

DeAngelo is second on the team in scoring at 13.5 and Boyd checks in at 12.7.

Both DeAngelo and Boyd have signed to play at Division I Fairleigh Dickinson next season.

“They have three really good kids,” noted LaVan.

“Sierra DeAngelo is tall and has good mass. You can tell she definitely hits the weight room in the offseason. She’s definitely somebody that we haven’t seen all season. She’ll be a different challenge for us.

“Then they have two guards that can play the game pretty well, Alexis Sestric and Jayde Boyd. They’re good shooters, play good defense and are good penetrators. We’ve seen players like them throughout the season. Ali Benim (Harbor Creek) sticks out as one that is similar to the style that those girls play.”

Oakland Catholic lost just twice in the regular season to Pennsylvania schools (32-31 to Penn Hills on Jan. 10 and 57-42 to North Allegheny on Feb. 1).

“The WPIAL is so strong,” LaVan said. “I think 5A and 6A are one of the strongest in the state. It’s ridiculous how good they are.”

Their only other regular-season loss came to Prestonwood Christian out of Plano, Texas at the KSA Classic in Orlando. Prestonwood is the No. 3 ranked team in Class 6A (Texas uses the same classification system as Pennsylvania) in the private school rankings (Texas has separate public and private playoffs).

“They’re a mix of a few teams that we’ve played,” LaVan noted. “They’re a little bit like Slippery Rock … General McLane (the way they play offense). They like to attack, kick and shoot the 3s. In terms of having a big presence, they’re a little bit like Harbor Creek. Those would probably be the there teams that I would compare them to.”

Warren, of course, is led by Loutzenhiser, freshmen Emma Ruhlman and Riley Childress, as well as senior Alanna Hultberg and junior Taylor Childress.

That starting five has been consistent for the Lady Dragons all season, with Teagan Paris and Kelsey Stuart, as well as Sierra Matson and Katie Madigan playing key roles off the bench.

And, while this will be the first experience for most of them playing in the state playoffs, don’t’ expect them to be intimidated.

They are prepared, and they are ready for this moment that they have earned.

“I told the girls, to me, this game is no different than any game we’ve played all season,” LaVan said. “We did our scout. We did our homework. We’re coming in with a game plan and we’re asking you to execute a game plan. We’re sitting at 22-3 because we execute game plans very well. Two of our losses, not to make excuses, came down to tired legs, it wasn’t lack of execution. Our biggest thing is a day at a time, a game at a time.”

It’s an extremely competitive group, one that wants each win as badly as the last.

But more than that, it’s the joy that comes with playing with each other and being around one another.

“They always want to win. They’re winners, that’s their mentality,” LaVan said. “What makes it special, on top of winning, they don’t want this season to be over. They want to keep going, keep staying together and enjoying the moment.”

And, even though, as the D-10 champ, they got a tougher draw than runner-up Slippery Rock (who plays Obama Academy, who Oakland Catholic beat by 46), they don’t care.

“Just tell us when, where and who,” LaVan said. “Give us enough notice to come up with a game plan. Other than that, we’re ready to play. You go from where we were in district to now, from having a bullseye on our back to being complete and utter underdogs, even being a No. 1 seed. We’re cool with that.”

So what exactly would it mean for them to win this game?

“That would be making history so I think it would be a pretty big message,” Loutzenhiser said. “A message for the players below us, too, especially the freshman that are going to be coming in. Hey, this is what you can do. This is something that you can accomplish.”