Star junior sets goal to three-peat

HERSHEY — Perhaps it was the bravado that comes with youth or the thrill of reaching the peak of your sport for the first time, but a year ago some of the first words out of the newest PIAA Class 2A girls champions’ mouths were talk of a repeat.

When Bellwood-Antis captured its second straight title last week, there was more of a sigh of relief.

The cliche goes “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” That certainly seemed true of this year’s Lady Blue Devils.

When the final buzzer sounded to finish off a 66-57 win over West Middlesex, the weight B-A had been carrying on its shoulders was replaced by a large gold ball, signifying a PIAA title.

“This means everything to me,” Bellwood-Antis junior Jaydyn Shuke said in a whisper, after losing her voice in the celebration. “Doing this with my friends, they’re like family to me. It’s so special.”

When Bellwood won its first title, it was the young up and comer, hungry for a title but not expected to win one.

This year was much different.

The Lady Blue Devils were invited to play in the Crescom Bank Holiday Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C. that features 16 of the best high school girls basketball teams in the nation from across all classifications.

Bellwood, with four of its five starters back, including Notre Dame commit Alli Campbell and fellow Division I commit and 6-footer Sakeria Haralson, was ranked No. 1 in the state and a repeat was more of an assumption than a prediction.

Just before the season, Haralson suffered a minor injury, and that’s when things first started to seem like it might not all go as planned.

At times, the excitement of winning was replaced with the pressure of losing when you’re considered the favorite.

But with the poise of Campbell and the leadership and positivity of Emilie Leidig, it never cost the Lady Blue Devils.

They never blew anyone away in the state playoffs, but they had enough to get past each individual game, concentrate on the next and conquer that one.

“We’re blessed to have two Division I players,” Bellwood-Antis coach Jim Swaney said. “We’re also blessed to have a lot of very good components in between. I don’t think people realize how good (Riley) D’Angelo and Leidig are. Leidig is such a smart kid. People see her and think she might not be the quickest or fastest, but she’s the smartest. She knows the game inside and out. Still with all of that, this was hard. It’s quite an achievement.”

The girls were much more reserved when talking about a possible three-peat next year without D’Angelo.

“We’re going to enjoy this one for a little bit,” Campbell said. “As soon as we get back to work, that is our goal, to win three in a row.”

Leidig, one of the most outspoken players on the team, paused to enjoy what the team has already accomplished.

“It’s amazing, we’re making history with two in a row,” Leidig said. “Knowing we can make more history making three in a row is awesome.”

The top seeds in District 6, Penns Manor and Blairsville, will both be devastated by graduation. Bishop McCort, which nearly knocked off Bellwood-Antis in the district quarterfinals, will lose the talented Sierra Widmar.

But a Juniata Valley squad that was edged out by West Middlesex in the state playoffs and barely lost in the district final, will return almost everyone.

Mount Carmel’s Dani Rae Renno and West Middlesex’s Makennah White will be a year older and more polished.

With all that said, any of those teams would be thrilled to have Campbell, Haralson and Leidig on their roster. And somewhere, deep down, the junior trio is probably already thinking about a graduation photo in which all three stars are holding a golden ball.

Michael Boytim can be reached at mboytim@altoonamirror.com or 946-7521.

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