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GIRLS BASKETBALL: Westtown Wins Another PAISAA Title in Dominating Fashion

By Rich Flanagan Photos: Kathy Leister, 03/05/24, 2:15PM EST


Westtown School defeated Friends’ Central School, 76-24, to win the 2024 PAISAA State Championship - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister

Photos/Videos: Kathy Leister & Rich Flanagan

By: Rich Flanagan

PHILADELPHIA – It was a welcome sight for Westtown School in a setting that is becoming all too familiar.

A mounting celebration could have broken out early but the patience and restraint to withhold elation and exuberance until the final buzzer brought into focus a little known facet of a team that has been the most dominant in the area and one of the premier programs in the nation.

Westtown School cruised past rival Friends’ Central School, 76-24 at Hagan Arena on the campus of St. Joseph’s University to secure the program’s third consecutive Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA) title. It was the latest example of a victory that was never in doubt as a team full of stars who have sacrificed individual accolades in the pursuit of program success took control of its next championship in the first few minutes of the game.

Witness Westtown’s starting five and it reveals a team that many Division I programs covet now and will only desire more in a few years. There are freshmen Jessie Moses and Jordyn Palmer, sophomore Atlee Vanesko, junior Olivia Jones, and senior Savannah Curry. Watch as the Moose methodically wear down the opposition defensively and immediately turn one basket into a string of them that puts the game off of reach.

Palmer used her quick hands and took the ball the other way with ease for the game’s first basket. 

Westtown School freshman Jordyn Palmer #20 - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister

Moses corralled a rebound and turned it into a quick finish at the other end then Jones did the exact same thing before Curry drilled a three-pointer and suddenly the scoreboard read, 13-0. 

Some of these players starred at their previous schools but they came to Westtown with a mindset of playing for something bigger than themselves and adding the newest chapter to a program that has been synonymous with winning over the last few seasons. The humility of these stars coming together and putting team success above all else is what fills head coach Fran Burbidge with confidence that the product of their dominance goes way beyond what the box score presents.

“When you see five players take defending as seriously as they do, as a coach and staff, we’re blessed,” Burbidge said. “We know that if we do that, we’re talented enough throughout the game with five players who can score the basketball at all times that our chances of being successful in those games are pretty good.”

Westtown School senior Savannah Curry #5 - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister

Curry led the way in the victory with 15 points, including a pair of three-pointers, three rebounds and two steals. The 5-11 senior headed to play for Diane Richardson at Temple put her full skill set on display in an arena where she will play a couple more games over the next few seasons as a member of the Owls. Curry, who averaged 9.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.3 steals last season and scored her 1,000th career point earlier this year, won her second PAISAA title after starting her career at Roland Park Country School (Md.).

While she will be back in Philadelphia in only a few short months to begin her collegiate career, she’s proud of what she accomplished on a star-studded roster.

“I didn’t really expect all this as last year was my first year at Westtown,” Curry said. “It’s been a big transition and an eye-opener with lots of opportunities. It’s been very enjoyable, and I never expected to see myself here.”

Moses and Palmer have been stars since stepping foot on the West Chester campus and were integral parts to last season’s PAISAA title run after combining for 23 points as eighth graders in the 74-54 drubbing of Penn Charter on the very same floor. Moses, the 5-10 freshman guard with offers from Villanova, Syracuse, Michigan, Boston College, Rutgers, and Wisconsin, to name a few, posted 11 points and six steals and her first three-pointer put Westtown up, 22-3 in the second quarter. She is a true sharpshooter from the outside but can blow by the opposition with ease. Palmer, the 6-2 freshman forward, is one of the most heralded players in the class of 2027 and she controlled everything inside with 10 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two steals. She can turn defense into offense and once she establishes herself on the low block, very few can stop her from scoring.

The roster composition is regularly altered from one season to the next, but the result is the same.

Two seasons ago, Gatorade Pa. Player of the Year Kaylene Smikle, now playing at Rutgers, led the way with 28 points in the PAISAA final in a one-point win over the Quakers. Grace Sundback, currently playing at Delaware, avg. 13.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 1.5 steals last season and played some of her best basketball at Westtown in those two PAISAA title victories over Penn Charter, first scoring 10 points in 2022 then chipping in six points and three assists in last year’s triumph. 

Westtown School vs. Friends’ Central School - 2024 PAISAA CHampionship Highlights by Rich Flanagan for PSD:

Joniyah Bland-Fitzpatrick began her career at St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.) and is currently playing at Seton Hall. She scored eight points in last season’s title win, her lone crown at Westtown. The talent speaks for itself, and it simply goes up and down the roster.

While Moses and Palmer look to be the next program mainstays, Michelle Olak is the example for them and several others. The Toronto, Canada native and 6-1 senior forward had seven points against Friends’ Central. She will be making her decision on where to play next in the upcoming weeks but to have been part of a three-peat with Westtown is something that has defined her career to this point.

“I didn’t picture myself leaving here with three state championships,” Olak said. “When I came here from Canada, I didn’t realize how big of a deal it is to win a state championship until we won our first one my sophomore year. It feels good to know that I’m leaving behind a good group of girls that are going to continue what we’ve built here the past three years.”

The Moose held the Phoenix to eight field goals on the day, the most recent example for a team that won its opening round matchup of the PAISAA Tournament against Perkiomen School, 79-29. Westtown (26-2) concludes its three-year run with a combined record of 68-11. Furthermore, the program is in the midst of four straight Friends Schools League titles and these numbers should continue to increase as the corps remains intact. Atlee Vanesko, who avg. 6 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists in her freshman season, capped her sophomore campaign off with another state title after racking up nine points and three steals. 

She and Palmer played together on the AAU circuit with Philly Rise 16U and led the program to the Nike Nationals championship alongside Olivia Jones, the latest transfer who brought a loaded résumé with her.

Jones arrived by way of Cedar Cliff, where she avg. 15.3 points in leading the program to a 30-1 record, District 3 Class 6A title and the program’s first-ever appearance in the state title game where it fell to Archbishop Carroll in Hershey. She had double-doubles in eight of Cedar Cliff’s 10 postseason games and was named Pa. All-State 6A Player of the Year. She entered this season with 862 points and surpassed 1,000 for her career against Delone Catholic. She had four points and seven rebounds to claim her first state title as a player and she should be one of the biggest recipients of increased production heading into next season.

Curry is on her way out but knows the remaining group will continue the upward trajectory for the best girls basketball program Pa. has to offer.

“We hold ourselves to a very high standard and at the end of the day, we’re still looking to get better,” Curry said.

There are also hidden gems that are just now blossoming into the next installment of the Moose such as 5-7 junior guard Vianna Kanyamiheto-Watson, who gives Westtown one of the more electrifying bench guards anywhere, and 6-1 junior forward Aidan Langley, who could very well follow Curry to N Broad Street after gaining an offer from the Owls during the summer. Langley scored 12 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter as Westtown led 76-20 with 1:48 left to play. Langley, who hit a pair of three-pointers, and Palmer have incredible versatility and it wouldn’t be surprising to see those two pair together nicely in the front court.

Post Game press conference with Westtown's Michelle Olak, Fran Burbidge & Savannah Curry - PSD Video by Rich Flanagan

After struggling to find that elusive title two years ago, Westtown is on an unprecedented run highlighted by an illustrious head coach who has brought in dynamic players and molded them into elite prospects who find solace and drive not in eye-popping statistics but rather championship trophies that require several individuals to both secure and, physically, hold. Over the last three years, the Moose have become accustomed to hoisting trophies like the PAISAA plaque with consistency and that bodes well for the future as the thought of even more dominance could very well be on the horizon.

Burbidge is the archetype behind this team’s success and when his group is rolling, he feels there is no one that can play with them. Westtown has become the standard in Pa.’s girls basketball.

Yet, what makes it all worthwhile is the modesty of such acclaimed players being more focused on how they can benefit others in the pursuit of a championship rather than their own personal ambitions.  

“Once we get into a mode where they’re moving their bodies, recognizing the mismatches, and playing off their teammates and not caring about the numbers, that’s a great thing for us,” Burbidge said. “We have five kids on the floor at all times that can score 25 points at any point in the game and when we open that up and they do what they do, they make us look good as a staff.”