By David Willis
LOWELL — For three varsity seasons, Central Catholic’s Casey McLaughlin worked and waited for her chance at a Division 1 North title and an opportunity to play for a state championship.
For three years, she had to watch archrival Andover High celebrate the title, and dream of her chance.
Last night, McLaughlin and the rest of the Raiders grabbed their opportunity.
Central Catholic overcame a fourth-quarter surge by Westford Academy and locked up its first Division 1 North championship since its state title season of 2008-09 with a 60-51 victory at the Tsongas Center last night.
“I have never won a North title, so this is pretty amazing,” said McLaughlin. “I’ve been waiting for this for four years, so I am so happy to finally get it. All of us have been wanting this for so long, and we kept falling short. So to do this is great.”
The Raiders advance to the Division 1 state semifinal to take on South champ Braintree (23-2) at the TD Garden on Monday.
“I haven’t been to the Garden since I was a freshman,” said McLaughlin. “I am so excited for that game. It is going to be battle, and I can’t wait to play there again.”
McLaughlin, in fact, is the only member of the Raiders who has played at the Garden, as a freshman on the varsity team when the Celtics’ home arena hosted the North finals.
“It’s going to be like nothing I have ever experienced,” said junior Caitlin Dell’Orfano. “We have been working for this for three years, so to finally get to the Garden is a dream. We HAD to win this game.”
After years of frustration, the Raiders were dying for the opportunity last night.
“You should have seen us in the locker room before the game,” said Darion Summers, the only other senior on the team. “We were so crazy. We were ready to go to war. We had waited so long for this chance.”
But it certainly wasn’t easy for Central.
The Raiders seemed to be in control, leading 46-37 late in the third quarter and holding all of the momentum.
But Westford then went on a 12-0 run, grabbing a 49-46 lead in the early stages of the fourth and leaving the Raiders stunned.
“Everyone had a gut check,” said McLaughlin. “We realized that this could be our last game. We could lose. So everyone just mentally prepared to get back in the game, and we started finally hitting our shots and making plays.”
McLaughlin ended the run with a free throw, then Dell’Orfano stuck a deep 2-pointer to give the Raiders their groove back.
“The shot was big,” said Dell’Orfano, who like McLaughlin is from North Andover. “I hadn’t been hitting my shots all game. I knew I had to make that shot. If I had to make one shot all year, that was the one.”
The Raiders kept rolling, with jumpers by Courtney Walsh and McLaughlin. Walsh chipped in with three key free throws and Summers iced the win with a pair of her own from the line.
As the clock ticked to 0:00, Central charged the court for an emotional celebration.
“We are still celebrating,” said Walsh. “Every time we see each other we are screaming. To know that all our hard work has paid off. And we aren’t done yet. We wanted the North title, and we pushed hard to get it.”
Walsh finished with a game-high 16 points, while McLaughlin was right behind with 15 points. Summers (11 points) knocked down three crucial 3-pointers and Amanda Williams had 10 points.
“I really am elated for these girls,” said Central coach Sue Downer. “We have had some heart-breaking losses, and you could see how bad they wanted it. Everyone had faith and everyone contributed. I am so proud.”
Next up, a trip to the TD Garden to play for a spot in the Division 1 state title game.
“It really is amazing,” said Summers. “Playing at the Garden is an experience of a lifetime. Now we have to relax and deliver.”
agateHed:Central Catholic 60, Westford 51
agateText:Division 1 North Final
Westford Academy (51): Hannah Hackley 5 3-4 15, Samantha Hyslip 8 3-4 19, Christina Nowak 3 3-4 9, Meghan Kibblehous 2 0-0 4, Bailey Mongillo 1 0-0 2. Totals 19 9-12 41
agateText:Central Catholic (60): Amanda Williams 5 0-0 10, Casey McLaughlin 6 3-7 15, Courtney Walsh 5 4-6 16, Darion Summers 3 2-2 11, Caitlin Dell’Orfano 4 0-0 8. Totals 23 9-15 60
agateText:3-pointers: CC — Summers 3, Walsh 2 ; WA — Hackley 2
agateText:Westford Academy (20-5): 10 13 18 10 — 51
agateText:Central Catholic (20-5): 15 11 20 14 — 60
agateText:Next game: Monday vs. Braintree, Division 1 state semifinal, at TD Garden