Decade’s best No. 9: Lewisburg’s Grace Kelleher played fearlessly
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a series looking back at the Top 10 girls basketball teams, coaches, games and players from the last decade.
Several adjectives can describe Grace Kelleher, the basketball player. The DeSales sophomore guard is talented, well-rounded and tenacious.
But what best described Kelleher as she became one of Lewisburg’s all-time greats from 2015-19 was fearless. The 5-foot-6 point guard never stopped attacking the basket, no matter how many taller players waited inside. She might take physical punishment and absorb some bruises, but Kelleher loved it. Once she was in the paint, she could finish, dish or draw fouls. And doing all that produced victories so she never thought twice about paying victory’s price.
“That’s how Grace is. She’s a competitor,” Lewisburg coach Brent Sample said following a 61-52 victory against Williamsport in 2019. “You tell her to go and she will go. She will run through a brick wall for you. That’s the kind of player she is. She just goes for it.”
Kelleher went after it every game she played at Lewisburg, never missing one and helping it reach a record three consecutive state tournaments from 2017-19. The four-year starter is among the program’s all-time leading scorers with 1,382 points and earned Class AAA all-state honors as a senior. She also was a three-time first team Sun-Gazette all-star who could shred defenses and help stifle offenses. Kelleher helped Lewisburg win 65 games in four years, reach the postseason each time and capture its first league championship of the 2000s. Whatever she could do to help the cause, Kelleher was going after it hard, always trying to be better.
“Even in practice, if she misses she’s on herself,” Sample said. “That’s just how she is and that’s why we love having her. She sets the tone for the younger girls.”
Kelleher was one of those young girls as a sophomore but was already a team leader and named a team captain. She had put together a promising freshman season, but 2017 was the year when Kelleher established herself as one of the district’s top players and kept a young, injury-ravaged team from collapsing.
Lewisburg already graduated the majority of their starters from a 15-win team the previous year and three key players suffered season-ending injuries before and during the year. Kelleher, though, used both her will and talent to keep Lewisburg going and averaged 15.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 steals and 2.9 assists per game. Kelleher finished second among area scoring leaders and third among assist leaders, doing some of her best work against Lewisburg’s toughest opponents, like Mifflinburg and Mount Carmel. She also nearly recorded a double-double at No. 2 Athens in the District 4 Class AAAA quarterfinals as Lewisburg won, 36-28, and clinched a state tournament berth.
Lewisburg was healthy and more experienced in 2018 and Kelleher was the MVP for one of the best teams in program history as well as the HAC-II. The Dragons won 22 games and Kelleher kept growing as a player and leader. She could impact a game without scoring, consistently setting up her teammates when defenses focused on slowing her and lighting up the scoreboard when at other times. Either way, she often was the best player on the court and averaged 13.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.8 steals per game.
“It’s amazing. It’s a lot different than last year,” Kelleher said. “It’s really cool to see everything turnaround and see everyone playing healthy and playing well. It’s a lot of fun.”
The fun continued in the playoffs as Lewisburg won one of the decade’s most exciting games, dethroning defending champion Mount Carmel in the HAC Tournament semifinals. Kelleher was an excellent shooter and was at her best going to the basket, so when the Red Tornadoes led in the final seconds and Lewisburg had possession, denying Kelleher was the primary goal. That went double after she had torched the Tornadoes for 26 points in a 59-51 regular-season win. Kelleher enjoyed these last-second, pressure situations and wanted the ball. But she did not care whether she was shooting or passing.
When three Mount Carmel defenders swarmed Kelleher at the top the key she whipped a perfect pass to a cutting Megan O’Hara who converted the game-winning layup as Lewisburg won, 45-44. It was the latest highlight in a season filled with them.
“We wanted to get the ball in Grace’s hands. She is reliable and she can finish in many different ways, but she’s smart enough to know that if you draw a defender you have to find someone open,” then-Lewisburg coach Phil Stamm said. “Mount Carmel plays that way, they throw everybody at you and if you keep your composure, you can find somebody and Grace did a great job of finding Meg.”
She did a great job anchoring a young team featuring three new starters a year later, too. Kelleher anchored a team which made big strides as the year progressed, going from 5-5 to 15-8. She not only had another great season, but helped several others also enjoy quality seasons, making the entire team better in the process.
Kelleher finished second among area scorers with 17.8 points per game and also topped five rebounds for a third time, averaging 5.9. Kelleher also was a team leader with 3.4 assists and 2.7 steals per game, earning all-state honors.
“I’ve always loved playing with this team,” Kelleher said. “It’s a great feeling to go out and play basketball. That’s the best thing about it. Basketball has always been one of the best parts of my life and it’s just a lot of fun.”
Facing challenges was fun as well and Kelleher attacked them head-on. That was most evident in that 61-52 comeback win against Williamsport. Keller went to the basket at will, constantly drew contact and took the game over, earning 32 free throw opportunities and making 25. That included a stretch of nine straight foul shots when Williamsport made it a one-point game in the fourth quarter. She finished with 34 points, adding three assists and three steals. In terms of her fearlessness, this was Kelleher’s signature performance.
“Always the goal is to be able to get in the middle because once you get into the middle of the lane great things always happen,” Kelleher said. “Either you get a shot or get fouled or pass it. As a point guard, I really just try to set other people up by getting in the middle. It doesn’t always have to be about finishing, but tonight it was.”
Kelleher finished her scholastic career as one of the most decorated Lewisburg players ever, joining her older sister Maria in the program’s 1,000-point club. She also helped that young Dragons team earn its record-setting third straight state tournament berth while coming within a victory of capturing another league championship.
She might experience some pain with her forays toward the basket, but so be it. Kelleher was willing to sacrifice her body for her team. Opponents might knock her down, but they could not knock Kelleher out and that effort was contagious.
“I always say Grace is an extension of the coaching staff,” Sample said. “We have a lot of younger girls and she forces the other girls to step up around her. That’s the kind of player she is. She brings everyone else up.”