By Matt Popchock

While boys’ basketball programs throughout western Pennsylvania tipped off a brand new season last Friday, most of the 130 WPIAL girls’ basketball teams did the same.  There is little doubt about who the top team in the area is as the 2010-11 campaign begins, but Mr. High School Sports isn’t going to let any of the other elite teams go unnoticed.

Deja vu was the name of the game in ’09-’10, as two district champions repeated and all four reigning state champs defended their crowns, and as 93.7 The Fan’s high school sports reporter looks at the girls’ basketball landscape, he wonders if he’ll be seeing more same old, same old when March rolls around.  But until then, here are five big things you should keep in mind as you follow girls’ hoops:

1. Can anyone stop the Mount Lebanon juggernaut?

If you read our boys’ basketball outlook, you’ll recall we posed the very same question, and the Mount Lebanon girls look destined to exceed the on-court accomplishments of their male colleagues.  The Blue Devils have won the last two WPIAL and PIAA championships in girls’ basketball, and their first regular season victory of 2010-11 promises to be a special one.  It will mark 50 consecutive wins by Lebo against District 7 opponents.  Guard and Notre Dame recruit Madison Cable is arguably the best player in the area, and her heroics in last year’s state final will not soon be forgotten, while fellow guard Anna Kestler, who will play her college ball at William & Mary, has made the leap to elite status as well.  The Blue Devils have top-notch leaders, and they excel in just about every phase of the game.  Enough said, right?  If anyone has a prayer of taking down Mount Lebanon, it’ll be either Baldwin or arch-rival Bethel Park, two of their highly skilled Section 4 bedfellows, or a Quad-A team that is less heralded yet knows how to handle its business in the postseason…like Oakland Catholic, for example.  Forgive the pun, but the Eagles are one squad that will “fly” under the radar this season.  Ally Schmidt, one of the premier guards in the classification, will bolster the offense, but Oakland Catholic’s superb defense is the real story of that team.  Furthermore, since the WPIAL grew to four classifications, only Penn Hills has won more titles over the last quarter-century, and the Eagles always seem to work themselves into the conversation.  Still, plenty of doubt remains that Oakland Catholic–and the other Quad-A front-runners–have enough talent top to bottom to hang with the Blue Devils. 

2. Which other teams have the best shot to repeat as WPIAL champs?

Before Mount Lebanon defended its WPIAL Class AAAA title back in March, New Castle did the same in the Class AAA Final, and as much as Mr. High School Sports likes the Blue Devils, it wouldn’t surprise him in the slightest to see an encore performance from the Red Hurricane either.  New coach Jason Rankin more than proved his worth by making the most of a thoroughly talented roster and leading his girls to revenge over Hopewell, the team that beat New Castle for the Section 2 crown, at the Palumbo Center.  Several key components of that roster are back, including guard Kaylynn Waters, perhaps the most dangerous offensive threat in Class AAA, and high-scoring forward LaShauna Brothers, not to mention versatile Ja’Nai McPhatter, who could potentially be one of the most improved players in the classification.  As tough as Section 2 is, the Red Hurricane should be able to re-write last year’s script, and barring major health issues, they’re plenty good enough to earn another shot at gold.  Meanwhile, look for a highly probable changing of the guard in the other two classifications.  Jeannette should once again be one of the more competitive programs in Class AA, but don’t expect another unexpected title run from the Jayhawks, who were hit hard by graduation and by the loss of head coach Janine Vertacnik, as she left to take over the girls’ team at Greensburg-Salem.  It’s easy to pencil in Vincentian Academy for another Class A championship when you look at the Royals’ depth, but Section 4 nemesis North Catholic, which won the section before losing to them in the title game, also returns a great group, and Rochester has one of the best front-courts in the entire WPIAL.  By the way, did we mention Class A has gone the longest without a repeat champion (Clairton, 2001-02)?  Just sayin’…

3. Who will be this year’s Cinderella?

There seemed to be a common thread among a few of the District 7 teams that went on to respectable runs in the state playoffs last season.  They weren’t necessarily the best teams in their own surroundings.  They just happened to play their best basketball at the right time.  After a winter that was not without upsets, which group of girls will turn heads when the temperatures hit bottom and the postseason action heats up this time around?  Mr. High School Sports has a strong gut feeling that two teams in Class AA will quietly enjoy fine seasons before drawing more attention in the playoffs, Neshannock and Sto-Rox.  Sneaking into the postseason is par for the course for the Lancers, who might now be the strongest team in Section 2.  Forward Ericka Warvell provides valuable scoring depth, and if guard Chelsea Kaufman is as good as advertised, look out.  Speaking of talented guards, as Kori Ford goes, so go the Vikings.  If they can survive a brutal Section 6, they return a lot of experience, including Ford, from one of the best defensive teams in the area, which could allow Sto-Rox to break a few hearts.  Another unsung squad that has our attention is Kiski Area in Quad-A.  The Cavaliers are good enough to take the Section 1 crown and statistically their offense was more productive than that of Norwin, last year’s section champ.  They return most of their key players, and they boast one of the brightest stars in the classification that no one talks about, Maddie Antone, who started as a freshman and can score while providing toughness on the back end.  This team could also make an unusually long run…unless it has to play Mount Lebanon.

4. Will a new face lead the Rebels to a better place?

As far as head coaches are concerned, there was plenty of upheaval in the world of WPIAL girls’ hoops this past off-season, and perhaps the most notable change involves Seton-LaSalle, last year’s bridesmaid in the WPIAL Class AA tournament.  Dennis Squeglia succeeds Bryan Bennett and takes over a Rebels squad that probably feels it deserved a better fate than losing to upstart Jeannette in the Class AA Final.  Sometimes a new coach and new system take some getting used to, even for a team like Seton-LaSalle that entered this season with more high expectations, but their talent and chemistry makes this bunch an easy one to guide.  In fact, the Rebels, despite graduating a great leader in Katie Gattuso, still have four starters back, not to mention one of the most important ingredients of a championship team: excellent guards.  Angela Heintz is a rising star, and Alexa DelGreco gives the team valuable experience in the backcourt.  It would be unwise to doubt the new boss’ ability to finish what Bennett started; Squeglia made Peters Township the first Washington County team to reach the WPIAL Championships in girls’ hoops just a couple years ago, and he has learned how to teach student-athletes from some of best coaches in western PA.  It’s just a matter of whether or not the Rebels can execute when it matters most, and now with improved teams from Bishop Canevin and Steel Valley to deal with in Section 5, you better believe Squeglia won’t let his girls look ahead.

5. How will the Trojanettes grow from a disappointing finish?

The unpredictability of scholastic sports was on full display during the WPIAL Class A tournament last season.  North Catholic breezed through its section, and the Trojanettes embarrassed two of three postseason opponents to clear a path to girls’ basketball gold, but then they were schooled by section rival Vincentian Academy in the championship game, followed by a first round ambush in the state playoffs at the hands of Conemaugh Valley.  One almost gets the feeling this team, a legitimate PIAA contender, got caught feeling sorry for itself after a tough loss at the Palumbo Center, so it’ll be real interesting to see how hungry North Catholic looks and whether it can grab the title that got away, especially considering their road will be much more bumpy this season.  Kendall Hoffman returns with a reputation as one of the district’s most prolific forwards, and guard Erin DiSanti is another of several Trojanettes who will make her presence felt every night, but the Section 2 title won’t be handed to them.  Vincentian Academy’s coronation was no accident, and led by the multi-talented Keturah Vactor, the Royals still have one of the best lineups top to bottom in Class A.  North Catholic has already made a powerful statement by walloping defending Class AAA champ New Castle, though we should learn even more about this team next month.  The Royals and Trojanettes meet for the first time Jan. 18, and ten days earlier, North Catholic faces Rochester in the Geneva College Invitational in what could be a WPIAL Final preview.

For continuing coverage of WPIAL girls’ basketball, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2010-11 season!