Girls basketball preview: Former Belle Vernon star takes reins of exciting young team

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Monday, November 23, 2020 | 7:36 PM


Talk about respect.

Belle Vernon has yet to play a game under new girls basketball coach Kaitlyn Slagus, but her players already have heard a great deal about her.

A former Belle Vernon star, Slagus is learning quickly about her players, too.

“Some of us were walking out of the building one day, and I caught them looking at the ball (in the trophy case) that represented my 1,000th career point,” Slagus said. “One of the girls looked at me and said, ‘My dad always brought us up here, and you guys were good.’

“That really struck me.”

Now, Slagus is banking on this current Belle Vernon group to make its own mark.

“These young girls have played together for so long,” she said. “They’re smart basketball players. They’ve been together in middle school on up. They’ve played in the school’s organization. You can definitely see the chemistry on the court.”

Slagus said there’s a bit of competition at positions up and down the lineup. It’s a healthy way to get things started, she reasoned.

“It’s pretty awesome being at home and being on a familiar layout,” said Slagus, who played on four consecutive WPIAL playoff teams at Belle Vernon from 2011-15 before putting together a splendid college career at Bucknell, where she is the school’s all-time leading rebounder.

“I think it’s going to be a good season with these girls,” she said. “They are eager to play, and we’re going to set the bar high for them. If you don’t set it high, you probably don’t have a chance to accomplish your goals.”

Slagus, who replaces Ronnie Drennen as the Leopards coach, has been humbled by all the well-wishers within the community, and she’s delighted by the reaction from her players over the return to her alma mater.

It serves as a reminder that Slagus is taking on a new position on the Belle Vernon bench, coaching the team rather than playing for it.

“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “So far, it feels pretty natural.”

Right off, injuries have sidelined two key players, though Slagus insisted the Leopards are able to move forward with a plan to succeed.

Sophomore guard Jenna Dawson, a starter as a freshman and the team’s leading returning scorer (11.4 ppg), has been lost for the season with a torn ACL, while senior Grace Henderson was expected to be out indefinitely with a stress fracture in her foot.

Henderson, who last season took a year off from basketball, last week committed to Akron to participate in track and field.

Slagus, who spent a brief time after her college days playing and coaching professionally in Ireland, inherits a young team.

Rachel Wobrak, the team’s leading scorer (14.0 ppg.), rebounder (4.6) and shot blocker (29) last season, is a freshman guard/forward at Washington & Jefferson.

Belle Vernon’s roster includes just one senior in point guard Taylor Rodriguez, who also is among the returning starters from a team that posted a 16-7 record and earned a spot in the WPIAL playoffs with a 9-5 record in Section 4A.

“She’s been a great leader on the court,” Slagus said.

While Dawson won’t be available this year, Slagus is expected to start guard/forwards Presleigh Colditz and Farrah Reader and guard Viva Kreis, three of the team’s other sophomores, when Belle Vernon opens the season against McKeesport on Dec. 11 at the McKeesport tipoff tournament.

The other starter could come from a group that includes three guards, juniors Tara Callaway and Kaci Bitonti and freshman Tessa Rodriguez, a younger sister of Taylor Rodriguez.

“All of those girls really have great court sense and can attack the rim,” Slagus said.

Like Henderson, junior forward Gabriella Baker also returns to the team after a year off from the sport.

“I certainly don’t want to take this year as a throwaway year by any means,” Slagus said. “Having a new coach is tough on players. I know because I’ve been through it. But a lot of girls are working hard for a spot. We’ve made it clear to them what we’re trying to do: We want to play really fast, and we think we can.”

Slagus already understands the respect she’s being shown by her players. Now, she said, it’s time for the entire team to earn some respect of its own.

Belle Vernon girls at a glance

Coach: Kaitlyn Slagus

Last year’s record: 16-7 (9-5 Section 3-4A)

Returning starters: Kaci Bitonti (Jr., G), Tara Callaway (Jr., G), Presleigh Colditz (Soph., G/F), Viva Kreis (Soph., G), Farrah Reader (Soph., G/F), Taylor Rodriguez (Sr., G)

Top newcomers: Grace Henderson (Sr., F/C), Tessa Rodriguez (Fr., G)

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