Girls basketball preview: Southmoreland hopes for strong encore to historic season

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Sunday, December 6, 2020 | 5:39 PM


Reaching the WPIAL finals for the first time and going two rounds deep in the state playoffs made Southmoreland one of the darlings of WPIAL girls basketball last season.

Their story caught the eye of starving fans in town, neighboring spectators and even casual observers who appreciate good teams come the postseason.

“We had so many people follow us in the playoffs,” junior forward Gracie Spadaro said. “It was amazing.”

Southmoreland finished as the WPIAL runner-up in Class 4A and made it to the PIAA second round in its first trip to the state playoffs.

When the bus pulled into Alverton for the last time, the Scotties had produced a 25-2 record and the best season in program history.

Now, this year’s team has the privilege — or is it a burden? — of following that banner act.

The Scotties are not backing down from the challenge. Even though they have as many seniors as they had losses in the regular season last year: zero.

“We still have high expectations,” said first-year coach Amber Cernuto, who took over when Brian Pritts resigned after 19 seasons with the Scotties. “The girls created those expectations. The girls know what is expected of them, and they want to keep Southmoreland on top.”

Pritts won 235 games over two stints and helped the program turn a corner. Cernuto used to be his assistant and is set to take over a team that returns two starters, including her daughter, dynamic sophomore point guard Olivia Cernuto, along with Spadaro, a 6-foot forward and the reigning Trib Westmoreland Player of the Year.

Spadaro led the team with 15.2 points and 6.2 rebounds, and Olivia Cernuto averaged 11.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

The latter recently was named the Trib Westmoreland Girls Soccer Player of the Year after a 37-goal season.

The athletic pair, who both play three sports, could make up one of the top one-two tandems in the WPIAL.

“We want them to be leaders,” coach Cernuto said. “I don’t want to put pressure on them, but I want them to lead our younger players and do it with a whole-team aspect, not as individuals.”

Southmoreland didn’t win its first section title since 2007 and become the first team in the program to get past the WPIAL quarterfinals with pretty layups and a barrage of 3-pointers — the M.O. of many girls teams. Its run was fueled by defense, the calling-card of the Scotties, who again will have size to turn away shots around the rim and force turnovers.

“If we get into the playoffs again, I think we’ll be more relaxed,” Spadaro said.”We have four people returning that played a lot last year. That should help us relax more.”

Southmoreland, which lost to North Catholic in its first WPIAL championship appearance and Lancaster Catholic in the state second round — just before the covid-19 pandemic began shutting down daily life — allowed 36.8 points a game.

They averaged 14.6 steals and 3.9 blocks as a team.

“We’re focused on the defensive end,” coach Cernuto said. “The offense will come. Defense wins ball games. We’re still a long team and we’re quick. They want to play fast.”

Southmoreland has six players who are 5-foot-10 or taller, including four 6-footers.

“We’re still tall and quick,” Spadaro said. “We need to play better help defense. We were really good at that last year.”

Amber Cernuto, who has been operating without an assistant coach — one could be named this week — also has six letterwinners back.

“We’re young but we do have experience,” she said.

Junior Delaynie Morvosh played in all 27 games and quietly averaged 7.1 points. She will have an enhanced role, along with sophomore forward Maddie Moore, who also played in every game as a freshman.

Junior guard Elle Pawilkowsky, sophomores Reagan Carson and Emerson Craig, and freshmen Kaylee Doppleheuer and Amarah McCutcheon also will look to provide key minutes for a team that has seven sophomores and five freshmen.

“We’re hoping to play seven or eight girls,” Amber Cernuto said. “I have been coaching 12 or 13 of these girls since they were in fourth grade with the Southmoreland elementary travel team. They are familiar with my philosophy.”

Belle Vernon and West Mifflin are teams coach Cernuto thinks will challenge her team in Section 3-4A, which also will include WPIAL newcomer Ligonier Valley.

“Our section will be tough. It can come down to how you play that day,” Cernuto said. “Hopefully, we can win the section again, but teams will be gunning for us.”

Southmoreland was not spared from covid-19. A team member tested positive late last week, so the Scotties will be out of action for at least a week.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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