Kiski Area girls gain confidence for upcoming season

Tuesday, November 28, 2017 | 5:57 PM

A renovated gymnasium at Kiski Area features a sparkling new floor along with some other aesthetic adjustments. The girls basketball team is eyeing its own upgrades.

After a half-decade of struggles, the Cavaliers begin the season confident they can make a run at their first WPIAL playoff berth since 2012. At the very least, they believe their biggest problems are firmly behind them.

“They're not going to run us over anymore,” Kiski Area coach Nick Ionadi said. “If they come in here and sleepwalk against us, they're going to get beat.”

It's a bold statement, especially given the Cavaliers' problems in recent years.

When Ionadi took over the program in 2012, it suffered from low numbers, especially in the feeder programs. That ended up causing problems at the varsity level, with roster numbers sometimes dwindling as low as five or six players. Ionadi also found himself teaching basketball basics to players new to the sport.

Ionadi also worked extensively with players at the younger levels, many of whom now comprise Kiski Area's roster. Those players' experience, even given Kiski Area's youth — the team still has only three seniors — gives Ionadi hope.

“The biggest thing is the numbers, and it's all the way down (to the younger levels),” Ionadi said, noting sixth-grade players watching a recent practice. “I think after that, is we have basketball players now. I'm not teaching girls the rules before we go to play Norwin. Now, we're actually getting ready.

“The entire attitude's different. It's not, we're just happy to be here. These girls are now at the point where they expect to win. It's almost the entire culture's different now.”

A similar, successful formula unfolded in recent years just down the road at Leechburg. After about a decade of constant losing, the Blue Devils reversed their fortunes with a core of six players who posted a solid debut as freshmen in 2015, qualified for the WPIAL playoffs as sophomores in 2016 and advanced all the way to the PIAA postseason in 2017.

Kiski Area hopes to be following that method: The Cavaliers won five games in 2016-17 with three freshmen in the starting lineup after posting two wins combined in the three previous seasons. But after winning four of their first six games, the Cavaliers dropped their next 14 before beating Clairton in their season finale. Their section losing streak now stands at 25 games, something Ionadi wants to see end this season.

Even amid the losing streak, Kiski Area saw improvements, playing better in the second half of section play, its point differential shrinking as the year went on.

“As a young team, we did pretty well,” sophomore Hannah Potter said. “We struggled a little bit, but overall we did pretty well. But we pushed ourselves to work hard and told ourselves we were going to do better this year. So we're hoping we can.”

The size and experience difference with their opponents sometimes wore on the younger Cavaliers last season, but a year of literal growth could help them in that regard.

“The pace is definitely a lot quicker,” sophomore Harley Holloway said. “Everybody's a lot stronger and older than middle school would be because it's just seventh and eighth (grades), but now we're (going against) 18-year-olds and it's a lot harder. It's not (easy). There's a really big difference because 12th-graders and 11th-graders have a lot more experience than the middle-schoolers, so it's a lot harder. But we've been working hard, so I think we'll be fine.”

All five starters return for Kiski Area, including leading scorers Potter and Holloway at guard, seniors Katelyn Brown and Mallory Shick and sophomore Violeta Kenzevich. Those five won't necessarily make up the starting lineup this season: junior Dara Zelonka could step in at forward, and sophomore Courtney Collins and freshman Kaylee Elwood are pushing for time.

While Kiski Area has experience, it lacks size, which could pose a problem in rebounding. The players focused their offseason training on strength and conditioning to combat that particular issue.

“We need the strength to go against the older kids,” Potter said. “Since a lot of us have been lifting, that's going to be a good thing for us. It's all going to have to be effort. That's what (Ionadi) always says: Effort wins games. It's going to have to be all effort this year.”

Potter thinks the team can excel defensively, and Ionadi set a lofty benchmark of limiting opponents to 40 points or fewer.

Outside of that goal, Ionadi is focused on aesthetic improvements instead of pure number or record predictions for the Cavaliers, whose season begins Dec. 7 against Imani Christian at Leechburg's tip-off tournament.

“I'm just worried about one possession to the next,” Ionadi said. “I don't really get big on predictions. Our goal every year is to be the best team we can. It's always just about exceeding what we did the year before. A big goal for me this year is getting on the board in section, just getting that first one out of the way and then going from there. … But as long as we're improving every day, I'm good.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.


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