Last season’s abrupt ending motivates North Allegheny girls basketball

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Sunday, December 13, 2020 | 1:54 PM


After having its state title hopes dashed last season by the covid-19 pandemic, the North Allegheny girls basketball team isn’t worried about a couple of inconveniences.

Wear masks at all times for practices and during games? Fine. Social distance and wash uniforms and equipment every night? No big deal.

“I would do anything to have a season this year,” all-state senior guard Lizzy Groetsch said, “and I think I can speak for my teammates. They would, too.”

The defending WPIAL Class 6A champion Tigers still have a fresh memory of last March, when the PIAA playoffs were canceled because of the burgeoning coronavirus. The Tigers were 24-3 at the time — 24-1 against Pennsylvania teams — and were two wins away from reaching Hershey for the state title game. It was a heart-wrenching ending, especially for the since-departed seniors.

“When everything ended last year, (the seniors) were saying, ‘You’ve got to keep it going next year for us and finish what we started,’ ” Groetsch said. “They have kind of motivated us.”

But the challenges already have hit. The Tigers were forced to delay the start of their 2020-21 practice until Nov. 25 — five days later than the rest of the WPIAL — after the program was shut down for two weeks and the players were quarantined after coach Spencer Stefko’s positive test on Nov. 11.

Stefko, 44, had attended a North Allegheny open gym one day before he began to experience covid symptoms, prompting the shutdown. The sixth-year coach missed the first five days of practice, enduring a battle with the coronavirus that included a three-week fever of 101-plus degrees. Stefko, who said he is almost completely recovered, was cleared to return to practice Dec. 1.

“I was carrying it,” Stefko said. “I didn’t know. All of the kids were quarantined (for 14 days) from not just practice, but from school. They did a great job keeping themselves in shape at home. To the best of my knowledge, nobody felt anything or got sick.”

With that first obstacle behind them, the Tigers hit the ground running. Stefko said “the pace of practice and the sharpness of practices feels like it has in the past.”

Groetsch, a Penn commit, is joined by returning starters Paige Morningstar, a 6-foot senior and all-section pick, and sophomore guard Jasmine Timmerson. Junior guard Emma Fischer is another likely starter, and sophomore guard Cam Phillips and senior center Maddie Reardon are vying for a starting job or valuable rotation minutes.

“The practices have been great,” Groetsch said. “We are just so happy to be back on the court, and we’re really hungry this year.”

The Tigers were scheduled to open the season Dec. 13 against visiting Penn Hills. However, Gov. Tom Wolf said last Thursday high school sports throughout the state are being paused until Jan. 4.

When they return, NA will be without junior guard Taylor Rawls, who has suffered a season-ending injury.

“We’re looking forward to getting her back next year,” Stefko said. “She’s a great person. She’s at practice every day acting as a coach.”

Groetsch leads in many ways. Last season, she averaged 17.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.7 steals. She scored her 1,000th career point in the Tigers’ 54-50 overtime victory against Bethel Park in the WPIAL Class 6A championship game. She said she focused on improving her 3-point shooting and mid-range jumper during the offseason.

“She’s a great player, and she would be embarrassed if I said what I really thought about her,” Stefko said. “She is the type of kid who you build a program around, and we have.”

The Tigers have another standout in Morningstar, a first-team all-state volleyball player who will play that sport at Louisville. She averaged 9.3 points and 5.7 rebounds last season.

Expectations are as high as ever for the Tigers, who are 129-14 under Stefko, including a 105-5 mark against WPIAL schools. They have won three of the past four WPIAL titles and have won or shared the section title for eight consecutive years. They are eyeing their 14th straight WPIAL playoff berth. But the Tigers never have won a state title, losing in the 2017 PIAA finals in their only appearance.

Groetsch said the team prepared for the season with two-hour open gyms this summer at the outside courts at North Park. As evidence of their dedication to safety, Groetsch said the players “wore masks the whole time we played.”

“Having to wear them (at practice) hasn’t been a huge problem,” she said. “It’s definitely harder than it was in the past without a mask, but I don’t think it’s as bad as I thought it would be.”

While Stefko admits last season’s state-playoff shutdown provides extra motivation for the players, he said they are keeping their priorities in order.

“These kids really understand that the mission right now to win a state championship is misguided,” he said. “The mission for us right now is to have a season.”

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