Latrobe, Southmoreland, Belle Vernon girls take different paths with star players out

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Wednesday, January 25, 2023 | 11:01 AM


When Latrobe found out standout center Emma Blair was done for the season with a knee injury just three games into the 2022-23 schedule, the first reaction was panic. Cold sweats and worry. Oh no, the sky is falling.

But after some time passed, and reflection and practice reps with a new-look lineup set in, things didn’t seem so bad.

Sure, the 6-foot-1 Blair was a force around the rim. The returning Trib Westmoreland player of the year and South Carolina Upstate commit produced double-doubles with regularity.

Latrobe was determined to win without her and, at the same time, for her.

“I think we have handled losing Emma fairly well,” Latrobe senior guard-forward Camille Dominick said. “The hardest part of losing her is losing her experience. She has started since she was a freshman, and losing her experience has hurt us the most.”

Southmoreland and Belle Vernon know the feeling, albeit for similar, yet varied reasons.

Star point guard Olivia Cernuto suffered a knee injury during soccer season and had to miss her final prep basketball season. Blair’s loss was rough, but Cernuto’s was devastating to the Scotties, who have felt the ripple effects.

At Belle Vernon, the Leopards were primed to be a playoff contender even before the season started. But a key player in their arsenal opted out of basketball, leaving what seemed to be a gaping void in the backcourt.

Point guard Viva Kreis decided to focus full-time on her handball career — she plays on the U.S. national team — so the Leopards had to shuffle their cards.

Latrobe is 8-6 without Blair (11-7 overall). The return of junior guard Elle Snyder merged with the steady play of Dominick and Straigis to keep the Wildcats on pace for a return to the playoffs.

Snyder had a 34-point game with 10-3-pointers.

Dominick, a 6-1 Pitt-Johnstown commit, has become more versatile as a a result of Blair’s absence.

“I think Josie (Straigis) and I have stepped up the most,” Dominick said. “Josie has really stepped up on defense by taking the other team’s best player and has rebounded greatly on both ends of the floor. Personally, I have had to switch from playing the guard to the post. It has been a tough transition, but I am feeling confident trusting my post moves and handling my matchups in the post.”

Latrobe went 18-5 last season and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals and PIAA playoffs, a year after finishing 14-3 and making the WPIAL semifinals for the first time since 1998.

Blair was a big part of that run.

“The hardest part of Emma being out is personally knowing how difficult it is for her, sitting on the bench and not being able to step foot on the court,” Snyder said. “Both Emma and I know that she will be back and stronger than ever. I just wish I could be playing with her when that happens.”

Another sure-fire local all-star is Cernuto, a do-it-all player who likely would have scored 1,000 career points. But she is rehabbing as she gets ready for a college career at Gannon.

Southmoreland was 50-12 the last three seasons with her running the show but has dipped drastically this season to the tune of 1-16.

When the cornerstone gets pulled, the wall falls.

The Scotties are averaging just 28 points per game after reaching the WPIAL semifinals three straight years.

Senior 6-foot forward Maddie Moore has stepped into a larger role, averaging 14 points. Moore has moved around, too, playing a variety of spots, even point guard of late.

“Despite our unexpected results this season, Maddie has stepped up a lot for us this season,” Scotties coach Amber Cernuto said. “She was our only returning starter and one of three returning letterwinners. She has played in many positions on the court and recently has stepped up as point guard with the loss of ours due to illness.

“There have been many games that she has kept us in games offensively and defensively.”

Junior Bea Pawlikowsky has been out of the lineup but is expected back soon.

Coach Cernuto also said senior Reagan Carson has played an important role.

“Although she may not show it on the offensive side, she has played some amazing defense and her intensity and positive attitude has helped the younger players keep their heads up during difficult times,” Cernuto said.

Belle Vernon (11-6) has remained in the thick of the Section 3-4A race — it was a game behind Elizabeth Forward at the start of the week — behind an experienced group.

Belle Vernon has won four in a row and eight of its last nine.

“With every new season comes new challenges and voids to fill from the last one,” Leopards coach Kaitlyn Slagus said. “I am proud of the way all of my players stepped up to take on more of a balanced scoring role as a team. On any given night, I cannot tell you who the leading scorer is going to be. As a coach, that is comforting knowing we do not have to rely heavily on one or two players to fill the void from last season.”

A mixed bag of talent has driven Belle Vernon, from seniors Jenna Dawson, Farrah Reader and Presleigh Colditz to juniors Tessa Rodriguez and Kenzi Seliga.

Dawson is a scorer while Reader has been a relentless rebounder and Rodriguez an all-around package who consistently delivers assists and steals.

“As a team, we set our goals for what we wanted to accomplish this year, and while the goals have not changed, the path to get there may be a little different than expected,” Slagus said.

Kreis was a ball handler and shooting threat, especially from the 3-point arc. A by-committee approach has proven worthy for the Leopards, with multiple ball-handlers and scoring possibilities roaming freely in the offense.

“Tessa Rodriguez has done a great job running the point this year,” Slagus said. “Tessa, along with Jenna Dawson, are both very talented players that I had complete faith in in handling that position.”

Dawson said she knew it wasn’t going to be a one-for-one swap in filling in for Kreis.

“I think collectively we all had to pick up scoring in place of her,” Dawson said. “Although it definitely helps having Lilly (Kerns) back this year and Kenzi stepping up too.”

Dominick thinks Latrobe has plenty left in the tank as the regular season winds to a finish.

“I believe that if we work hard and execute what needs to be done, we could make a decent playoff run,” she said. “We just need to work on everyone playing a complete game, and not getting down and having to fight back the whole game.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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