Loaded St. Joseph girls basketball team has eye on WPIAL finals

Sunday, November 26, 2023 | 4:09 PM

For the second straight year, the St. Joseph girls basketball team reached the WPIAL Class A semifinals.

Two years ago, the Spartans pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent memory, taking down No. 1 Rochester, a three-time defending WPIAL champion, in the quarterfinals.

Last year, St. Joseph didn’t sneak up on anyone, but it still rolled through the regular season, including Section 3-A play, earned the No. 5 seed for the WPIAL playoffs, upended No. 4 Monessen on the Greyhounds’ home court and returned to the Class A final four.

A tough loss to eventual WPIAL and PIAA champion Union in the semifinals at North Allegheny again denied the Spartans a trip to the finals.

But with the return of all five starters and several top reserves – there were no seniors on last year’s roster – there is excitement surrounding the team a few days before the start of the 2023-24 season.

“We’re really excited for this year,” said senior guard/forward Julie Spinelli, last year’s Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year and one of seven seniors this season.

“We have experience back, but we also feel like it’s a fresh start. We’re really pumped for what we can do. We just have to stay focused and work hard to meet our high goals and expectations. We want to get over that hump and get to the WPIAL title game. We want to play at the Pete (Petersen Events Center).”

The experienced returning group was a benefit in the offseason as the program had a change at the top. Dennis Jones, the head coach for five-plus seasons, stepped down after battling health issues for the majority of last season.

Brian Swierczewski was the interim coach from the early part of January through the PIAA first-round loss to District 6 champion Williamsburg.

Geoff Dutelle, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., and a mathematics teacher at Fox Chapel, took over in April alongside first-year St. Joseph boys coach Logan Acri.

He spent the past four years with former Fox Chapel coach Jenn O’Shea at Montour as the girls JV coach and varsity assistant.

Dutelle said he quickly saw the veteran talent, athleticism, length, willingness to play up-tempo and the potential for big things as the team gathered for initial workouts, which led to additional work through the summer and fall.

“I keep telling them that winning is difficult, and it can be easy to take it for granted,” Dutelle said.

“You have to think about everything that goes into winning games. The best thing that we did was go and play in the Fox Chapel fall league. We played a bunch of 5A and 6A schools, and we got our butts handed to us. But it was great for us because we got to see what it was like to play at the highest levels against some consistent teams who play with an energy and are relentless. It reminded the girls that winning is not a casual thing and you have to approach it the same way every practice and every game.

“They have been really receptive to some new ideas and strategies and have been willing to be coached. They want that next level, and they approached the change with an open mind.”

Spinelli averaged nearly a double-double last year (18.6 points and 9.2 rebounds) and paced a tenacious defense with 3.8 steals per game.

The Frostburg State (Division II) commit scored her 1,000th varsity point in the second quarter of the Union semifinal.

Junior guard Gia Richter, who averaged 10.8 points, produced 3.8 steals a contest.

Senior guard/forward Emma Swierczewski checked in at 8.5 points a game and 2.1 assists, while 6-foot-3 senior center Anna Kreinbrook was a force in the paint with 8.5 rebounds and 5.4 blocks to go with 5.3 points a game.

Kreinbrook had 17 rebounds and 13 blocks against Monessen in the quarterfinals.

Senior forward Maggie Bernat made her mark with nearly five rebounds a game.

Also back as seniors looking for big things are guard/forward Amelia Wygonik and guard Kalyda O’Connor. Both were consistent off the bench last year.

St. Joseph collectively produced nearly 15 steals a game last year and surrendered only 34 points a game.

“Our coach (Dutelle) has done a really good job of keeping us disciplined in everything we do, on and off the court,” said Spinelli, who will share the court this year with her sister, freshman Jocelyn Spinelli.

“We know that if we don’t work hard or take anyone lightly, we’re not going to get what we want. That really sparked us.”

St. Joseph again will face the likes of playoff qualifiers Riverview, Leechburg and Jeannette in section play.

Last year, the Spartans opened with a big win over Class 4A Belle Vernon at the Play for Mae event at Woodland Hills. The Leopards went on to finish second in its section, win 16 games, and reach the Class 4A quarterfinals.

St. Joseph added a victory over Freeport right before the New Year.

The Spartans will test their mettle with scrimmages Monday against Steel Valley and Wednesday against Valley before opening the season Friday against Winchester Thurston at its own tip-off tournament at the Walter Dlubak Athletic Center.

North Hills and Ellwood City will meet in the other Friday game at 3 p.m.

The two games Saturday will be at 3 and 6:30 p.m.

“We have a pretty busy week,” Dutelle said.

“We saw North Hills in the fall league, and they have a pretty talented team. We know the scrimmages and the tournament games will be good tests to see where we are and what we need to still do to get better.”

St. Joseph girls at a glance

Coach: Geoff Dutelle

Last year’s record: 20-7 (8-0 Section 3-A)

Returning starters: Gia Richter (Jr., G), Anna Kreinbrook (Sr., C), Maggie Vernat (Jr., F), Emma Swierczewski (Sr., G/F), Julie Spinelli (Sr., G/F)

Top newcomers: Isabella Horcicak (Jr., G)

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.


More Basketball

Westmoreland County boys basketball notebook: Greensburg Central Catholic coaching tree blossoms
High school roundup for Feb. 20, 2024: No. 2 McKeesport holds off No. 15 Hampton in Class 5A 1st round
No. 6 Jeannette rallies to beat Sewickley Academy, avoid 1st-round upset
2nd-seeded Greensburg CC boys shake off rust, rout Frazier in 1st round
What to watch for in WPIAL sports on Feb. 21, 2024: Quarterfinals begin on WPIAL hardwood