Monessen girls bringing storied program back to prominence

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020 | 6:37 PM


Monessen has a long, proud girls basketball history filled with WPIAL and state titles, but the past decade was a lean one for the Greyhounds.

Those tough times finally seem to be coming to an end.

The Greyhounds, at 10-4 (4-2 in Section 2-A), already have as many wins this season as the previous three years combined, and the team is on pace to clinch its first WPIAL playoff appearance since 2014 before the end of January.

Veteran coach Janine Vertacnik, who is in her second year at Monessen, isn’t surprised at the improvement her team has shown. The Greyhounds only lost one starter from a year ago, and a big freshman class that arrived last season is now a more seasoned sophomore group.

“I really felt this was going to be a year for us to excel, and I knew having everybody back, we’d be better,” Vertacnik said. “I feel like I came at a good time, because there were some good eighth graders coming up. These sophomores are a competitive group, and a lot of them played AAU for me.”

While the sophomores bring talent depth to a program that sometimes struggled to get enough players to have JV games, Monessen is able to lean on a pair of senior captains, Qitarah Hardison and Zykavia Hairston, who have driven the team’s turnaround.

Hardison is a four-year starter who, at 5-foot-8, averages a double-double with 13.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. With playoffs adding games to the schedule, the senior has a chance to finish with 1,000 career rebounds, a total that reflects her attitude toward that facet of the game.

“Rebounding is more important to me than scoring. If I can get boards, that’s all that matters,” Hardison said. “My freshman and 10th-grade years, I didn’t put up a whole lot of points, but it was good if I could get the boards for us.”

As a team, Monessen pulls down more than 38 rebounds per game, including more than 18 per game on the offensive glass. Sophomore Kendelle Weston averages 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds, and Hairston scores 5.0 points and grabs 5.9 rebounds per game. Senior Jahnell Jackson and sophomore Mercedes Majors also contribute on the boards, and junior Sydney Caterino provides ball handling and secondary scoring from the backcourt.

The big rebounding totals have helped the Greyhounds limit opponents to fewer than 38 points per game, as defense has been the team’s calling card the past two seasons. But Vertacnik said the reason the wins are coming this year is better decision making with the ball, as the team has gone from scoring 37.4 per game last season to averaging 46.6 so far this year.

“I feel like we’re more confident as a team. We play as a team,” Hairston said. “I feel like when we’re under pressure, we can take the pressure and come out with the win.”

Winning has been a new experience for this Monessen group. That’s not the case for Vertacnik, however, as she sits just three wins shy of 300 for her career, which includes a WPIAL title in 2010 at Jeannette.

“I didn’t know if I was going to get it this year with them, but it looks like, with our remaining schedule, I’m going to get there,” Vertacnik said. “They’re excited that they’re able to go out, me getting 300 victories, them getting into the playoffs and, maybe, starting a trend of winning again.”

That last part is what appeals most to the seniors, who have laid a foundation for future success at Monessen.

While there is still a way to go before the Greyhounds are able to challenge a powerhouse like West Greene for a section title, the program is moving on an upward trend. And after the school’s run of 25 consecutive playoff appearances that ran through 2014, this year’s seniors are happy to have the chance to start a new streak at one.

“It’s a whole lot different. The team has changed over the last four years. We did what we had to do (to improve), and the reward is going to be us going to the playoffs,” Hardison said. “It’s going to mean a lot to me. That’s all I want is to make it to the playoffs for Coach and for Monessen.”

Matt Grubba is a contributing writer.

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