Monessen girls, veteran coach ready to again overcome small-school challenges

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Wednesday, November 22, 2023 | 5:54 PM


Thirty-eight years. That’s how long Janine Vertacnik has been coaching basketball, most of it at the high school level.

Thirty-eight years and counting, she said. Will she keep going, say, forever?

“We’re working on it, but we’re not there yet,” the sixth-year Monessen girls coach joked.

After leading the Greyhounds in the past two seasons to back-to-back appearances in the PIAA Class A playoffs, Vertacnik says she’s ready to get back to work in Year 39.

She trusts her players are, too. In the meantime, expect Vertacnik to slip them a little nudge.

“I just like to roll up my sleeves and see what I can do for the kids,” she said. “I wish they were a little more passionate, like I am. But their love is the same as mine because none of them are going to play in college. You’d never know that when they’re on the court. One thing I can say about my teams here at Monessen, they play with passion. But when the season is over, the ball goes in the closet.

Every year, it seems, the script remains the same: The Greyhounds’ roster usually lists fewer players than most, meaning potential injuries are trouble. And then, there’s the ongoing struggle to overcome conflicts in practice schedules.

So many of Vertacnik’s players traditionally have played other sports and haven’t begun regularly attending basketball practices until they’ve been able. It’s just that way at a school with one of the smallest enrollments in the WPIAL, she said.

“We’ve got to do with what we have,” Vertacnik said. “You’ve just got to try to figure it out.”

At least one potential problem Monessen faces isn’t really a problem at all: Vertacnik insists she has seven returning starters. That’s mainly because she frequently was changing lineups, even from game to game.

“We’ve got five seniors and seven lettermen,” she said.

If she’s lucky, she’ll have 10 players on the team by the time the Greyhounds open the season Dec. 1 with a first-round game at their annual Major Corley Memorial Tournament against City League opponent Brashear.

Headlining Monessen’s returnees is 5-foot-9 senior Hailey Johnson, who last season nearly averaged a double-double (10.0 ppg., 9.0 rpg), when Monessen posted a 9-1 record in winning a Section 2-A championship, part of a 17-7 overall mark.

“We’re hoping for more than 17 wins this year,” Vertacnik said. “We want to try to improve on it every year. With a veteran team, that’s not an unrealistic expectation. But we’ve got to stay healthy.”

And make more foul shots.

For all their success, the Greyhounds shot just 42.5% from the free-throw line.

“I guess it’s a mental thing. I’m really not sure what to make of it, but it cost us a couple of wins,” Vertacnik said.

Despite it, there certainly remains a positive vibe around the program. Nobody, Vertacnik said, openly cares about themselves, and that is a coach’s dream.

“There’s only one basketball,” she said. “The girls understand their roles. You don’t have anyone arguing to shoot the ball. My kids are more than happy to pass it. They just want to win the game.”

In 24 games last season, Monessen attempted just 176 3-point shots, an average of 7.3 per game.

“What does that tell you about us?” she said. “We are going to pound the ball inside. I’m not letting them stand out there and shoot all day long.”

Joining Johnson on the list of “starters,” is her younger sister, 5-5 sophomore Madison Johnson, as well as 5-8 sophomore Na’Jaziah Carter.

Also, four other seniors: 5-5 Sidney Campbell, 5-8 MyAsia Majors, 5-10 Avanti Stitch and 5-9 Harmony Wynn.

Rayniya Lyons, a 5-4 freshman guard, could crack the Greyhounds’ rotation in her first varsity season, Vertacnik said.

Despite holding opponents to an average of 36.5 points last season, the Greyhounds faltered in the playoffs.

They entered the WPIAL postseason as a No. 4 seed, earning a first-round bye, but dropped a 53-46 decision to No. 5 St. Joseph in the quarterfinals.

Yet, the Greyhounds advanced to the state playoffs as a fifth-place team in District 7, only to be beaten in the PIAA first round by District 9 champion Otto-Eldred, 57-30.

That game made headlines when word got out the team was scheduled to make the nearly four-hour trip to the McKean County School near the New York border in Duke Center via school bus. The Pittsburgh Penguins subsequently offered a ride in a chartered bus.

What is it, as a new season approaches, that Vertacnik said (and probably not for the first time in her long career)?

Quite simply, “You’ve just got to figure it out.”

Monessen girls at a glance

Coach: Janine Vertacnik

Last year’s record: 17-7 (9-1 Section 2-A)

Key returners: Sidney Campbell (Sr., G), Na’Jaziah Carter (Soph., G-F), Hailey Johnson (Sr., G-F), Madison Johnson (Soph., G), MyAsia Majors (Sr., F), Avanti Stitch (Sr., G-F), Harmony Wynn (Sr., F)

Top newcomer: Rayniya Lyons (Fr., G)

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