Pair of impressive wins has Hempfield girls on cusp of WPIAL playoff berth

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018 | 10:50 PM


As the final seconds ticked away last Saturday evening at Hempfield Field House, Spartans first-year basketball coach Lindsy Muchnock turned to her assistant, Will Sherbondy.

With raised eye brows and a warm, almost blushed-over glow on her face, Muchnock mouthed one word: “Wow.”

Hempfield upset state-ranked Altoona, 60-42, behind a career-high 30 points from senior guard Allison Podkul and an 18-for-18 combined effort from the foul line.

The win turned some heads across the WPIAL and state.

“We embraced the role of underdogs,” Podkul said. “It all clicked in that game. We're still rising.”

Altoona (15-3) came into the season ranked No. 4 in the state in Class 6A, and was rated No. 9 on the bus ride to Westmoreland County.

Hempfield (8-9), on the other hand, was plugging along, teetering around .500 and simply looking to improve for a run at a playoff spot in Section 2-6A.

“We put it all together,” Muchnock said. “We played well together, and AP (Podkul) really stepped into a role of a vocal leader. We're coming together as a team.”

Altoona has wins over several WPIAL teams, including Latrobe, Norwin, defending 5A champion Chartiers Valley and Mt. Lebanon.

Validation followed for the Spartans: they one-upped themselves three days later with a 50-45 win over WPIAL No. 4 Latrobe, which was sitting pretty atop the standings until a pair of losses suddenly made a section-title run much tougher.

The final score still shined on the scoreboard at Wednesday's practice.

Hempfield looks like a team set on defining the proverbial “peaking at the right time” mantra. So be it if the season has been a slow build to something significant.

“We're coming together as a team because people are being unselfish and accepting their roles,” Muchnock said.

Muchnock was seeking leadership and continuity when she took over for Aaron Epps, who resigned after last season. She knew the process could take some time, even though she knew the girls because she was a former assistant at Hempfield.

“Coming in as the head coach, I knew we would all have to find and establish respect for each other,” she said. “I think we're progressing much better now.”

And back to Podkul's role: she has accepted being the go-to scorer but hasn't just turned up her points; she also has cranked up her volume.

Podkul is averaging about 17 points.

“In the Latrobe game, it was the fourth quarter with about five minutes left,” Muchnock said. “And she came to me and said, ‘I want the ball.' ”

Podkul moved to point guard and helped engineer a close-out final frame to topple Muchnock's alma mater and split the season series with the Wildcats (14-4, 6-2).

“You can't really pinpoint exactly why we're playing well,” Podkul said. “I just think we're all on the same page. The younger girls have really stepped up. I have tried to lead more and be louder so people can hear me better.”

Muchnock plays up to seven girls, with other senior leadership coming from Kayla Barrientos-Collins, and key roles being filled by junior Sarah Golden, sophomore Sarah Liberatore and others.

Junior Riley Sullenberger, a transfer from Norwin, filled in nicely when Golden left the lineup with a concussion.

Hempfield is on the cusp of clinching a playoff spot. They sit in third place, a half-game ahead of Penn Hills (10-7, 4-4). The top four teams make the playoffs.

Norwin (9-8, 7-2), which was hovering near the bottom of the section at one point, has risen to first place.

The Spartans are trying to keep with tradition and secure their 17th consecutive postseason berth.

“It's in the back of our minds,” Podkul said.

Muchnock added, “Hopefully, the momentum carries us. The season is a marathon, not a sprint.

“We're reminded of that streak every day.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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