Playoff-bound Pine-Richland girls embrace underdog role

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Sunday, February 11, 2024 | 11:01 AM


Heading into the playoffs, the Pine-Richland girls basketball team has embraced an underdog mentality.

That’s an understandable position to take given their circumstances.

The Rams have only 10 girls on the roster, and nine that are healthy. They played the entire season without a JV team, had some injuries along the way and went into the Christmas break without a victory.

But as the calendar turned to January, the Rams hit their stride and had won four of their last six games entering their section finale against Butler on Feb. 8.

They may be considered a long shot by many entering the postseason, but they believe they can prove people wrong.

“Ever since I’ve stepped into this role at Pine-Richland, I feel like we’ve been underdogs,” second-year coach Gabby Baldasare said. “We reiterate to the girls all the time that all that means is there’s no pressure on us. Nobody except the 12 people in our locker room think we can win, so we can go out and just play. The pressure is all on the top seeds.”

The Rams could finish third in Section 1-6A with a win over Butler.

Going into the Christmas break without a victory definitely brought some anxiety for Baldasare, but she was confident her players would find a way to break out.

They played an aggressive nonsection schedule by design and lost their first seven games, but finally broke through with a 61-56 win over McDowell prior to entering section play.

“Honestly, I felt good after our second game against Peters Township,” Baldasare said. “We didn’t have Cate Gentile and to compete the way we did was a positive. We always try to find the silver linings even when we lose. We played Trinity tight and McKeesport tight and eventually got our first win against McDowell. After that I figured we’d get rolling.

“Our section…it’s 6A basketball, so on any given night anybody can beat anybody. When you look at the scores, there’s no rhyme or reason to any of these results. It’s been insane. Our outlook is to get our kids as ready as best as they can, and if they give us consistent effort, that’s all we can ask for.”

Pine-Richland swept Hempfield, got a win against Butler and split with Seneca Valley in section play. A nonsection win over perennial 4A power North Catholic was a big boost.

Standout senior guard Madison Zavasky, an IUP recruit, leads the team in scoring and eclipsed the 1,000-point mark this season. Sophomore Cate Gentile has continued to score in bunches as well.

Add in the contributions from the supporting cast of Maren Iski, Aubree Bennett and Shea Best as well as rapid improvement from freshmen Zoe Cook and Mallory Boivin and the Rams have become more cohesive as a unit.

“Madison and Cate are X-factors in every game, but our role players have done really well,” Baldasare said. “They’ve all stepped into their role beautifully. Maren Iski, Aubree Bennett, Shea Best have all been awesome. We have a couple freshmen, Mallory Boivin and Zoe Cook, that have grown up so fast. Zoe has been our point guard and we’ve challenged her with a lot of responsibility, and she’s done a good job.

“All of them are helping take off the pressure or Madison and Cate. We are at our best when our role players are involved offensively, and that’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of games.”

Pine-Richland nearly went into the postseason with an eye-opening upset. The Rams led section champ Norwin at halftime on Feb. 5, but the Knights clawed back to take a 51-44 win.

The loss provided some lessons, which the Rams will apply when they lace up for the postseason.

“I told the girls after the game that the biggest thing about that game was confidence,” Baldasare said. “Norwin is a great team and they know they are good. They know they deserve to win those games. Now it’s time for our group to believe that we should be in those positions as well. I think that can help us get further this year.”

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer

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