Short-handed Monessen girls keep grinding toward PIAA opponent

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Thursday, March 9, 2023 | 8:36 PM


It’s been an exhausting week for Monessen’s girls basketball team, and it still has a game to play.

Let’s set the scene heading into the PIAA girls basketball playoffs.

It’s another long trip north — three-plus hours, in fact, almost to the New York state line — for the Greyhounds, who played back to earn a state tournament berth.

They got their bus — a spacious charter paid for by the school, not the Pittsburgh Penguins; not a limousine, traditional school bus or even a Greyhound — but it will have plenty of open seats because the team only has seven players.

The Greyhounds (17-6), who have no seniors or sophomores, returned to the Class A state tournament but will have a short bench when they play at Otto-Eldred (24-2) at 3 p.m. on Saturday in Duke Center, about a four-hour trip north for Monessen.

Monessen’s boosters sent out a social media post early in the week asking for help to raise money for a charter bus. The Penguins came out of nowhere to offer help, but the school board politely declined and found a reasonably priced bus for the girls that fit within in the school’s budget.

Back to basketball …

Monessen lost in the first round last year at Elk County Catholic, 52-23. But that was with a larger roster.

“We’re the Super 7,” coach Janine Vertacnik said.

With a couple of players out for undisclosed reasons related to team rules on a roster that started with nine, the Greyhounds have to get big minutes, many minutes, from their starters.

“We can’t get into foul trouble,” Vertacnik said. “And we’re going to have to back off our press a little bit.”

Monessen is not a 3-point shooting team like so many others are now. Instead, the team relies on driving the lane.

“We’re scrappy,” Vertacnik said. “They’re a tight-knit group that is going to fight for each other, dive for loose balls and rebound.

“We’re not tall, but we’re bulky.”

Juniors Hailey Johnson and Myasia Majors both pull down about 10 rebounds a game. Johnson leads the team in scoring with an average just south of 10 points.

She and Majors, who has shown improvement around the basket, have a number of double-doubles between them. Four girls average nine points.

“We don’t know what to expect with scoring,” Vertacnik said. “Any of them could be the high scorer.”

Monessen averages about 42 rebounds.

Even without depth that makes practices thin — there is no junior varsity team — the Greyhounds have won 15 of their last 17 games.

“We’ve come so far since December,” Vertacnik said.

The lack of a JV team has given a crop of freshmen a chance to play at a higher level.

Madison Johnson is a ninth-grade point guard, and Na’Jazish Carter also has put in big minutes for a first-year varsity player.

“Three of those (freshmen) were managers last year,” Vertacnik said. “They went to states but with water bottles.

“They were thrown to the wolves but have slowly developed.”

Junior guard Sidney Campbell has been the glue player, her coach said.

Vertacnik is a fan of the new WPIAL consolation bracket, which allows teams to play back and earn spots and seeding in the state tournament.

One of the main reasons, among a few, is Monessen would not have made the state tournament otherwise.

In the old format, quarterfinal losers followed the team they lost to into the state playoffs. They also had to wait up to two weeks to open the PIAA bracket.

“The home games were nice, too,” Vertacnik said.

Monessen played three playoff games at home.

The Greyhounds earned the No. 4 seed in the WPIAL tournament and had a first-round bye. Then, they hosted No. 5 St. Joseph in the quarterfinals and fell 53-46.

With the old format, St. Joseph would have had to win the WPIAL title for the Greyhounds to get pulled into states.

Instead, they played back to earn fifth place and the final state berth with consolation wins over West Greene (46-43) and Avella (48-37).

“We lost two games (on the schedule) because Uniontown and Charleroi canceled on us,” Vertacnik said. “The (consolations) gave us 22 games. We only lost two homes games all year.”

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

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