St. Joseph girls basketball team no longer an underdog

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Sunday, December 3, 2017 | 11:18 PM


Chloe Kurpakus considered St. Joseph an underdog last season, mainly because she and her teammates had not reached the heights they achieved before a run to the WPIAL Class A semifinals and first-ever appearance in the PIAA playoffs.

Kurpakus' three senior teammates — Gia Angelo, Alex Jones and Anna Swierczewski — nodded in agreement with her assessment of the Spartans' underdog status a season ago, but they know they won't sneak up on anyone this season.

The history-making run gives them a sense of belief heading into this season.

“Last year gave us confidence because now we know we can get that far,” Kurpakus said. “Before last year, I don't know if anyone believed we could get that far.”

Three starters and Jones, a key contributor, return. The Spartans lost 1,000-point scorer Lizzy Celko and Patti Jo Nickoloff to graduation, but Jones will slot into the lineup after being the first person off the bench last year.

One reason why St. Joseph coach Sally Ackerman considered Jones one of the team's main weapons was she could play all five positions.

“It was a challenge, but it taught me to push myself to learn each of the different positions,” Jones said. “It really helped me help other people too, because if they weren't sure what to do, I was able to help them and vice versa. I think overall it made me a better player.”

Jones is now a starters, but her ability to be a matchup nightmare for opponents will stay the same.

“When Alex came in the game last year, I used the energy and spark that she has wherever I could,” Ackerman said. “She is a scorer. She was just as important to us, if not more important, because I could match her up with anyone on the court.

“She is a better player because she can score a lot more ways than what she could two years ago, and this year she's going to be able to score even more. She's bigger and stronger.”

After a 2-5 start, St. Joseph won 15 of its last 19 games. Two of the losses came to eventual WPIAL champion and Section 3-A rival Winchester Thurston. It was a run Ackerman said she hadn't experienced as a coach.

While the Spartans want to feed off that good energy, it's important to Ackerman to stay even-keeled.

“I want every team to do what we did last year and even more,” Ackerman said. “That's my goal as a coach, and if it wasn't, I'm not doing my job hard enough. It's easy to follow a season like we just had to get down on ourselves if we don't beat a team we beat last year. If they get caught up in that, it's easy to spiral. So we have to sit back and temper the expectations.

“Do I think we can get back to where we were last year? Yes, I do. If we can play the way we did last year for four quarters, I think we can be tough to beat.”

Another reason for optimism is the level of comfort the four seniors have together on the floor. They can read each other with ease, and that allows for offensive efficiency.

“We know where everyone is going to be before they are even there,” Kurpakus said. “Like when someone is cutting to the basket for a give-and-go, I know where Alex, Gia or Anna is going to be and where to pass it.”

Ackerman said she has several players she said could fill the fifth spot in the starting lineup, including sophomores Molly Coleman, Camille Piskor and Tory Peel. Freshman forwards Neveah Ewing and Ally Swierczewski could see playing time.

St. Joseph placed second in Section 3 behind Winchester Thurston, which returns Xavier recruit Ayanna Townshend. Imani Christian, Eden Christian, Clairton and Aquinas Academy are in Section 3.

The Spartans host a tip-off tournament. They play Highlands on Friday. Shady Side Academy and Burrell are the other two teams in the tournament.

Jerin Steele is a freelance writer.

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