Starting 5: A guide to the A-K Valley girls high school basketball season

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Thursday, December 5, 2019 | 5:50 PM


STORYLINES

1. New leadership

A trio of teams – Apollo-Ridge, Cheswick Christian and Fox Chapel – hope to make playoff runs again this season under the direction of new head coaches. Jacque Willis, 22, takes over a veteran Cheswick girls program. Mike Montstrola, a Plum graduate who most recently coached the junior high boys program at Apollo-Ridge, takes over for the Vikings. Marty Matvey arrives at Fox Chapel after a successful three-year stint as the South Park girls head coach.

2. Strong line of defense

While proficient offenses make for entertaining games, a stingy defense often is the difference in high-stakes matchups. Last year, Deer Lakes had the top scoring defense in the Alle-Kiski Valley, holding opponents to 33.5 points a game en route to the WPIAL playoffs. Apollo-Ridge (38.1), Fox Chapel (41.8) and Riverview (41.4) were among other area postseason qualifiers aided by top defensive efforts.

3. Playoff streaks

Deer Lakes owns the longest consecutive streak of WPIAL appearances in the area at five, while Leechburg hopes to make it five straight. Freeport and Plum seek their fourth playoff trips in a row, and Riverview, Apollo-Ridge and Knoch will attempt to qualify for the third time in as many campaigns.

4. Looking to rise up

Programs such as Burrell, Kiski Area, Highlands, St. Joseph, Valley and Springdale hope to keep building toward future postseason opportunities. Each team faces different challenges as they try to increase their win total after producing three or fewer victories in section play last year.

5. Down to the wire

Races for playoff spots last year came down to the final week in several sections, and the final day, specifically, between Apollo-Ridge, Greensburg Salem and Knoch in Section 1-4A and Ellis, Winchester Thurston and Riverview in Section 2-2A. Coaches in the A-K Valley expect similarly competitive section battles starting next week and continuing through the first week of February.

TEAMS TO WATCH

1. Freeport

The Yellowjackets are primed for another run in Section 1-4A. Four starters – senior guards Sidney Shemanski, Harley Holloway, Madeline Clark and Samantha Clark – return from a squad that went 18-5 and was one of the few teams to give North Catholic a run for its money.

2. Fox Chapel

The Foxes, who went 15-9 and made the playoffs last season after a two-year hiatus, return four starters – senior guards Gabby Guerrieri and Claire Fenton, junior guard Domenica Delaney and junior forward Ellie Schwartzman.

3. Riverview

The Raiders graduated no seniors from last year’s WPIAL playoff qualifier. Seniors Alyssa Cappa and Alivia Schultheis hope to stay healthy and be productive after both missed significant time last year — Cappa with a heart issue and Schultheis with a knee injury.

4. Knoch

The Knights are in position to make a run at a third straight trip to the WPIAL playoffs with four of five starters back in the lineup. Returning with starting experience are seniors Abby Schearer, Nevaeh Ewing, Lauren Cihonski and Madilyn Boyer.

5. Plum

Optimism abounds within the Mustangs program as three multi-year starters — juniors Kennedie Montue and Jamie Seneca and senior Mackenzie Lake — return from last year’s WPIAL 5A playoff qualifier. Montue led the Alle-Kiski Valley in scoring (18.4 ppg.).

PLAYERS TO WATCH

1. Reese Hasley

Deer Lakes, soph., G: The lone returning full-time starter for the Lancers earned all-star recognition after a freshman season in which she led the team in scoring at 11.1 points per game, drained 33 3-pointers and added 3.9 rebounds. 2.5 steals and 1.7 assists.

2. Rylee Eaton

Apollo-Ridge, sr., G/F: A force at both ends of the court, the 5-foot-11 Eaton paced Vikings returnees with a 10.1 scoring average last season and helped lead the team, playing up in Class 4A, to another WPIAL playoff appearance.

3. Harley Holloway

Freeport, sr., G: The Saint Vincent commit battled through knee issues to average 10.6 points per game and help the Yellowjackets make another postseason appearance. Now healthy, Holloway hopes to have a banner final season.

4. Sidney Shemanski

Freeport, sr. G/F: The three-sport standout returns to lead Freeport after a junior season that saw her garner Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year honors. She led the Yellowjackets in scoring (14.6 points per game), rebounding (9.0), assists (4.1) and steals (3.6).

5. Francesca Lio

Riverview, sr., G/F: Surrounded by a senior-laden group, the Raiders standout post player hopes to help lead the program to WPIAL playoff victories after tough first-round setbacks the past two years. As a junior, Lio averaged a double-double with 10.8 points and 11.8 rebounds.

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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