Starting 5: A primer for 2023-24 girls basketball season in the A-K Valley

Thursday, November 30, 2023 | 5:34 PM

The WPIAL girls basketball season opens Friday. Here are some of the top storylines, teams and players to watch this season in the Alle-Kiski Valley

5 storylines

New bench leaders: Apollo-Ridge (Jeff Zelonka), Freeport (Mallory Ketterer), Knoch (Shane McGraw), St. Joseph (Geoff Dutelle) and Springdale (Mike Dudjak) begin the season with new coaches.

Ketterer is familiar with the Yellowjackets, having served the past four years as an assistant to former coach Fred Soilis, who stepped down last March after eight seasons.

Dudjak is back in the high school ranks after two seasons coaching in college at CCAC.

Zelonka, a 2005 Apollo-Ridge graduate and also a football coach with the Vikings, takes over for legendary coach Ray Bartha, who stepped down after accumulating 579 wins in 37 years over two stints with A-R.

McGraw, who took over in September, knows his Knoch players well. He experienced the Knights’ success the past five years as an assistant with former coach Chris Andreassi.

Dutelle, a math teacher at Fox Chapel and a varsity assistant the past four years at Montour, hopes to keep things rolling for the experienced Spartans as they make a push to the playoffs and a shot at a WPIAL title.

Playoff streaks: Two of the longest WPIAL-qualification runs came to an end last year as Deer Lakes and Freeport saw eight- and six-year streaks snapped when they missed the postseason.

Now, Riverview in Class A and Knoch in Class 4A own the top marks.

The Raiders, second last year to St. Joseph in Section 3-A, hope to make it six in a row this season. The Knights, who finished tied with Highlands for second in Section 1-A at 9-3 behind undefeated North Catholic (12-0), also are shooting for a sixth straight trip to the WPIAL playoffs.

St. Joseph, a WPIAL Class A semifinalist the past two years, hopes to make it five straight this year after going 1-21 during the 2018-19 season.

Apollo-Ridge, Section 3-3A runner-up last year, and Highlands both seek their fourth consecutive WPIAL berths.

All current streaks include the open playoffs in the 2020-21 season.

Moving on up, or down: When this season ends, four teams will have new section opponents on their minds for the next two-year cycle as the PIAA announced the new classification parameters several weeks ago.

Apollo-Ridge, Burrell and Deer Lakes again will battle each other in Section 3-3A this season. Next year, only Deer Lakes will remain as Apollo-Ridge move down to Class 2A, and Burrell moves up to Class 4A with Freeport, Highlands, Knoch and Valley.

Apollo-Ridge and Riverview will meet Dec. 18 for a nonsection game in Oakmont. But next year, they could share the same section as the Raiders move up from Class A to Class 2A.

Springdale, the only A-K Valley team in Class 2A this year, will drop down to Class A for the next cycle with Leechburg and St. Joseph.

Early start: The PIAA again didn’t do winter sports teams any favors with the preseason practice schedule with just two weeks from the start Nov. 17 to the opening games Friday and Saturday. Factor in two weekends and Thanksgiving, and that didn’t give teams much time to prepare. Teams were scrimmaging as late as Wednesday to determine lineups and rotations before going full speed in tournament action that most likely will be treated as extended season prep for the start of section play next week.

Many coaches had their teams in practice mode with voluntary workouts in the days and weeks before the official start. How will this affect teams as they move through December? Only time will tell.

Line change: A new rule set to take effect this season in girls basketball involves free throws.

One-and-one free throws will be done away with in favor of two-shot trips to the line when teams reach five fouls in a quarter.

The process will start with a clean slate in the following quarter.

In the old format, teams would go into the bonus after seven fouls (one-and-one automatically) and the double bonus after 10 fouls (two shots automatically).

The National Federation of State High School Associations enacted the new rule and got the ball rolling.

The PIAA could have kept the one-and-one rule, but it chose to follow the NFSHSA decision.

5 teams to watch

Kiski Area: Four starters, led by senior Shippensburg commit Abbie Johns, are back for a team that hopes for a deeper run in the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs. The Cavaliers survived a wild ending to the Section 1 playoff race and tied with Plum and Penn Hills for third in the section behind Indiana and Woodland Hills. Kiski Area’s playoff berth was its first since 2012.

The Cavaliers saw their season come to a close with a tough loss to No. 2 Oakland Catholic in the first round.

Highlands: The Golden Rams also have four starters back as they hope to unseat North Catholic at the top of Section 1-4A. Seniors Kalleigh Nerone, Jocelyn Bielak, Kate Myers and Shelby Wojcik were part of a Highlands squad that went 9-3 in section play last year, made the WPIAL semifinals and earned a spot in the state playoffs.

Burrell: Juniors Anna Clark and Jules Fisher return as starters for a Burrell team hoping to build on last year’s playoff berth after earning just three wins two seasons ago. Sophomore guard Casey Brancato and freshman newcomer Makiah Buchak hope to overcome the loss of five key seniors from last year.

St. Joseph: The Spartans shocked the WPIAL two seasons ago with a Class A quarterfinal upset of three-time defending WPIAL champion Rochester. Last season, St. Joseph made the WPIAL semifinals for the second year in a row. All five starters, including 1,000-point scorer Julie Spinelli, are back.

Riverview: Five Raiders with starting experience return as they hope to challenge defending Section 3-A champion St. Joseph. Riverview went 11-11 overall last season, 6-2 in the section. The Raiders hope to follow the success of the girls soccer and cross country teams, which both earned WPIAL runner-up finishes.

5 players to watch

Julie Spinelli, St. Joseph: The senior guard/forward averaged an A-K Valley-best 18.9 points last year and added 9.7 rebounds a contest. Also a lockdown defender, Spinelli surpassed 1,000 career points in St. Joseph’s WPIAL semifinal loss to Union.

Abbie Johns, Kiski Area: An impact player since her freshman season, Johns, a senior guard, helped the Cavaliers to their first WPIAL-playoff appearance since 2012. The Shippensburg commit led the team with 14.9 points a game and added five rebounds a contest.

Megan Marston, Plum: A two-time Valley News Dispatch first-team selection, Marston is back for her final season with the hopes of leading Plum back to the Class 5A playoffs. Marston, a Case Western commit, averaged 18.2 points last season.

Kate Myers, Highlands: A dangerous shooter, Myers recorded 93 3-pointers in 25 games as the Golden Rams qualified for the Class 4A semifinals for the first time in program history. Myers earned VND first-team honors. She hit a school-record 10 3-pointers and finished with 32 points in a 52-38 victory over North Hills.

Sophie Yard, Apollo-Ridge: The senior guard led the Vikings’ run to a 19-4 overall record, a runner-up finish in Section 3-3A and the first home playoff game in the history of Apollo-Ridge basketball, boys or girls. Yard, one of three returning starters, averaged 13.4 points last year.

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at

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