Talented juniors lead Hampton girls basketball renaissance

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Saturday, February 20, 2021 | 9:01 AM


Every once in a while — it doesn’t happen often — one of the top players on the Hampton girls basketball team will toss up a wildly off-target shot at practice.

That’s when it gets funny.

“If it’s like an airball,” junior guard Sophia Kelly said, “we give each other a hard time and make each other laugh about it.”

The innocent banter reveals the growing chemistry between three juniors — longtime teammates Kelly and Kayla Hoehler and newcomer Biz Watson — who have blossomed into a tight-knit unit for the section-title hopeful Talbots.

“There’s time to be serious, and there’s time to laugh,” Kelly said. “I know the difference, so I like making the whole team laugh, and I think it’s a good thing for everyone.”

All three juniors are good for Hampton basketball. Guards Kelly and Hoehler are the top scorers, averaging about 14 points each, and Watson, a transfer from North Allegheny, is an inside defensive presence the Talbots lacked during the past two nonplayoff seasons.

Together, along with fellow starters senior Olivia Bianco and freshman Meghan Murray, the trio led the Talbots (11-4, 7-2 as of Feb. 17) to their first season sweep of rival Mars since 2012-13 and have moved them to the cusp of the outright Section 2-5A title.

“They all have an appreciation and respect for each other,” coach Tony Howard said. “It seems to be meshing pretty well for us. They are playing pretty well together right now.”

While Kelly and Hoehler have been teammates since grade school, Watson arrived this offseason after her family moved from North Allegheny School District. In the first game with her new team, the 5-foot-11 forward had six points, eight rebounds, seven assists and six steals in a victory over McDowell. She has helped slow down some of the top interior players in the WPIAL, including Peters Township junior center Journey Thompson and Plum senior forward Kennedie Montue, an Oakland recruit.

“We can match up with those girls that used to just sort of take over and we couldn’t stop them at all,” Howard said.

Watson was voted captain by her teammates, along with seniors Cass Reinert, Kate Schmitt and Bianco.

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Watson said. “It felt good, especially because I like all of the girls on the team, so it was good that they liked me enough to make me captain.”

Said Hoehler, “She came in and was very humble and took on a good leadership role right from the start.”

Watson wasn’t a complete unknown to her classmates. She played against Hoehler in AAU ball for years and was teammates with Kelly on the AAU Bruins this past summer.

Howard said the three excel in different facets of the game.

• “Sophia probably has the prettiest shot, the best shot that I’ve ever seen. The form, the rotation of her basketball is just immaculate. It’s unbelievable.”

• “Biz, her defense is really under the radar. You are not going to see a lot of that in the boxscore. But when we stat a game, it’s really impressive. … She’s a coach’s dream.”

• “Kayla is a consistent shooter for us. She helps spread the defense for the other girls. Her ability to shoot the ball is her No. 1 asset.”

Hoehler scored a team-high 17 points in a 52-41 victory over Mars on Feb. 13, completing a rare sweep of the Fightin’ Planets.

Kelly, who this past fall helped the Hampton girls soccer team to its first section title since 2008, averaged 16.5 points during a six-game winning streak in January.

The Talbots lead second-place Fox Chapel by one game with three section games to play as of Feb. 17, and will enter the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs Feb. 27-March 1. But they will be without Watson, who is ineligible for the postseason because of the PIAA rule that states any transfer after the start of 10th grade is ineligible for the playoffs in any sport they played at their previous school. Watson said they appealed for a hardship exemption, but it “just kind of fell through.”

“We moved because of a family change, which was in the rules,” Watson said, “so I was kind of confused with that.”

One thing is clear. All three juniors will return next season, and after the program went a combined 11-32 the past two years, the Talbots are eager to return to the playoffs.

“We’ve just been patient and kept working and going at it,” Hoehler said, “and now that it’s finally here we can’t wait to get in that first playoff game because we are ready.”

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