Veteran backcourt has Hampton girls basketball thinking big

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Sunday, December 5, 2021 | 11:01 AM


Hampton girls basketball coach Tony Howard has a good feeling entering the 2021-22 season.

The seventh-year coach returns four starters, including his entire backcourt, from a 15-win Section 2-5A champion.

Senior first-team all-section guard Sophia Kelly along with a pair of second-team all-section picks, senior Kayla Hoehler and sophomore Meghan Murray, give the Talbots an experienced, poised backcourt to contend with whatever pressure their opponent throws at them.

“We are going to be really hard to press, which is always a good feeling,” Howard said. “Anytime you feel good against the press, I think you feel like you can be in most games.

“They are sharing the ball really well and when they get hot, we feel like we can beat anybody.”

The Talbots also return versatile 5-foot-10 senior forward Biz Watson, the team’s top rebounder last season. The lone new starter will be junior forward Claire Rodgers, who started both WPIAL playoff games last season with Watson ineligible due to PIAA transfer rules.

“Claire is one of our better, if not our best, outside shooters,” Howard said. “We’ve got to have her out there.”

Hampton, which made the WPIAL playoffs from 1993-2018 before a two-year hiccup ended last season, will look to defend its section title against Armstrong, Fox Chapel, Indiana, Kiski Area, Mars and Plum. They will also be playing in front of crowds again after last season’s covid restrictions, which included wearing facemasks during games.

“The stands will be open to everybody, which is great,” Howard said. “It was really hard for the girls to get energy and motivation and stuff like that without any fans there whatsoever. They did a great job of it. I give them credit. Last year was a rough situation all the way around.”

The Talbots graduated only one starter from a 15-6 team, Liv Bianco, but it was a significant loss, especially to the up-tempo style of play that Howard installed prior to last season. Bianco spearheaded the Talbots’ aggressive attack, which helped them rebound from two losing seasons to reach the 2021 WPIAL Class 5A quarterfinals.

“Losing Bianco really changes the head of the monster, so to speak,” Howard said. “She really was the driving force behind that type of system. … Everybody is going to move to a different spot on the press. Move up an athletic spot, if that makes sense, because Liv was so athletic.”

On the other end of the floor, Hoehler, who last season averaged a team-best 14.3 points per game, and Kelly (12.0 ppg) are the top scoring threats. Murray, the Talbots’ point guard, led the team in assists (3.8 apg) during a solid freshman debut.

Watson, who missed about four months this summer with a high-ankle sprain, said she is determined to help the Tablots return to the WPIAL playoffs.

“I’m not 100%, but I’m still playing as hard as I can,” said Watson, who transferred from North Allegheny prior to her junior year. “It’s motivated me a lot, being out for four months and watching the girls play. Since then, I think I’m better than I was before, because I was able to take a break and let my body heal. Now I’m back, and it feels great to be back with my teammates.”

Senior forward Addie Klocko and Carolyn Kuzniewski will provide interior depth during a 2021-22 schedule that includes a number of games against imposing post players.

The Talbots, who open the season at the Seneca Valley Tipoff Tournament on Dec. 10, also have a gifted group of sophomores who will be expected to contribute in games and provide energy at practice. They include guards Kat Milon and Emma Rick, guard/forward Sterling Thomson and forwards McKenna Andrews and Julia Herrmann.

“There has been a lot of growth over the summer for every single girl on the team,” Watson said. “This year we really have to maintain our focus and stay humble. I think confidence will be big this year, but we have to keep our heads level and just do our thing.”

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