Westmoreland girls basketball teams get boost from fabulous freshmen

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 | 5:55 PM

Brian Pritts had heard of Olivia Cernuto long before the point guard made her way to the varsity at Southmoreland.

He was hoping to get the chance to coach her because of the promise she showed.

Now that the Scotties girls basketball coach has seen Cernuto match her potential to her play in a variety of ways, Pritts can see she not only has a bright career ahead, but she also will play a vital role in his team becoming a serious contender in WPIAL Class 4A.

“She’s so good,” Scotties senior forward Sarah Pisula said. “And she is going to be really good. She does it all.”

Southmoreland is 11-0 and ranked No. 3 in Class 4A, and Cernuto is a big reason for that.

“Olivia is a really dynamic player,” Pritts said. “She plays with a tenacity that a lot of players her age don’t have. She has quick hands and feet and understands the game very well. She sees the floor and does a nice job attacking and making decisions.”

Cernuto is not alone. Freshmen are wasting no time making their marks around the Westmoreland County girls hoops scene.

The list could fill out a rotation. They are the future of their programs.

Belle Vernon has a crop of talented ninth-grade players whose names are as cool as their on-court demeanor. They include Viva Kreis, Jenna Dawson, Farrah Reader and Presleigh Colditz.

“They all have played together since third and fourth grade,” Belle Vernon coach Ronnie Drennen said. “And they have created a special bond between each other. They are gym rats that have spent a lot of time in the gym with me since fourth grade when I started training them. I knew then this would be a special group.”

Other area freshmen who are making fast progress are Latrobe 6-foot forward Emma Blair, Norwin 5-10 guard/forward Savannah Schneck, Hempfield 5-8 guard/forward Brooke McCoy and 5-11 forward Laney Gerdich at Yough.

Franklin Regional has one of the youngest teams in the state, with 10 freshmen.

Blair has been impressive as a true post player alongside 6-1 sophomore forward Anna Rafferty, who is working her way back from an injury.

“They play together, normally,” Latrobe coach Mark Burkhardt said. “When they’re on the floor together, (opponents) have to choose who to focus on.”

McCoy has been a nice complement to senior Sarah Liberatore at Hempfield, taking some of the scoring slack away from the four-year starter.

“She has done a lot of work on her offense,” Hempfield coach Tom Brush said. “She has a ton of potential. As a swing-guard, she can handle the ball for us. We had some girls out for our summer league because of other sports, and Brooke played well.”

Schneck, a swing-forward, helped the Lady Knights hold off North Allegheny, 63-55, last week in a big early-season Section 1-6A game. She had two key layups in the final minute as North Allegheny made hay on a 13-point deficit.

“She is super-strong and has really been a key player, like a lot of our girls who have stepped up,” Norwin senior point guard Jayla Wehner said. “We have had a great supporting cast, and it fits our team mentality.”

Franklin Regional coach Anthony Kobus said he rotates five or six freshmen off the bench.

Asked which ones make the greatest impact, he said, “Whoever is playing well that day.”

The Panthers have 13 underclassmen.

While talent swirls around the county, Cernuto might be the best of the bunch.

“The older girls always push me. We’re a really close team,” Cernuto said. “We don’t have a downfall. Once one of us gets going, we keep up the energy for the whole game. I just want to follow the gameplan and help us win, whether that’s scoring or get others involved.”

Also a standout soccer player who led Southmoreland in goals last season, Cernuto is averaging 11.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.2 steals and 3.2 assists for Southmoreland, which is off to its best start in program history.

“Olivia handles herself extremely well,” Pritts said. “I am glad she is on our team, and I don’t have to prepare to face her.”

Back to Belle Vernon, which is in the thick of the Section 3-4A race despite a young lineup, Dawson is scoring 11 points a game, including a career-high 19; Kreis, who some will remember as the girl who landed a research project that allowed her to go behind the scenes with a dozen WNBA teams over the summer, averages 3.3 assists and had nine helpers in a game; while Reader and Colditz have had 14- and 13-point games.

The Leopards’ freshmen group is well-rounded in that they share the ball, play sound defense and can make shots from the perimeter.

“The biggest reason they’re varsity-ready is their skill level,” Drennen said. “It allows them to be on the floor more. They all can dribble, pass and shoot. They really focus on the small details that they have learned over the years of training and they still love to train. I am fortunate to have a solid group of freshmen that care and want to get better every day.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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