who 2 watch
preseason player of the year
5-11, Sr., G/F
players to watch
6-0, Sr., C, 19.3 ppg
5-7, Jr., G, 8.9 ppg
6-0, Jr., G/F, 16.9 ppg
5-9, Jr., G, 19.7 ppg
5-6, So., G, 15.1 ppg
1. Pen n-Trafford (20-7)
Defending WPIAL champs have all but one player back.
2. North Allegheny (25-3)
Tigers retained most major contributors who fueled run to PIAA semifinals.
3. Norwin (17-6)
Top three scorers are back to anchor offense that led Class AAAA in scoring.
4. Hempfield (19-10)
Only one player graduated from group that made stunning run to WPIAL finals.
5. Penn Hills (14-9)
Every player returned for the Indians, who won't suffer from early-season growing pains this time.
6. Upper St. Clair (14-7)
A trio of top returning scorers will pave the way for the Panthers.
7. Bethel Park (17-6)
Promising collection of guards, forwards remains for Black Hawks.
8. Plum (15-8)
A pair of forwards taller that 6 feet provide Mustangs an imposing frontcourt.
9. Mt. Lebanon (16-7)
Hit hard by graduation, but Blue Devils hungry after upset loss in playoffs.
10. Pine-Richland (14-9)
Enough scorers return for the Rams to click on offense from the get-go.
One season after the defending WPIAL champs split the Section 1 title with Norwin, the Warriors and Knights again represent the most highly regarded teams in the group. Penn-Trafford graduated just one senior and retained second-team all-state guard/forward Maria Palarino. Norwin's Alayna Gribble, a 6-foot junior guard/forward, is back after averaging 16.9 ppg. Hempfield reached the WPIAL finals a season ago but graduated star scorer Monica Burns.
Sophomore guard Desiree Oliver, who already has Division I offers, and junior guard/forward Jade Ely pace a still-young Penn Hills lineup that took its lumps last season and retained all starters. Plum, which finished behind section champ Fox Chapel, can count on 6-foot-3 senior forward Courtney Zezza (13.8 ppg) and 6-1 junior forward Alyson Weifenbaugh (6.9 ppg). Expect Gateway, which graduated just two players, to rebound after a below-average 2013-14 campaign.
Undefeated in Section 3 a season ago,North Allegheny aims for nothing less than a repeat performance this winter. Junior Abby Gonzales is one of Class AAAA's craftiest point guards, and senior Devvin La Barge (12.4 ppg) excels at 3-point shooting. A balanced lineup, led by 5-11 junior combo guard Lexus Lambert (10.6 ppg), bodes well for Seneca Valley. Pine-Richland's promising junior class will propel the Rams.
Upper St. Clair
Mt. Lebanon, which won the last seven section titles, remains in the mix despite retaining just one starter, but Upper St. Clair should fare quite well with a lineup that includes senior guard Diandra Conwell (16.4 ppg), senior forward Rachel Mazzie (16.1) and senior guard Madison Serio (14.2). Bethel Park brings back a strong starter group, led by junior guard Shannon Conley (10.9 ppg) but lacks depth.
Of all the basketball-oriented questions she hears from her peers in the hallways at Penn-Trafford, senior Maria Palarino considers the ones about championship aspirations particularly confounding.
The star of the defending WPIAL Class AAAA champions appreciates that classmates believe another title is so attainable.
She just struggles to fit it with the perception that persists among the Warriors, who went 20-7 and won their first WPIAL crown as a No. 7 seed.
“It’s a lot different than last year because last year we came in as underdogs, and now we do have that target on our backs,” Palarino said. “But we still look at ourselves as underdogs because that’s what we do best.
“There’s definitely a little pressure because a lot of people are like, ‘Are you going to win a championship?’ And I’m like, ‘Hopefully. But it’s not as easy as it looks.’ ”
Palarino, a 5-foot-11 second-team all-state guard/forward who has signed with St. Francis (Brooklyn), averaged 17.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game as a junior. And that’s about what the Warriors will need from her again — with all but one player back, they’re not desperate to demand even more of their star.
“I think everyone on our team knows their role, and they all do a great job playing them,” Palarino said. “Everyone knows who does what the best.”
If Palarino starts on the front line — her position shifts from game to game based on matchups — she will stand alongside 5-foot-8 senior Katy Abreu (9.4 ppg, 6.6 rpg).
And if she’s in the backcourt, she will share the ball with senior Casey Aunkst (9.9 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.3 rpg) and sophomore Athena Biondi (4.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.5 apg).
“We have a lot of speed this year, and we have a lot more depth than we did last year,” Aunkst said. “I think we might throw in some more things that could help us out in the end, whether it’s more presses or different kinds of offenses.”
Penn-Trafford’s performance in Section 1 will provide a fair indication of where it stands in the WPIAL. Hempfield, which made a surprise run to the WPIAL finals as a No. 12 seed, also graduated just one senior. And chatter among coaches indicated Norwin, a Section 1 co-champ and WPIAL quarterfinalist, might possess the most collective talent and athleticism of any team in Class AAAA.
“We expect a dogfight with them and Norwin,” Hempfield coach Aaron Epps said. ”Penn-Trafford doesn’t beat themselves, and that’s what makes them good.”
Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.