Seven seniors, including Division I recruit and all-time leading scorer Krista Pietropola, moved on from last year’s Plum varsity girls basketball team that finished 9-3 in Section 2-AAAA and posted a 15-8 overall mark.
The 2013-14 campaign ended with a tough 46-43 loss to Penn-Trafford in the WPIAL first round, and the Warriors went on to claim the WPIAL title.
Bernie Pucka also said goodbye to the program, as he stepped down as head coach after seven years at the helm.
The offseason was one of transition for the Mustangs, as several players began to increase their varsity roles.
New head coach Eric Gillis, a varsity assistant under Plum boys head coach Ron Richards the past five seasons, was charged with the task of getting the new-look varsity squad up and running.
He said he’s pleased with the way things have transpired so far.
“From the get go, there’s been an excitement for what this team can become,” said Gillis, a match teacher in the Plum school district.
“Sometimes, change isn’t easy, but the girls bought into it right from the start. We had a productive offseason with workouts and games. It’s nice to see the excitement carry over into the first week of practices.”
Senior 6-foot-4 center Courtney Zezza and junior guard Ashley Amato are two major players back with significant varsity experience.
Zezza last week signed her Letter of Intent to Division I St. Francis (Pa.).
“Courtney has taken on an increased leadership role,” Gillis said. “She knows the other girls will be looking to her. She is a game changer on both offense and defense, and we, as coaches, are continuing to find new ways to get her the ball.”
Amato, also an all-section performer in soccer, brings a physical style of play that Gillis likes.
“The other girls buy into her effort, desire and aggressiveness. She’s a competitive person, and everyone sees that,” he said.
Gillis said the overall rotation still is developing, and it is expected to include senior guard Alyssa Zezza, junior guard Lexi Dudding, junior forward Kathleen Crossey, junior guard Mandy Majocha, sophomore guard Rayna Donatelli and sophomore forward Maria Lawhorne.
All of those players saw a lot of time in junior varsity games last year. Also expected to see increased roles after time on the JV squad last year are sophomores Maddie Cubarney and Liz Adamczyk.
“I would like to ultimately see a varsity rotation of seven to 10 players,” Gillis said.
Saturday’s scrimmage against Vincentian, Gillis said, went a long way in giving him and his coaching staff an idea of how the rotation is coming together.
Vincentian won both the WPIAL and PIAA Class A championships last year.
The Royals boast the return of Pitt recruit Brenna Wise.
“There’s only so much you can do in practice with ourselves,” Gillis said. “It was nice to see what we could do against some great competition. Vincentian was a great challenge. It was nice to have to girls who will be playing a lot more varsity this year get in there and experience the speed of the varsity game.”
Plum again will take to the court next Tuesday for a scrimmage at North Hills.
“There’s been a lot of good competition in practice,” Gillis said. “They know there are a lot of varsity minutes to be had.”
Fox Chapel is the defending section champion. The Foxes lost all-everything forward Erin Mathias, a freshman at Duke, and they have a new coach.
Penn Hills also made the WPIAL playoffs behind returning guards Desiree Oliver and Jade Ely.
Gateway also was a playoff team in 2013-14, and seniors Morgan Hainsey and London Wade return to lead a team that lost only two to graduation.
“The group, from day one, has wanted to get better, and they’ve gotten better each day,” Gillis said. “They still have room for growth. It’s great to see them take in what we’re teaching and apply it to what they want to do.”
Plum will play in the Norwin Tip-Off Tournament on Dec. 5 and 6.
The Mustangs will face Penn-Trafford at 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 5 and then play the host Knights at 4 p.m. on Dec. 6.
Plum travels to Kiski Area on Dec. 9 for its annual nonsection contest with the Cavaliers before opening Section 2 play at Fox Chapel on Dec. 12.
The section opener marks new Mustangs assistant coach Jen Papich’s return to Fox Chapel. Papich was a four-year letter winner at Fox Chapel before moving on to Gannon.
Michael Love is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-388-5825 or at email@example.com.