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Plum girls basketball hopes for banner year

Tribune-Review
| Sunday, November 30, 2014 12:39 a.m
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Dan Speicher | For Trib Total
Plum senior Courtney Zezza (34) works in towards the hoop during practice at Plum High School on Nov. 26, 2014
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Dan Speicher | For Trib Total
Plum senior Courtney Zezza works on her shot during practice Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2014.

First-year Plum girls basketball coach Eric Gillis said he plans to build around senior center Courtney Zezza. That will be like putting presents under the Christmas tree: Zezza is 6-foot-4 and one of the tallest returning post players in the WPIAL.

Gillis didn’t exactly get a gift-wrapped roster when he took over for Bernie Pucka, but he’s anxious to find out what his team can do.

While Zezza, a St. Francis (Pa.) recruit and the top returning starter, has shot-altering ability and a back-to-the-basket presence, Gillis knows she won’t be able to do everything for Plum, which lost a talented seven-member group of seniors, including all-time leading scorer Krista Pietropola.

“Everything we do starts with (Zezza),” Gillis said. “We know teams are going to concentrate on her. We want to be able to spread it out, not pack it in.

“We need Courtney to take on that ownership role with the team. We’re going to play from the inside out. But we want other girls to know their roles and contribute in their own ways.”

Gillis, a former guard and assistant boys coach at Plum, learned plenty about halfcourt basketball and defense-first coaching from Mustangs coach Ron Richards.

That means his girls team will have some of the classic ingredients he picked up from Richards.

“I learned a lot being around Ron,” Gillis said. “I was excited to take this job, but I didn’t realize it would be this exciting. Having your own team, you have your own ways of teaching and the girls have really bought into it. I love their desire to work and compete, and they’ve done that since Day One.”

Gillis teaches algebra at Plum. He knows his team must give Zezza help to make the formula work.

After Zezza, Plum is mostly a guard-oriented team.

Junior guard Ashley Amato returns with quality playing experience. Among the other seven players Gillis plans to rotate into games are junior guards Mandy Majocha and Lexi Dudding, junior forward Kathleen Crossey, sophomore forward Maria Lawhorne (5-10), and senior guard Alyssa Zezza, no relation to Courtney.

“We’ll try and speed it up here and there,” Gillis said. “Not a chaotic type of thing; just a more structured, halfcourt game.”

Courtney Zezza will get instruction from one of the top Division II players to come out of the state. Recent Gannon graduate Jenny Papich, who starred at Fox Chapel, is an assistant coach.

She joins Kate Griffin and Eric Anderson on Gillis’ staff.

“I wanted to bring her in so the girls could relate to a female who played the game at such a high level,” Gillis said. “She has done a lot of work with the girls on post footwork, getting the ball and how to score inside.”

Gillis said he respects the foundation Pucka helped put down in his seven seasons before resigning. Pucka went 84-76 and led Plum to five playoff appearances, but no playoff wins.

Last season seemed poised to be Plum’s year, but the Mustangs were downed by nemesis and eventual WPIAL champion Penn-Trafford in the first round of the playoffs.

“The program doesn’t need huge changes,” Gillis said. “We just need to make that jump over the hurdle. You look around our gymnasium and girls basketball is the only sport that doesn’t have a (section) banner. The girls know they could be the first to (get a banner). That has motivated them from the get-go.”

Penn Hills appears to be the Section 2 favorite.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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