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West Mifflin girls basketball team prepared to face difficult road

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Ronald Vezzani Jr. | For the Daily News
West Mifflin's Alyssa Cairns defends against Ringgold's Chanse Barner during the first quarter Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, at West Mifflin.
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West Mifflin's Alyssa Cairns drives towards the hoop against Elizabeth Forward's Alison Pastore during first period action on Monday, January 21, 2013 at West Mifflin High School. Ronald Vezzani Jr/Daily News's

West Mifflin girls basketball coach Scott Stephenson is also the school’s athletic director, which allows him a say in the scheduling of opponents.

He did not go easy on his squad.

The Titans face a gauntlet of nonsection challenges, including games against McGuffey (20-5 last season), Hampton (14-9), Upper St. Clair (14-7) Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic (16-8) and Bethel Park (17-6).

Each was a playoff team last season.

“We won’t have too many nights off, I can tell you that,” Stephenson, a 1989 West Mifflin graduate in his second year of coaching, said. “If you’re playing good teams every night, it’s only going to make you better.”

Things don’t get any easier in section play. Contending for playoff spots in Section 4-AAA will be Belle Vernon and Bucknell recruit Kaitlyn Slagus; Ringgold and 6-foot-6 WVU recruit Marlena Schmidt; and WPIAL semifinalist Elizabeth Forward.

South Park, last year’s WPIAL Class AAA runner-up, was realigned into the section.

“The fifth-place team in our section could finish first or second in any other section,” Stephenson said. “I’m not saying anything bad about those sections, but if you don’t come to play (in Section 4), you’re going to get it handed to you every night.”

The Titans placed third in the section in 2013-14 at 18-7 overall and 8-4 in section games. Seven seniors graduated, including all-section guard Ciara Patterson, who is averaging 6.5 points as a freshman at Division I Wright State.

“We lost four full-timer starters and about 45 points (per game) in scoring,” Stephenson said.

Stepping into the spotlight is Alyssa Cairns, the 2013-14 Daily News High School Girls Athlete of the Year. An all-around force, Cairns averaged 8.8 points, 7.5 rebounds 3.7 steals and 3.5 assists last season. She is expecting a rigorous season and is up for the challenge.

“We work hard, practice hard, play hard,” said Cairns, a senior who has started every game since her freshman season. “Every game is going to be a battle. I think if we just take it one game at a time, hard work and determination can go a long way.”

Joining Cairns as veterans are Miranda Ferguson, who started six games last season, and defensive specialist Jiahna Flood-Francis.

The Titans have a slew of freshmen and sophomores. Stephenson said he expects some of them to crack the rotation and create a deep bench.

A challenging schedule was part of what Stephenson was aiming for, as well as a few games that required an extensive commute. He said that trips to places such as McGuffey and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic will allow his players to bond.

“People don’t realize how special that time is,” he said. “There’s a lot of factors that go into building a program, and that’s definitely one I was thinking about.”

Ed Phillipps is a freelance writer.

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