Hempfield's success comes as no surprise to coach
Hempfield's fast start might be a surprise to some after the Spartans lost three seniors who went on to play in college from the 2011-12 team that advanced to the WPIAL Class AAAA girls basketball quarterfinals.
Don't include first-year coach Aaron Epps among those caught off-guard.
“We're not as talented overall as last year's team, but we have great chemistry,” said Epps, who coached for one year at Kiski Area before taking over the vacant spot at Hempfield.
The position was made available when former coach Scott Breagle's contract was not renewed despite the Spartans' 20-4 record.
“I'm very satisfied with where we're at now, but we have a lot to work on.” Epps said. “I'm happy with how hard the kids have been working. We want to be disciplined, and my kids have given me that.”
Discipline, some players had privately complained, was an element missing from last season's team.
Hempfield (8-2, 3-0) plays Penn-Trafford (7-1, 3-0) on Friday with the early Section 1 lead at stake.
Epps said it's Hempfield's biggest game so far this season. The teams are tied for first place.
“It will go a long way in shaping our section outcome,” Epps said. “We've had to grind out wins a little more, but I couldn't have asked for a better start in my first year.”
With 5-foot-10 Taylor Lubinsky (Wheeling Jesuit), 6-2 Christina Santone (Muhlenberg) and 5-7 Emily Nelson (Pitt-Greensburg) gone from last year's team, Epps has observed a new group of girls mesh.
The team's leader, guard Monica Burns, is among the WPIAL's top scorers, averaging 23 points.
“I call her a scoring machine,” Epps said. “She's definitely one of the best guards around. I've never coached a girl with her shooting range. What's scary is she's just a junior, and I can imagine that she'll only get better.”
Hempfield's rotation includes seven players, but Epps is hoping to expand his bench and find more depth. Beyond Burns, the other regulars form a balanced scoring group.
Sophomore forward Leah Knizner; Burns' sister, senior point guard Mary Burns; senior forward Casey Hamilton; and reserve senior forward Jasmine Jones have combined to average about 31 points per game, helping Hempfield's offense to an average of just fewer than 60 points.
Senior forward Lea Scozio rounds out the starting five. Sophomore forward Lexi Irwin and freshman guard Aubree Halusic join Jones among the top players off the bench.
“The girls have accepted their roles,” Epps said. “They get along great. One through 10, we're not as deep and as talented as last year's team, but we're confident we can develop some of the more inexperienced players to where they're contributing on a regular basis.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-380-5617.