Young lineup leads North Allegheny to 1st section title in 9 years
As recently as mid-autumn, the lone senior on the team had barely even met many of her teammates.
North Allegheny's young melting pot has come together quickly — and better than the Tigers could have imagined.
Despite having only two true carryovers from last season's varsity team, North Allegheny is having its best girls basketball season in about a decade. The Tigers are 17-2 overall and have clinched their first section title in nine years. NA can finish the season 11-1 in Section 3-AAAA and run its winning streak to 15 with a victory Friday night against rival North Hills.
“I'm real happy with how we've responded to different challenges throughout the season and how the girls have come together,” coach Sherri McConnell said. “Coming into this year, we only had a couple girls that had even had a varsity uniform last year, so we had a lot of girls coming from a lot of different teams — varsity, JV, the ninth-grade team and three middle-school teams. So for them to come together and mesh and develop chemistry, they have been impressive.”
The Tigers previously had won a section title in 2003-04. Since, they haven't had a losing record, but they also have won a total of only two playoff games.
It's safe to assume none of those teams entered a given season as inexperienced as North Allegheny was heading into this one. At a school that size, it's unheard of to have only one senior on a roster.
“Coming in, I was not quite sure how the season would go,” senior point guard Maddie Nellis said. “I hadn't gotten to meet the girls other than a few who were on the team last year. ... But once I did, I saw they all love the game and love playing and love playing hard. That's what has gotten us as far as we are right now.”
That — and defense.
North Allegheny hasn't allowed more than 47 points in any game this season and has allowed more than 38 only four times. Its 32.5 opponent scoring average is best among WPIAL Class AAAA teams and sixth-best in all of the WPIAL.
“The focus is on defense first,” McConnell said. “We've gotten them to believe in the defensive end.”
Among the Tigers' best defensive players are 5-foot-7 freshman guard Abby Gonzales, 5-5 sophomore guard Devvin LaBarge, 6-1 sophomore forward Meg Morningstar and 5-11 junior forward Danielle Wall. Morningstar is a proficient shot-blocker, LaBarge is a tough defender on the ball and Gonzales often is matched up against the opposing team's top offensive threat.
An all-around player — particularly for her age — Gonzales is the Tigers' leading scorer at 10.6 points per game heading into the week. Largely because of her shooting range, LaBarge follows as North Allegheny's second-leading scorer.
Offense also is provided in large part by 5-5 junior guard Taylor Brennan, who joined Nellis as the team's most experienced players coming into the season.
Wall and 5-9 freshman forward Taylor Lake are physical presences inside for a team that McConnell said has seven starters because each has started several games.
“We have learned from each other quickly, and I think we play well together,” Nellis said. “All of the younger kids have stepped up.
“They're only losing me (after) this season, so in a couple years this definitely is a team that's going to be exciting to watch. But even this season, we want to go as far as we can in the playoffs.”
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.