Freeport battle-tested after finishing strong last season

| Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013, 12:26 a.m.

On the way to a WPIAL Class AAA playoff berth last season, Freeport girls basketball coach Paul Sylba found out something about his basketball team.

When standout player Jessica Aulicino was hurt and had to miss four games, the Yellowjackets could have folded their tent and wrote off the season.

Instead, the team reacted in a positive fashion and reached the WPIAL postseason.

“I really thought our young girls grew up in that time frame,” Sylba said. “We went to Highlands and Zoe Soilis stepped up, and went to Knoch and Macy Smolic had one of her best games. They learned to play without her, and it made it better when Jess returned.”

A late push put Freeport in a third-place tie with Kittanning at 6-6, but the Yellowjackets lost their playoff opener to South Fayette on the North Allegheny floor to finish 8-13 overall.

A 58-57 victory over Kittanning on Jan. 31 virtually sewed up a playoff spot.

It was Sylba's first year at the helm and Freeport's first season in Section 1-AAA in a number of years.

“The section is top-heavy with Hampton and Mars,” Sylba said. “But you've got to play them. The growing pains in triple-A are the depth, size and strength of teams.”

Freeport welcomes back a number of key players from last year's team, including players who will swing between the guard and forward positions such as Soilis, Smolic and Dava Jack.

Sylba also will use 5-foot-9 junior forward Carli Schwickrath, who missed last season with a knee injury.

Other starters back this year are senior Michaela Bowser and junior guard Haley Connor. Also targeted for considerable playing time is senior guard Carly Van Tine.

After one year, Sylba feels the community is a good fit for him.

“These are great, hard-working girls from solid families,” Sylba said. “This is a great school district, and we have a great boosters club. And I think the confidence level is here for these girls to compete.”

Among those on Sylba's staff is former Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year and Penn State standout Marissa Wolfe, who at 23 is not much older than the players she'll coach.

Also on the staff are former Riverview athletes Brandon Federici and Fred Soilis.

Freeport will start the season by hosting its own tip-off tournament against East Allegheny on Dec. 6. Riverview and Karns City will be the other tourney entries.

The Yellowjackets won't have much time to get ready for the section grind that starts Dec. 12 at Knoch.

During the winter break, the team will travel to the Riverview Holiday tournament.

George Guido is a freelance writer.

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