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Alle-Kiski Valley basketball teams look for place among WPIAL's best

| Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, 10:09 p.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Fox Chapel's Matt D'Amico pulls down a rebound as the team goes through drills during practice on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, at Fox Chapel High School.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Fox Chapel's Erin Mathias (right) goes through drills during practice Wednesday Nov. 20, 2013, at Fox Chapel.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Burrell's Natalie Myers attempts a lay-up during basketball practice at Burrell High School on Tuesday, November 19, 2013.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
Plum's Jordan Seneca prepares to shoot during practice on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

Alle-Kiski Valley basketball teams generally have held their own in the WPIAL playoffs.

Since 2002, six local boys teams and three area girls teams have advanced to the finals at Duquesne's Palumbo Center.

While some of those teams showed early promise, many were surprises, like the 2007 Leechburg boys — the last A-K team to win a WPIAL hoops title. The little-known Blue Devils stormed Palumbo and walked out with the trophy as if the whole thing was scripted.

Last year's Burrell boys team also was a work of wonderment. The Bucs got hot at the right time and bounced back into the finals for the first time in 34 years.

A new season begins Friday, and a crop of local teams takes to the jump circle with the expectations of the 45-foot Colorado spruce that demanded attention on Pittsburgh's Light Up Night.

Now, it's time to flip the switch and turn hoopla into hoop dreams.

Fox Chapel's outlook is enough to make its already-raucous student section smash through cinder blocks like the painted fox on the gymnasium wall.

“Tuesday and Friday nights will be good nights for entertainment in Fox Chapel,” Foxes boys coach Zach Skrinjar said. “They'll be some nice doubleheaders for fans to attend. I am looking forward to watching them as well.”

Both Fox Chapel teams return several key players, the girls from a group that went 18-6 and the boys from one that finished 17-7.

The girls, ranked No. 3 by Trib Total Media to start the season, advanced to the Quad-A quarterfinals, but have the potential to go deeper in the playoffs, perhaps all the way to the finals like their 2009 team. Senior 6-3 center and Duke recruit Erin Mathias helps make a guard-abundant team a contender.

Mathias is the 38th-ranked player in the country in the Class of 2014 by ESPN.

“We're working to keep them grounded,” coach Meghan Meabon said. “There's a lot that goes into a successful season. It's not always the team with the most talent that wins. I think we're on the right track. We're not wrapped up the hoopla, but we know that there's a target on our backs.”

Fox Chapel's boys, who start the season No. 4 in the Trib Total Media rankings and No. 10 in the state by Pennlive.com, also reached the second round of the playoffs last season, and look strong again with Class AAAA's second-leading scorer, Matt D'Amico, back to lead a fast-paced clique of guards farther across the bracket.

Fox Chapel isn't alone:

• After reaching the WPIAL Class AA semifinals and the PIAA quarterfinals, Burrell's girls are primed for more with their entire rotation back — and a bench in place that it lacked last season. Junior point guard Sydney Bordonaro, who gave an early verbal commitment to Pepperdine, up-and-coming sophomore forward Natalie Myers, and a complementary mix of senior leaders and role players will be tough to beat.

The Bucs start the season ranked No. 2 in Class AA behind Seton-La Salle, which has three Pitt recruits.

“We have the same expectations as last year: We want to win the state championship,” Bordonaro said. “We want to get the section title first and then win the WPIAL. But we can't overlook our section.

“If we play hard, we'll be fine. Anything can happen.”

• Plum's girls also expect to stay awhile in Quad-A. With seven seniors and four starters back from a 17-6 team, including Youngstown State recruit Krista Pietropola and a towering frontline, the Mustangs are ready-made with swagger. But results need to follow.

“There are a lot of good teams, but I think it's all about matchups,” Plum coach Bernie Pucka said. “You have to be the team that wants it more. Go out and get it.”

The Mustangs are No. 5 in Class AAAA.

• The Apollo-Ridge boys bring back several players who helped them pull a quarterfinal stunner against Jeannette and reach the Class AA semifinals — their first appearance in that round since 1988.

Fox Chapel's girls open the season against Burrell. Bordonaro and Mathias are former AAU teammates.

“I can't wait to play against ‘Big E,' ” Bordonaro said. “It should be a good game and a good test for both teams.”

Fox Chapel's guards are underclassmen, but Meabon expects them to mesh well. The group seems to carry a feisty style, and an unselfish demeanor.

“We're focusing on everyone accepting their roles and getting everyone to know and understand what they need to do,” Meabon said. “The girls know it doesn't matter who scores all of the points or who gets their name in the paper.

“They have been getting physical in each other's faces in practice, in a good way.”

The costume-clad Fox Chapel student section will have to take its attention-grabbing show on the road — at least for some boys games.

The boys team has no Friday night home games from December on.

“We'll have to do some kind of promotion or something to get them to come out on Tuesdays,” Skrinjar said.

Like maybe a Light Up Night.

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