Heinle, St. Joseph climbing Class A ranks
The St. Joseph girls basketball team didn't get to No. 3 in the Trib Class A rankings by sitting around and waiting for accolades to fall into their lap. A playoff run to the WPIAL quarterfinals last season and the return of all five starters didn't guarantee anything.
And their top player, 6-foot-1 senior forward Mallory Heinle, didn't take over the Alle-Kiski Valley scoring lead by chance, either.
Far from those students who avoid studying for tests but still manage straight A's, the girls can assure that everything they've earned has been a steady climb — literally.
“We ran a lot. I mean, a lot, in the offseason. We run the stairs in our gym,” said Heinle, the fifth-leading scorer in the WPIAL. “We're in great shape; the best shape we've been in.”
To play their self-proclaimed run-and-gun style, they have to be. Once a slow-down, halfcourt team that rarely went more than five players deep, the Spartans (7-2), have shifted to a higher gear. They're running a more fast-paced game predicated on pressure defense with greater contributions from the bench.
“We have people all over the place,” Heinle said. “Coach Sally (Ackerman) has put us in the right spots.”
A fourth-year starter, Heinle long has been the team's centerpiece. The greatest beneficiary of the new style, she's averaging 24.9 points and nine rebounds. She's also seen her assist and steal totals ascend the steps — a direct correlation to the accelerated play.
And while those numbers are up, Heinle said turnovers are down.
“We're trying to push in transition as much as possible,” Heinle said. “We didn't get a lot of fast breaks last year. We're getting a lot more layups in transition.
“We're not making the mistakes we have in the past and that comes from pushing the ball more. We set up less on offense, but we have more solidified plays.”
First-year coach Sally Ackerman, a former assistant who has coached Heinle throughout her career, said she also moved players to different spots to make the offense go. Heinle was no exception.
“We moved her to the front of our press, she's an excellent scorer,” Ackerman said. “This afforded her to have easier baskets. She doesn't have to work as much to score.”
A 1-3-1 press baits opponents into throwing ill-advised passes. The result often is two points the other way.
“We cherry pick on those,” Ackerman said. “We want you to throw that cross-court pass. My middle line is very athletic and get a ton of tipped passes. And my best scorer can put the ball in the hole.”
Ackerman doesn't stop being impressed with Heinle, a Slippery Rock recruit.
“As a senior now she's playing the best I've ever seen her play,” Ackerman said. “And she has helped the other girls have success, too.”
Deer Lakes played a box-and-1 defense on Heinle, but junior guard Julie Hetu picked up the slack with 15 points. Heinle played decoy, and Hetu got open.
“Mallory works extremely hard on her game,” Ackerman said. “If the gym's open at 5 (p.m.) and the JVs come in at 6, she comes in to work on her game.”
Heinle, who topped the 1,000-point mark earlier in the season, said the influx of three quick guards has aided the up-tempo game: sophomore Jeana Luciana and freshmen P.J. Nickoloff and Lizzy Celko.
“We didn't have a deep bench in the past,” Heinle said. “Now we do.”
St. Joseph's other starters also are a year more experienced and are adjusting to change. Senior forward Nikki Mielecki, and senior guards Amanda Klawinski and Brooke Arabia join Heinle and Hetu in the starting five.
“Team chemistry and the team jelling has gone a lot faster than I anticipated,” Ackerman said. “We have a very unselfish group.”
It's tough to mention this team without bringing up former coach Dan Slain, who was not rehired despite guiding the Spartans to four straight playoff appearances. While players miss the coach, they've embraced his top assistant.
Slain is an assistant at Riverview.
“I am still close with Coach Slain, but Sally's always been on the bench,” Heinle said. “We knew she had some great ideas and great input.”
Ackerman's new approach has been a learning experience for her staff, too. One new assistant is Tracy Edwards, known as a key Cager Classic organizer and the team's unofficial fitness guru.
“I think our coaching staff learned how to sub better,” Ackerman said. “We've learned to get the best out of everybody and keep everyone fresh. In the Deer Lakes game, we ran away in the fourth quarter because our girls had something left in the tank and theirs didn't.”
Ackerman said the team's goal is to score 60 points per game — “That's a high number for girls,” the coach said. The Spartans have scored 58 or more five times.
The new style of play has St. Joseph believing it can play with the top teams in Class A. No. 1 Vincentian, a fellow Section 2 team, beat St. Joseph, 83-55. But the Royals had to pull away in the second half to close the deal. St. Joseph cut a 19-2 deficit to six in the first half.
“I think we exerted so much energy, we were out of gas,” Ackerman said. “I wish there wasn't a halftime that game. We're hoping to play them closer next time.”
Heinle knows a win over Vincentian, or another Top-5 team, could bring St. Joseph into more serious conversation.
“We have to take care of the big teams,” she said. “That would put us above the radar that we've been floating under.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.