Underclassmen players overachieving on court for teams in Alle-Kiski Valley

| Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, 12:26 a.m.

When James Edwards transferred to Plum, he wasn't sure what to expect. He hadn't played much for WPIAL Class AAAA runner-up Hampton as a freshman, so his familiarity with varsity basketball was limited.

He was somewhat of a novice but was anxious for an opportunity.

“It was kind of hard at first because I didn't know what varsity tempo would be like,” Edwards said. “The speed of the game is new to me.”

Edwards' impact has moved along with zero-to-100 speed. The sophomore guard found his way into the starting lineup for Plum (10-1) and is averaging 15 points.

The Mustangs make a concerted effort to get him the ball on the perimeter. He has made an area-best 29 3-pointers.

The 6-foot combo guard isn't alone. For a number of freshmen and sophomores, orientation was a mere formality. Their time isn't next year, or the year after that — it's now.

Take Burrell's Natalie Myers. No sophomore slump here. The rising 5-10 forward already has a scholarship offer from St. Francis (Pa.) and has interest from Bucknell and Fordham, among others. Myers has averaged close to a double-double for her career and arguably is the cornerstone of a talented team.

“I am still learning,” Myers said. “From middle school to high school, I had to learn to be more patient on offense and keep to the basics.”

Some others making an impact:

• Apollo-Ridge freshman Duane Brown has given the Vikings 13.7 points per game.

• Freeport sophomore Zoe Soilis is the area's fourth-leading girls scorer (14.8 ppg).

• Freshman Ashlyn Jonczak leads Highlands in scoring (10.7 ppg).

• Riverview sophomore Paul Knapp, the nephew of former Plum star forward Sean Knapp, is averaging 11.6 points.

• Fox Chapel's girls have three underclassmen in the starting lineup: freshman point guard Gabby Badway and sophomore guards Taylor Cohen and Kayla Slovenec.

Brown was permitted to sit in on varsity practices last season when Apollo-Ridge made a sudden run to the WPIAL semifinals. He watched and learned.

“I knew I could play, but I knew I'd have to work for it,” Brown said. “(Junior guard) Tre (Tipton) and other players have really worked with me and encouraged me.”

Like Tipton, Brown is best at attacking the basket, but he also creates offense for others.

“A lot of teams go zone on us,” Brown said. “We like to get Tre down low, so I'll bring it up. We have shooting plays where I can kick it out to Alex (Smith).”

Apollo-Ridge coach Matt Gourley has compared him to Tipton.

“Normally, freshman need to be brought along slowly and acclimate themselves with the rest of the team,” Gourley said. “But like Tre, Duane is so athletic, it was baptism by fire. In the first couple games, he was turning the ball over way too much, but those numbers are coming down and his positive stats are on the rise.”

Badway has blended well at Fox Chapel, much like Cohen and Slovenec did last season when they were freshmen.

“They're all very similar players, and they run like deer,” Fox Chapel coach Meagan Meabon said. “I hope, as they get more comfortable, we can develop a nice transition game.”

Burrell has some added depth this season, with six freshmen.

“I want to help out our freshmen,” Myers said. “They're good girls, and they want to get better and be part of the team.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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