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Despite playing 4 1st-year starters, California eyeing 1st section title since '82

| Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, 9:33 p.m.

A few new faces have the California girls basketball team thinking about an old accomplishment.

Despite having four first-year starters in their lineup, the Trojans are 14-3 overall, 7-0 in Section 3-A after Monday's 60-28 win at Carmichaels.

They can clinch their first section title since 1982 — the second in school history — with two more wins.

“I know we worked out a lot in the summer,” one of those players, freshman Kylie Huffman, said. “But especially with us starting three freshmen, it does surprise me a lot.”

It has surprised others, too.

After graduating the team's primary source of offense in 1,000-point scorer Courtnee McMasters, California has kept up the scoring while allowing 12.5 fewer points per game.

Sure, contending for the section title in a year or two was expected. But this? Not so much.

“We have the team that can do it,” senior Tristen Conaway said. “That's what we're aiming for.”

Though it's hardly a surprise to anyone around California — Kylie Huffman's older brother, Tanner, was a star guard for the boys team and now plays at W&J — Kylie Huffman has been turning quite a few heads around the WPIAL.

The 6-foot Huffman has the size to play inside but the athleticism and shooting touch to handle herself on the perimeter as well, starring on a middle school team that went 32-2 the past two years, Trojans coach Chris Minerd said.

No surprise, Huffman leads California in points (16.8), rebounds (11.6) and blocks (5.5) per game.

“I've been at California seven years,” Minerd said. “I don't think I've ever had anybody over 5-9. We've always been the ones playing against the 6-footer.

“She changes the way teams attack you.”

Conaway is the lone returning starter from last season, and she's averaging 7.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and a team-best 3.1 steals.

Junior Kat Pankratz, a soccer player who didn't play basketball last season, has been another pleasant surprise.

Though Pankratz is only 5-5, Minerd will take advantage of her aggressiveness and have her guard the opposing team's top post player in order to free up Huffman.

Freshman Jenna Miller has taken over the point guard duties; she averages 8.6 points and 2.4 assists. Dominique Gaston, the third freshman who starts, averages 2.9 points. Junior Olivia Helmick leads the team in assists at 3.8 per game.

California dropped its first two games of the season — to Brownsville and Chartiers-Houston at the Brownsville Tournament — making a section title seem far from likely.

Yet with wins over West Greene on Thursday and Mapletown on Feb. 3, the Trojans would at least share the section and could win it outright Feb. 7 at rival Avella.

“Obviously, we had some things that needed to be worked out,” Minerd said. “Once we started winning, their eyes got a little wide and they started to realize what was going on.

“The best thing about this whole situation is that we have control. We don't need help. All we have to do is take care of our business.”

Jason Mackey is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jmackey@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Mackey_Trib.

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