Trib Cup: Bethel Park girls rebound to advance to WPIAL title game
There were only two losses in a four-game stretch, but when you're 28-3, that by far constitutes the worst stretch of the season.
For the Bethel Park girls basketball players, the “darkest” days brought them closer together.
When a 17-1 start gave way to road losses at rival Mt. Lebanon and upset-minded Baldwin in an 11-day span late in the regular season, the Black Hawks refused to let things unravel further.
Far from it, actually.
Bethel Park rebounded to reach the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game.
The Black Hawks (24-3) will play Section 4-AAAA rival Chartiers Valley (21-6) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Palumbo Center.
The girls basketball team is hoisting Bethel Park up the Trib Total Media/WPXI High School Sports Award Class AAAA standings. The school sits in 10th place.
“That was a tough loss at Baldwin; it cost us an opportunity to tie for the section title,” coach Jonna Burke said. “But what we talked about the next day at practice was keeping this group together.
“It's a good group of kids who work really hard, so if we have the ability, we're going to fight to keep this group of kids together as long as we could... ‘Look, let's take the focus off winning so much, and let's put focus on staying together.' ”
Regardless of what happens Saturday night, Bethel Park assured itself of extending its season when it qualified for the PIAA tournament by winning its WPIAL quarterfinal game against Penn-Trafford on Feb. 22.
It's the third time in the past four seasons the Black Hawks are in the PIAA playoffs. That means (at least) an extra week or two of this particular group of girls getting to suit up together.
“After that (Baldwin) loss, we realized that once you're in the playoffs, you only get one chance — it's one-and-done,” junior guard Megan Marecic said.
“And we weren't ready to be done yet. We'd like to hang out together more and play as one more. We don't want this to end.”
How special it is to be playing at Palumbo is not lost on the Black Hawks, who are in the title game for the second time. Burke has been highly successful in her 18 seasons as a head coach (the first eight were at Butler) — but that 2005 Bethel Park team is the only one she's guided to a WPIAL championship game.
“We're extremely excited — it is something that we've talked about all season,” Burke said.
“We wanted an opportunity to play for a WPIAL championship, and to have it happen is something that we are grateful for. We recognize how difficult it is to get here.”
Just emerging from Section 4-AAAA is difficult enough. Five teams from the section made the playoffs, and they accounted for four of the quarterfinalists, three of the semifinalists and both finalists.
Remarkably, by Saturday night the section's teams will have combined to win five of the past six WPIAL titles — and nine of the 12 finalists over the past six seasons are from Section 4-AAAA.
“I'm glad we're in this section, because it definitely let's us know where we need to be,” said Marecic, the team's leading scorer. “It gets us ready for the playoffs.”
Junior forward Samantha Simpson is second on the team in scoring and is its leading rebounder. Senior point guard Mariah Penascino averages a team-high five assists and is second in rebounds, junior guard Harper Zimmer also has scoring capabilities and sophomore guard/forward Paige Kochka-Puskar is another Black Hawks starter.
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.