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South Fayette girls aim to make another run to WPIAL final

| Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, 9:24 p.m.

Their season-long goal is directly in front of them.

The South Fayette girls basketball team has advanced to the WPIAL championship game the past two years.

Now, the Lions (16-5) are four games away from reaching the WPIAL finals for a third consecutive season.

South Fayette was the WPIAL Class AAA champion in 2015-16, and the WPIAL Class AAA runner-up in 2014-15. The Lions finished 24-4 overall last season, and 19-8 two years ago.

The Lions are gearing for a strong playoff run, and another possible WPIAL title. They are seeded No. 3 in Class 5A and are scheduled to play No. 14 Ringgold (12-10) at 6:30 p.m. Friday in a first-round matchup at Peters Township.

“Honestly, we just focus on getting better,” coach Matt Bacco said. “We set goals, but we are driven by process; results will follow. We know the quality of basketball that is needed, and we aren't there yet.

“Our goal is to win the WPIAL title again. To do it, we feel we need to be better than we are right now. Losses versus Chartiers Valley and Trinity (last week) reinforced that. But we also feel we can get better over the next few weeks. We feel we haven't played our best ball yet. Tournament time should bring out the best in you. These kids don't want to let each other down. I expect they will play like it.”

The South Fayette girls won the Section 1 crown in Class 5A with a 9-1 record, ahead of Chartiers Valley (8-2), West Allegheny (6-4) and Montour (5-5).

On Monday, the Lions defeated Canon-McMillan, 55-48, in a playoff tuneup. The Big Macs have qualified for the Class 6A playoffs.

Bacco normally rotates seven or eight players into the lineup. Point guard Carlee Kilgus, who missed most of last season because of an injury, is the only senior and one of the team leaders.

“Our expectations were to first and foremost be repeating section and WPIAL champs, and ultimately make it to Hershey,” Kilgus said. “Like every team, we have had our ups and downs and we've had to overcome adversity from injuries, but I feel like we have played together and continued to improve going into playoffs.

“Overall, the season has gone well. There's nothing better than playing with my team and having the opportunity to make history.”

Kilgus is joined in the backcourt junior Maddie Gutierrez, plus sophomores Skylar Aitken, Jordan Head and Helina Van Bibber. Maura Castelluci, another sophomore guard, is out with an injury.

Sam Kosmacki, a 5-foot-11 junior guard/forward, and Jordyn Caputo, a 5-10 junior forward, are the Lions' top frontcourt players. They average 10.2 rebounds between them.

“Our team goals for this season were to win the section, win another WPIAL championship and win the state championship,” Kosmacki said. “We've had to overcome adversity, but I feel as a team we have been able to push through it. Our hard work has led us to reach our first goal, section champions. Our season has had ups and downs, but we've been able to reach our first goal.”

Kosmacki (13.4 ppg) and Castelluci (11 ppg), along with Gutierrez (10 ppg) and Caputo (9 ppg), are the Lions' leading scorers.

Rounding out the team are junior guard Megan Milanak, sophomore guard Karyssa Larson, sophomore forward Brooke Bushmire, and freshman prospects Claire Relihan (guard) and Madison Burroughs (forward).

A nine-game winning streak from Jan. 9 to Feb. 4 propelled the Lions to their second consecutive section championship, and their high seed in the 5A playoffs.

“It took time for the kids to learn to play together, and get five kids doing their jobs routinely,” Bacco said. “We are actually still seeking it. We believe they have another level to get to. There are still details that need taken care of, but we believe in our kids. They believe in each other.

“After losing Maura to an injury, it takes some time to adjust. It's natural for kids to simply step in. We want them to step up. It's a mindset. Everyone needs to pull on the rope, and they can. They need to be mentally tough, and in some cases play with a maturity beyond their years.”

Bacco said this year's group of girls is the best shooting team he has coached in his nine years at South Fayette.

“I think it is,” he said. “We've had five kids that can shoot the 3 on the floor at all times this year.”

Kilgus agreed with her coach's assessment.

“Our strengths are our speed,” she said, “and having five kids on the floor at a time that can shoot and drive.”

South Fayette averages 55 ppg, and allows 42.5 ppg. The Lions have scored 50-or-more points 13 times, and have held their opponents to 40-or-less nine times.

“We need to be creating turnovers in a variety of ways,” Bacco said. “Defense wins all of the time, but especially this time of year.

“We still have some young kids learning the value of doing your job on every single possession if you want to win in big spots. We have an opportunity to prove that we're ready to do that in the postseason, and that is exciting.”

South Fayette is seeded third in Class 5A behind No. 1 Hampton (20-2) and No. 2 Trinity (20-2). Oakland Catholic (19-3) is seeded fourth.

Ringgold is led by junior guard/forward Ashley Briscoe, who has averaged 17 points the past two seasons.

“We honestly stopped paying attention to the seed years ago,” Bacco said. “We just look at the opponent right in front of us and prepare. Ringgold has some athletic kids. Briscoe is phenomenal. At this time of year, you better bring your best, and that is our sole focus.”

Both Kilgus and Kosmacki believe the Lions' playoff experience from the past two seasons will bolster the team's chances of success this time around.

“We expect to make a long playoff run, and continue to grow and improve,” Kilgus said. “I definitely think having the (playoff) experience will benefit us going in because we understand what it takes to get there, and ultimately win.”

Kosmacki said the Lions, who won seven of eight games in the WPIAL playoffs the past two years and advanced to the PIAA tournament both years, need to keep working hard and remain focused.

“We hope to make a good run through the playoffs,” she said. “I think the last two year's experience will help us because we know what it takes and how hard we have to work and focus. We (need to) make sure we work our hardest, play as a team and stay focused.”

South Fayette, which is ranked No. 5 in its class by the Tribune-Review, defeated Ringgold, 58-32, in last year's playoffs.

Ray Fisher is a freelance writer.

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