Even for its own lofty standards, Section 4-AAAA is in a class of its own this season.
The section is loaded with traditional Quad-A powers Mt. Lebanon, Upper St. Clair and Bethel Park and newcomer Chartiers Valley, up from Class AAA.
The Post-Gazette's preseason rankings almost look like the Section 4-AAAA standings. No. 1 Bethel Park, No. 2 Chartiers Valley, No. 3 Mt. Lebanon and No. 4 Upper St. Clair are the top four teams in the rankings.
"It is hard, it is going to be difficult," Bethel Park coach Jonna Burke said. "Every year I feel like our section is one of the top sections and I am going to go ahead and say this year it is the most difficult."
Luckily for Burke, she has a battle-tested team that is built to contend in a section such as this.
The Black Hawks return three starters, including two-time all-section honoree junior guard-forward Megan Marecic. She averaged 13.7 points per game last season for a Bethel Park team that finished 15-9 and reached the WPIAL quarterfinals last season.
Expectations are ramped up this year with the return of Marecic along with senior point guard Mariah Penascino and junior forward Sami Simpson.
"Mariah is quick with the ball and she is good at running our offense," Burke said. "She is good at penetrating in transition and finding some gaps in the half court. She is definitely more of a slasher and she will rebound."
Penascino was a forward at Bethel Park but two years ago during her AAU season she moved to point guard, a move that coincided with Bethel Park losing its point guard.
"Mariah has now taken over that role," Burke said. "It is her natural position."
At 6 feet 1 Simpson gives Bethel Park a height advantage in most games.
"She is good on the board and she is good on the block," Burke said.
The two will attempt to alleviate pressure on Marecic, one of the top talents in the WPIAL. She started as a forward last season but Burke sees her playing more of a guard role this season.
"She can play every position and there are some games that she does," Burke said. "She will even run the point, but mostly it will be off guard this year. Megan prefers to play the perimeter game. She has been in the post most of her life, so she is very comfortable either way. She has good post moves and now she is starting to drive a little more to the hoop. She plays inside-out, she finds ways to score."
Rounding out the starting lineup is sophomore forward Paige Kochka-Puskar and junior guard Harper Zimmer.
Behind the starting five is a deep bench.
"I think we do have some depth," Burke said. "Throughout the fall and in our scrimmages we have been rotating about nine kids in and I kind of see that being possible throughout the season.
"We have some kids who can come in and contribute and it will keep our starters on their toes. It gives us a few more options than we have had in the past."
Bethel Park will need contributions from just about everyone on the team if it wants to contend for the Section 4 title.
Mt. Lebanon is the defending WPIAL champion, Baldwin and Upper St. Clair were WPIAL semifinalists last season and Chartiers Valley was a WPIAL and PIAA semifinalist in Class AAA.
"The rivalries with the South Hills teams have always been difficult enough and now you add in Chartiers Valley, that just made it even harder," Burke said. "It is going to be a tough fight for those four [playoff] spots."
The Black Hawks have started the season going 2-1. They easily defeated Thomas Jefferson, 59-18, to open the season last Friday in their own tip-off tournament, but lost to Class AAA contender South Park, 51-42, in the championship game the next day.
They bounced back to win on the road at Norwin, 64-55, Monday, and will open section play tonight at Upper St. Clair.