Officially, the Ambridge Area girls' basketball team was assured of having a better season this year compared to last after it won its sixth game, a 57-31 decision at Ellwood City on Jan. 3.
In coach Nikki Santiago's eyes, she knew Ambridge was going to have a better season well before that trip to Ellwood City; she could tell during fall league games.
In the previous two seasons, Santiago has presided over a run to the WPIAL championship game during the 2010-11 season and a 5-17 nightmare last season.
It was clear in the fall that this season was going to much closer resemble the 20-8 campaign in 2010-11 than last year. Santiago was right. The Bridgers finished the regular season 14-8 overall and 7-5 in Class AAA Section 2 to finish fourth and lock up a WPIAL playoff berth.
They will play Uniontown (17-2, 11-1), the Section 3 champions, next Wednesday at a site to be determined.
"When we started fall league, we started to get into a groove," Santiago said. "Coming off a 5-17 season, as a coach you want to be better than that. Right from the get-go the team bonded and the older kids stepped up."
Once the "real" season began, there were immediate tangible results, too. Ambridge opened the season with a 79-63 win at Quigley Catholic, one of the top teams in Class A whom Ambridge had struggled against last season.
In the KSA Classic Tournament at Orlando, Fla., the Bridgers reached the championship game with wins against Chartiers-Houston and a team from California before losing in the final to Orlando's Berks Catholic, 57-54.
With only two starters back and with two freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup, Santiago quickly got used to the ups and downs that come with fielding a young lineup.
Ambridge had two three-game winning streaks and a five-game winning streak but it also had a three-game losing streak.
"We were pretty streaky this year," Santiago said. "I find that with a 22-game season, the varsity schedule is so much longer than what the younger players are used to. We don't try to burn them out. It is a complete culture shock to them and it is tough for them to rise up for every game."
Playing in Section 2, Ambridge was going up against experienced, quality teams such as Blackhawk, Central Valley and Hopewell, who are ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 in the WPIAL by the Post-Gazette.
The Bridgers would routinely be up against entire lineups consisting of juniors and seniors. They countered with a lineup of senior point guard Katie Fischer, senior forward Lexi Hilzendeger, sophomore center Kelly Haslett and freshmen guards Abbey Antolic and Sydney Rabold
Fischer is one of the top scorers in Class AA, averaging 16.7 points per game. She led all scorers with 21 points in a recent win against West Allegheny. Rabold has great ballhandling ability and Santiago says she is the point guard of the future.
Hilzendeger can fill up a stat sheet. She scored 15 against West Allegheny and Ellwood City last week. Haslett is the leading rebounder on the team, averaging double-digit rebounds per game.
Fischer is a three-year starter. She started as a sophomore and helped guide the Bridgers to the WPIAL final. She was also around for the disappointment of last season.
"Last season was hard because my sophomore year was very successful," Fischer said. "We knew we had a lot of work to do this season. We had a really young team and we were in one of the hardest sections in the WPIAL. We are a lot stronger this year."
When Santiago goes to her bench, the Bridgers get even younger. Freshman Dorothy Rowe and sophomore Lexi Korol are the first two guards off the bench while freshman Coleen Walsh is the top reserve forward.
This will be the first WPIAL postseason ride for the freshmen and sophomores on the team.
Fischer has not been asked for advice yet, but as the most experienced player on the team, she is prepared to give it.
"More than anything, I just want them to go out and play and have fun," Fischer said. "You can just tell, when they are out there and not nervous, they have played the best."
First Published February 14, 2013 5:00 AM