Watching his team lose by 35 points in a McKeesport High School summer league game, incoming Hempfield Area girls basketball coach Aaron Epps had an interesting take after the game.
Despite the lopsided score, Epps left the McKeesport gym, only a few days into his coaching tenure at Hempfield, thinking his team had what it took to make a run at a section title.
Hempfield was not playing with its full complement of players in the gym and they were going up against Seton-LaSalle, one of the top teams in the state.
Despite the short roster and the talented opposition, Hempfield competed until the end.
"I knew then we had the competitive spirit in order to have a successful year," Epps said.
His first impression of his team turned out to be an accurate one. The Spartans finished the regular season 19-3. They captured the Class AAAA Section 1 title for the first time in 10 years and went 14-0 in section play, for what is believed to be the first time in program history.
Hempfield was seeded No. 4 in the WPIAL playoff field but drew a tough opponent in Upper St. Clair and lost to the Panthers, 53-48, in a first-round game on Friday night. It was the second consecutive year Hempfield lost to Upper St. Clair in the playoffs.
The 19-win season surprised some, including Epps to a certain extent.
"This team worked hard, we were very athletic," Epps said. "I knew we could be, did I think 14-0 in the section? No, I didn't think that but I knew we could compete."
Last season the Spartans graduated three players who went on to play in college, Taylor Lubinsky, Christina Santone and Emily Nelson. This year they graduate another talented class including guard Mary Burns and forwards Casey Hamilton and Lea Scozio, but there is plenty of talent coming back next season.
Junior point guard Monica Burns, Mary's younger sister, along with junior forward Jasmine Jones, sophomore forwards Leah Knizner and Lexi Irwin and freshman guard Aubree Halusic all saw significant playing time this season and all return to form the nucleus of next year's team.
Epps called the playoff loss to Upper St. Clair one of the strangest games he has ever been involved in. The Spartans led, 12-11, after the first quarter, 22-16 at halftime, and even led, 39-36, going into the fourth quarter but they were outscored, 17-9, in the fourth quarter and ultimately lost by five.
Monica Burns led Hempfield with 17 while Knizner added 10.
"We were in control of the game and then we had a three- to four-minute stretch where we played too fast and didn't box out," Epps said. "It was a very intense game, it was a great game but you have to give Upper St. Clair credit -- they came out and executed and made the plays."
The first-round loss hardly diminished what Hempfield was able to accomplish during the regular season. It won non-section games against several WPIAL playoff teams, including Steel Valley, Greensburg Salem and Moon Area. They dominated section play, winning games by an average score of 63-38.
"I am very proud of the girls," Epps said. "We didn't get to meet our ultimate goal, which was going further in the playoffs, but that Upper St. Clair game should not take away what we did this season, I am very proud of them."
Monica Burns led Class AAAA in scoring, averaging 18.3 points per game. She is one of the best 3-point shooters in the WPIAL. Much of the Hempfield offense was predicated around getting Burns the ball around the perimeter off a screen, leaving her open for a shot.
"Even on her bad nights, she somehow comes up with 15 points," Epps said.
With five of the top six scorers back next season including three starters, Hempfield should be the favorite to repeat as section champions.
"I think we built a foundation," Epps said. "Now that we won the section, there will be higher expectations. Hopefully, we are not just satisfied with winning the section, now we can concentrate more on winning a WPIAL championship, that should be the goal.
"This year's group did a good job of setting the bar high."
First Published February 21, 2013 5:00 AM