2012-13 Girls' Basketball Preview: Rebels have a cause -- an encore

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The phrase "target on the back" is frequently used in sports to describe a person or team with great expectations.

With success and talent comes much increased attention, motivation and envy from other teams and individuals that it's as if there is a proverbial target right on them, ready to be hit.

For the Seton-LaSalle girls basketball team, the concept is nothing new. But its central target, the bull's-eye, just happens to be much more pronounced -- it's the 0 on the right side of its won-loss record last season when it ran roughshod over opponents.

The Rebels enjoyed a perfect record in 2011-12, a reality that has seeped into the minds of WPIAL teams for most of the past year.

But for all the teams trying to knock Seton-LaSalle from its perch, there is some bad news -- the Rebels are back for more with mostly the same cast of characters.

After a season in which they went 30-0 and won the WPIAL and PIAA Class AA championships, the Rebels will look to extend their success and reach new heights with a clean slate that comes with a new season.

"We just look at it as a brand new year," Seton-LaSalle coach John Ashalou said.

"Last year was last year -- we're not defending champions or anything like that. We have to go out there and just try to prove ourselves over again. We don't really talk about last year all that much."

Merely going unbeaten in a season, regardless of the sport or level, is an impressive feat, but what made Seton-LaSalle's run that much more remarkable was how those wins were accomplished.

Simply put, it was a dominant team.

The Rebels won their 22 regular-season games by an average of a little more than 31 points per game, with only three of those games being decided by single digits (each was an eight-point victory).

In the postseason, when theoretically the level of competition should increase and the talent gap should shrink, little changed.

The team won its four WPIAL playoff games by an average of 35.5 points and its five PIAA playoff games by an average of 28.2 points. The Rebels' PIAA championship game against York Catholic was a 71-47 victory that was as much a coronation as it was a contest.

Luckily for the Rebels, and unfortunately for the rest of the state, they are largely intact, returning all but one player from last season, when freshmen and sophomores accounted for 10 of the 16 roster spots.

Seton-LaSalle has grown to such a level of eminence that its toughest opponent might be itself.

"Our practices, I would imagine from all the practices we've been having so far, are a lot more competitive than most of our games are going to be, obviously a lot harder and more demanding," said Ashalou, who doubles as the school's athletic director.

This is his first season as the team's coach. He stepped in after Dennis Squeglia resigned unexpectedly in August.

Squeglia, who previously coached at Peters Township, coached two seasons at Seton LaSalle and compiled an impressive 57-3 record.

With even a cursory glance at the team's roster reveals the high level of talent.

There is Naje Gibson, a 6-foot junior and Division I prospect, who helps anchor the Seton-LaSalle frontcout. Additionally, there is a potent backcourt duo, a pair of Duquesne commits in Cassidy Walsh, who committed to the Dukes as just a sophomore, and senior Angela Heintz, who provides versatility as a 5-10 guard.

Yes, the talent is unquestionably there for the Rebels, but it's not the only reason behind their immense success. At least according to their coach, there's far more to this team, going deep down to the fundamentals and intangibles.

"I think the unselfishness on the court and off the court is what makes them a really good team," Ashalou said.

"We're not going to have anybody average 20 points per game for us, but they don't really care about that. They want the win.

"They're willing to play with each other and make the extra pass and they don't really care about stats. The only stat they care about are the wins and the losses."

The question now for the Rebels is: What will they do for their next act?

It's rare for a team to go on the kind of run it did last season, but it's another thing entirely to replicate it and exceed the expectations that come with such success, especially with all of the attention and pressure.

After all, this Seton-LaSalle team can reach the loftiest of heights and be considered one of the best girls basketball teams in WPIAL history.

Last season, it became just the third team in WPIAL history to win a PIAA title with an undefeated record.

As winners of 30 consecutive games, it could topple the WPIAL record of 56 consecutive wins, set by North Catholic from 1987-89.

With great hype comes greater hope, and the Rebels believe they can deliver on their promise this season, though it might not always be easy.

"There's a lot of pressure on us," Gibson said.

"Every night that we play a team, they're going to play their hardest against us to try to beat us. We've just got to play harder back."

Whatever history is made by Seton-LaSalle this season will come with a new coach at the helm as Ashalou tries to fill the void created by Squeglia's departure. Players said that the transition has been a smooth one so far. Gibson noted that "we've all adjusted to it and come together as a team."

For Ashalou, the pressure to succeed after taking over such a talented team is non-existent. Instead, he said that, given his experience in coaching at the college level, he is focused on preparing his players for college basketball and doing whatever he can to get them there.

As for the expectations he inherited? Even for a coach at a school so accustomed to winning, there are greater accomplishments to be had than a state championship.

"I think we all have our expectations. and we all want to win a championship," Ashalou said. "As I said, the girls are very competitive, and they would say championship or bust.

"I'm competitive, too, and I want to win, but I don't think it will be the end of the world if we don't win. I just want us to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year and wherever the chips fall, they fall."

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cmeyer@post-gazette.com; Twitter: @craig_a_meyer First Published November 30, 2012 5:00 AM


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