Many teams enter a season with championship aspirations, but very few have a legitimate shot at realizing those dreams. Few, if any, teams in Class AAAA have a better chance at capturing a WPIAL title than the girls basketball team at Bethel Park. The Black Hawks entered this season among the favorites in their section and class, returning all but two players from a team that went 15-9 last season and advanced to the quarterfinals in the WPIAL playoffs. This season, they have wasted no time backing up their preseason expectations, racing to a 10-1 record and the top of the Section 4 standings going into Thursday's games. Bethel Park is competing in what can arguably be the toughest section in WPIAL girls basketball, with the Post-Gazette's top three ranked Class AAAA teams -- No. 2 Mt. Lebanon (9-2) and No. 3 Chartiers Valley (8-3) along with the No. 1-ranked Black Hawks.
The Black Hawks' early success has not come without at least one setback as they dropped a 51-42 decision against South Park Dec. 8 in their second game of the season. Since then, Bethel Park has reeled off nine consecutive wins, a run in which it has overwhelmed most of its opponents. "It taught us that we have to do a whole lot more than show up to win a basketball game," Bethel Park coach Jonna Burke said. "Our effort wasn't as intense as it needed to be." In those nine wins, the Black Hawks defeated opponents by an average of 21.2 points per game, a mark that includes four games in which they won by 30 points or more. Offensively in that span, they have averaged 53.8 points per game, helping make it one of the highest-scoring teams in Class AAAA.
A BACKCOURT STANDOUT
After a sophomore season in which she led the Black Hawks in scoring in 10 games, much was expected of junior guard Megan Marecic before this season. Thus far, she has more than delivered on the promise she displayed in her second high school season. She has emerged as the team's go-to scorer, leading Bethel Park in points per game. Furthermore, some of her best performances have come in her team's biggest games. In the Black Hawks' 41-36 victory Dec. 22 against Oakland Catholic, Marecic scored almost half her team's points, leading the way with 19 as Bethel Park held off a late rally to win. No showing was bigger than her performance against Mt. Lebanon Jan. 3, when she scored seven of her 25 points in the final 3:38 to lift her team to a 60-54 victory that snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Blue Devils. Burke said Marecic is being "heavily recruited" by several Division I colleges, including Saint Joseph's, Cornell, Villanova, Kent State and George Washington.
EXPERIENCE ON THE BENCH
Burke is known by her players as coach, but she is known to others in the Pittsburgh basketball community as a player. When she played at Pitt from 1990-94, she was Jonna Huemrich. Many high school basketball players aspire to play at the Division I level, and, for Burke's players, it's helpful to have a coach who made it to and experienced that level. "It can be overwhelming, and I definitely understand that part of it and am willing and able to help in any way I can," Burke said. "But I'm not going to pretend that things haven't changed since I played 100 years ago."
Last season, Bethel Park had two seniors on a roster that included seven players who were sophomores or freshmen. Not surprisingly, the team stumbled down the stretch, losing three of its final four games and four of its final seven. This season, the Black Hawks have eight players who are juniors or seniors, a group that includes top players such as Marecic and junior guard Harper Zimmer. The extra year of experience certainly has made a huge difference. "Our core is really our juniors," Burke said. "That junior crew, it's so important that they have that extra year of experience because outside of Megan Marecic, last year was their first season of varsity experience."
A STINGY GROUP
While the offense has been on display throughout Bethel Park's nine-game winning streak, the defense is among the best in not only Class AAAA, but also the entire WPIAL. The Black Hawks are allowing opponents to score just 35.9 points per game, and, in five of their 10 wins, their opponent has not scored more than 30 points.
Craig Meyer: email@example.com