East Xtra: Coach has Hempfield girls rolling

Craig Meyer's high school basketball notebook

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The Hempfield girls basketball team may have a hard time trumping a 2011-12 season in which it won 20 games and made it to the WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinals, but it's off to a promising start so far this season.

Under the guidance of new coach Aaron Epps, the Spartans are 10-2 overall and 5-0 in Section 1 play, and are coming off one of their biggest victories of the season, a 55-44 win against a Penn-Trafford team that is just behind it in the Section 1 standings.

The victory came less than a week removed from a 77-59 setback at Blackhawk, the lone unbeaten team in Class AAA. After losing two of three games from Dec. 22-28, the Spartans have won three consecutive games by a combined 181-127 margin, outscoring opponents by an average of 18 points per game.

In the win against Penn-Trafford, junior guard Monica Burns led all scorers with 21 points, while sophomore forward Lexi Irwin added 12.

Unlike last season's team, which featured seven players who were juniors or seniors, this season's edition has 10 players who are either freshmen or sophomores, with some players such as Irwin making key contributions as underclassmen.

Before their rematch against Penn-Trafford (this time on the road) on Jan. 28, the Spartans have a five-game stretch in which they play three teams that currently have losing records.

The two teams with winning records that they play in that span, Norwin (6-5) and Greater Latrobe (6-4), are each hovering around .500.

Mt. Pleasant progressing

Few teams in Class AAA have been playing as well over the past few weeks as the girls basketball team at Mount Pleasant. After an underwhelming 2-3 start that saw them lose three consecutive games by an average of 16.3 points per game, the Vikings (6-5, 2-2) have won four of their past six contests.

For coach Scott Giacobbi and his players, the improvement can be traced to something as simple as the passage of time, which has allowed his team to better jell and understand the team's system.

"We have been working on building our team chemistry and getting people comfortable in new roles," Giacobbi said. "In the past couple of games, that's become more solidified and settled. Their play shows that."

Mount Pleasant's most recent game was a loss, a 46-43 setback to Greensburg Salem. It was a loss to one of the better teams in its section and the two teams were tied entering the game's final quarter.

Things will only get harder going forward, as four of the Vikings' next five opponents -- Uniontown, Elizabeth Forward, Belle Vernon and Indiana -- all have winning records and, through Tuesday, were a combined 33-10. For a team that has only two seniors on its roster one year removed from going 17-6, this upcoming slate could be a valuable measuring stick.

"We actually have a really tough couple of weeks," Giacobbi said. "This is one of our more aggressive out-of-section schedules. There's a lot of parity within our section, so in regard to this week, we'll see where we stand within the section.

"We'll see how we stack up against other leading programs in those sections."

Latrobe keeps it rolling

While on the subject of teams on a recent tear, the boys basketball team at Latrobe has completed the back end of a successful early season stretch in emphatic fashion. In a non-section game against Laurel Highlands, the Wildcats (8-4, 3-1) came back from a seven-point deficit entering the fourth quarter to force overtime and ultimately win, 79-76. The victory was their fourth in the past five games after a 3-3 start to the season.

The week ahead

There are some attractive games for the upcoming week, especially on the boys' side. Jeannette (10-1, 4-0) will play Latrobe as a part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Backyard Brawlz at Seton Hill on Saturday, and Greensburg Central Catholic (11-1, 4-0) will take on Serra Catholic (10-1, 3-1) Friday.

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