A WPIAL title defense that was already going to be a difficult one, was made that much tougher for the Bethel Park girls basketball team when it found out it would be without its top player, senior guard Megan Marecic, this season.
Marecic, a Drexel University recruit, will miss out on her senior year after sustaining a tear in the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during the final game of her AAU summer season.
Marecic was the top vote-getter on the All-Section 4-AAAA team last season. She was a three-year starter who averaged 15.8 points per game last season for the Black Hawks.
Needless to say, the injury was a devastating blow to the team but if any team is capable of bouncing back from losing a 1,000-point career scorer, it is coach Jonna Burke's squad.
Bethel Park returns three starters, senior guard Harper Zimmer, junior forward Paige Kochka-Puskar and senior forward Samantha Simpson.
The Black Hawks (3-0) relied on that experience to win their tip-off tournament title this past weekend with wins against Thomas Jefferson and Hempfield Area.
Bethel Park was back in action this week with a 64-55 non-section victory against Norwin on Monday before opening section play tonight at home against Upper St. Clair.
"Certainly losing [Marecic] is hard to even describe," Burke said. "It is a huge gap to fill. I think that we are just trying to take the approach that everyone has to chip in."
Early on it has been Zimmer picking up the scoring slack, reaching double figures in both games of the Bethel Park tip-off tournament.
"The kids definitely understand the situation and they know they have to work very hard to win," Burke said. "This is a group of kids who like to win, they are very competitive and I am grateful for that. They play hard and they fight hard.
"Replacing Megan will be 'by committee.' For other teams, I don't think you can key on any one person because we don't have a standout star. We have to focus on being balanced and the kids understand it."
The scoring was certainly balanced in Bethel Park's first two games. Nobody scored more than 13 points in either game and four different players scored in double figures in the two games.
Starting junior guard Mia Mates scored a game-high 13 points against Hempfield. Mates played junior varsity last season and this year she is getting the call as the team's starting point guard. Sophomore guard Shannon Conley is the fifth starter.
Burke plans on rotating nine players in most games. The first players off the bench will be junior forward Kaitlin Chess, sophomore guard Alexis Lutheran, junior point guard Christine Didiano and freshman forward Justina Mascaro.
Last season Bethel Park finished the regular season 19-3. It finished 10-2 in Class AAAA Section 4 to take second place behind Mt. Lebanon (11-1) but the Black Hawks were able to march to the WPIAL finals with victories against Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Gateway. In the WPIAL finals it knocked off section rival Chartiers Valley, 48-34.
Before focusing on defending their WPIAL championship, the Black Hawks will concentrate on trying to capture a section championship in a section that also features No. 3 Baldwin and No. 4 Mt. Lebanon. Bethel Park was unranked in the Post-Gazette preseason rankings.
"Baldwin has their entire team back, which I think makes them difficult," Burke said. "Mt. Lebanon is always strong and they have a core group of experienced kids coming back.
"Upper St. Clair might slide under some people's radars. They lost their point guard [Jordan Serio] but they have the rest of their team back. I just feel that you can't take a day off. There is no easy win in our section."
Last season six of Bethel Park's 12 section games were decided by single digits.
"Rarely is there a blowout," Burke said. "Last season was a great example, there were so many close games. We were in so many tight section games and we were still fortunate enough to win a WPIAL championship.
"I think that shows the strength of our section."