With four returning starters back, expectations were high entering the 2013-14 season for the Plum girls basketball team.
A pair of losses at the Penn-Trafford tipoff tournament did little to taper those expectations for the Mustangs, the No. 5-ranked team in the Post-Gazette Class AAAA preseason rankings.
Plum (2-2) dropped games to Penn-Trafford, 55-50, and Norwin, 65-53, both playoff teams a year ago. It was Plum's performance against Penn-Trafford in a losing effort that the Mustangs showcased their improvement from last season.
In the season-opener between the teams last season, Penn-Trafford blasted Plum, 74-37. The teams met again in the playoffs and the Warriors prevailed once again, this time, 50-40. Last Friday in the season opener Plum hung with Penn-Trafford for the entire game before losing, 55-50.
"Friday night could have gone either way," Plum coach Bernie Pucka said. "In any tipoff tournament, we are looking to get prepared for section play and this is exactly what we needed in facing two potential playoff teams. We are looking to put the past behind us with those hard-fought losses and continue to fight on and right the ship."
Plum routed Kiski Area, 63-9, and Allderdice, 60-26, on Monday and Tuesday in a pair of non-section games before opening section play Friday night at home against Woodland Hills.
A year after finishing in third place in Class AAAA Section 2, finishing 9-3 behind 10-2 Gateway and Fox Chapel, the Mustangs are a section title contender.
They return Krista Pietropola, a 5-foot-11 all-section guard and four-year starter. A Youngstown State recruit, Pietropola averaged 16.8 points and 8 rebounds per game last season. Pietropola plays mostly as a three-guard.
"We like to keep the ball in her hands as much as possible," Pucka said. "Krista is primarily a scorer, but she brings the mental game as well. She is very good at knowing the situation and taking advantage of opportunities. We want the ball in her hand at clutch times, she is long and she can create mismatches."
When Pietropola plays on the wing and is matched up with a smaller defender, she can post up and create a mismatch. She has also been successful at taking a bigger defender off the dribble.
"She creates mismatches and creates scoring opportunities," Pucka said.
Junior forward Courtney Zezza is 6 feet 3 and a three-year starter. She averaged 12 points and 9 rebounds per game last season.
"She towers above most," Pucka said. "It is hard to defend Courtney Zezza. Defensively, she alters a lot of shots. She is a presence on the court when she is on her game."
The other returning starters are senior point guard Jordan Seneca, a three-year starter, and sophomore forward Alyson Weifenbaugh. Senior forward Lindsey Herd completes Plum's starting five.
Sophomore guard Alexa Dudding, senior guard Alexis Amato and her younger sister, sophomore guard Ashley Amato, also see playing time. Amato is a track standout -- sprinting is her specialty -- and she is one of the top soccer players in the WPIAL as well.
"[Amato] is fast as lightning," Pucka said. "She is a sparkplug who brings a lot of energy off the bench."
When Pucka goes to his bench he generally subs out forwards for guards and goes with a smaller lineup while rotating guards into post positions. Weifenbaugh has the ability to move from a small forward to a power forward position. Dudding can come in and play point guard and Seneca can rotate to a wing position.
"Players know how to execute, it is just a matter of doing it now," Pucka said. "We know we just need to put our nose to the grindstone. We are one of the deeper sections in Quad-A. I think it is a toss-up [for the section title] between Fox Chapel, Gateway, us and Penn Hills."