The Shaler Area girls basketball team has the experience and depth to make a run at the Class AAAA Section 3 title. The Titans also have shown they could have made a run at the Section 1 title. Shaler's dominant December was highlighted by four wins against Section 1 teams Norwin, Penn-Trafford, Hempfield and Kiski Area.
If the Titans continue to play the way they played against their foes from the east, they will be a top challenger to defending Section 3 champion North Allegheny.
Shaler is 9-0 overall and 3-0 in section play.
Shaler opened the season by winning the Penn-Trafford tournament title with wins against Norwin and the host.
"We have seen some pretty good competition," coach Neal Martin said. "We play all Quad-A teams. The Penn-Trafford tipoff tournament was a very good tournament. I really like how our upperclassmen have taken that next step I was hoping they would take in terms of being able to finish games and staying poised under pressure."
The Titans look like a much improved squad in their second season under Martin. Shaler was 11-12 overall last season and finished fourth in Section 3 with a 5-7 record. After losing its first five section games last season, a 3-0 start is a welcome change.
"We are happy with how everyone is playing," Martin said. "I think our focus and intensity is where it needs to be so far, but we are keeping it all in perspective. It is a long haul."
The biggest difference early on for the Titans has been experience, depth and free-throw shooting. Points from the free-throw line have been key early on, as Shaler has played six games decided by single digits. It defeated Norwin by three, Penn-Trafford and Hempfield by four, Oakland Catholic by six and Seneca Valley and Hampton by nine.
Shaler is shooting better than 70 percent from the free-throw line.
The starting five consists of 5-foot-8 senior point guard Carly Harris, 5-7 senior shooting guard Paige Quinn, 5-8 senior guard Abbey Conrad, junior 5-6 guard Lizzie Kline and 6-2 junior forward Andi Lydon. Harris, Conrad and Lydon are returning starters. Lydon is the lone post player in Shaler's four-guard system and is a three-year starter. Martin described Kline as a "sixth starter" last season who saw significant playing time.
Conrad (15.5 points per game), Lydon (14 ppg) and Kline (10 ppg) are the three scorers and Lydon is the leading rebounder with 8.5 per game.
"I don't think you can really quantify how valuable experience is and being battle tested," Martin said. "We have playoff experience and AAU experience. Experience is something every successful team needs to have aside from talent. That experience is really the difference if you want to hoist banners."
The Titans played their first four games without Lydon, who was injured. A committee of players stepped up in her place, most notably 5-11 freshman Allya Duritza.
Martin was able to play 10 or 11 players every game in December.
"We are bringing pressure and trying to play fast and we felt in order to do this, we needed to get rotations," Martin said. "Our rotation can change on a given night; we are getting bodies in as much as possible."
Along with Duritza, the first players off the bench are junior 5-8 forward Emily Ondo, 5-9 junior forward Maggie Soeder and 5-9 freshman guard Rylee Donovan
"I expect our section to be a really competitive war again," Martin said. "Everyone is getting better, everyone in the league is taking the next necessary step, there were not too many graduates in our section as far as impact players are concerned."
Shaler has a big test against North Allegheny at home tonight.
"I really think that the section title will go through Wexford," Martin said referring to the Tigers. "They will definitely be there.
"Our section, I always compare it to the old Big East men's league. It is defensive and a grinding-type league. In the south, you have more of the ACC look. We are used to playing close games that come down to a few points here and there. It is very tough and physical."