West Xtra: Fort Cherry perseveres, battles way to berth in WPIAL playoffs

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No one needs to remind a veteran Fort Cherry High School girls basketball team that a section race is a marathon, not a sprint.

A year ago the Rangers began section play 2-1. They stumbled down the stretch, finished 4-8 and failed to qualify for the WPIAL Class AA playoffs.

This season Fort Cherry was 0-2 just two games into its section slate and by Jan. 9, the Rangers were 1-3. There was no panic, the sign of a team with four seniors and four returning starters.

After losing three of its first four section games, Fort Cherry regrouped and reeled off five consecutive wins including three in section play.

After a setback on the road to top-ranked Seton-LaSalle, Fort Cherry strung together another three-game winning streak before losing to Bishop Canevin Tuesday at home to post an 11-6 overall record, 6-5 in Class AA Section 4. That mark clinched a playoff spot for the Rangers. Now they are simply playing to try to improve their WPIAL tournament seeding this week.

The Rangers are scheduled to close out section play tonight at Chartiers-Houston but has two non-section home games scheduled, Friday against Burgettstown and Saturday against West Shamokin.

Playing for seeding in February is a much more enviable position than the one in which the Rangers found themselves last season when they were on the outside looking in. If the Rangers defeat Char-Houston tonight and Brentwood loses to Bishop Canevin, they will be all alone in third place in the section.

"It was a little disappointing last year," second-year coach Gary Kacsur said. "We had a couple injuries to overcome. We had injuries this year, but some freshmen stepped up.

"The girls are excited and it is always an exciting time going into the playoffs. That is always your goal, to get into the playoffs. Winning the section [title] is always nice, but in the section we are in, that is a big hurdle."

Last season Fort Cherry moved into Section 4, home of Class AA heavyweights Seton-LaSalle and Bishop Canevin. The two teams were arguably the top two teams in the state last season. The Rebels ranked No. 1 for the entire regular season and the Crusaders went on to win the WPIAL and state titles.

"[Playing Seton-LaSalle and Bishop Canevin twice each] is definitely nice," Kacsur said. "It is nice to get prepared. Obviously, Seton-LaSalle and Bishop Canevin get you prepared. They are quality teams with quality coaches and it is going to be a challenge. And then you don't want an easy non-conference schedule."

The Rangers were challenged out of conference, posting wins against Cornell and Aliquippa to capture the Sto-Rox holiday tournament title and opening the season at Class AAA Ringgold.

Fort Cherry entered the season knowing it would be without two potential starters, Emily Lucas and Sydney Relihan. Lucas was lost for the season after an injury sustained in the last game of the volleyball season and Relihan was knocked out for the year just one week into preseason practice.

Fort Cherry did return one of the area's top scorers in 5-foot-9 senior Rachel Bellhy. Bellhy, who had three older siblings -- brothers Zach and Nate and sister Beka -- star at Fort Cherry, averages 19 points per game.

She matched Steel Valley's point total in a 46-33 Fort Cherry win last week. She scored 23 against Steel Valley in their first meeting on Jan. 14 and had 30 points and 14 rebounds in a key victory against Brentwood two nights later.

"What you will get out of Rachel is 110 to 120 percent every possession," Kacsur said. "If she misses the shot, she will get the rebound. She is relentless. She is a great rebounder and a great team player. She is very unselfish. I will take those kind of people any day. Give me five on the court like that and you will win a lot of games."

Bellhy is joined in the starting lineup by her younger sister, 5-10 junior forward Tina Bellhy along with 5-6 senior point guard Jenna Lucas, 5-7 senior guard Allison McVicker and 5-11 freshman forward Hannah Greene.

Shannon Relihan, a 5-8 freshman forward and Sydney's younger sister, is the first player off the bench while 5-4 junior guard Amber Nimal and 5-6 senior forward Haley Schmidt also see significant playing time.

Lucas, who won the WPIAL Class AA championship in the javelin throw last May, is a returning starter. She scored 22 against Steel Valley and had a double-double with 12 points and 11 assists against Brentwood. She is second on the team in scoring with a little more than 12 points per game along with 6 assists per game.

"She is our quarterback. She is a great 3-point shooter and she is definitely our catalyst," Kacsur said. "She runs the show."

This year, it's a show that will play in the WPIAL tournament.

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