North Xtra: Seneca Valley relieves playoff pressure

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Since he arrived on the scene five years ago, Seneca Valley girls basketball coach Rob Lombardo would always schedule at least one year-end non-section game to serve as a postseason tuneup.

The only problem was, there was no postseason berth for the Raiders.

Instead of serving as playoff preparation, the year-end games would serve as a send-off for the seniors.

Not deterred, Seneca Valley continued to schedule those non-section end-of-season games.

And each passing year, the prospect of playoffs became more realistic, from one section win in 2009-10 to two in 2010-11 and five in 2011-12.

This year finally the Raiders broke down the playoff door and all of a sudden the last two games of the year, meetings with Keystone Oaks Saturday and Bethel Park Monday, served their intended purpose.

At his senior night speech last Thursday, Lombardo told his team just that.

"I told the girls, we schedule this Saturday night game and Monday night game to get us ready for the playoffs," Lombardo said. "That is what these two games are all about -- it is about finding our strengths."

Seneca Valley (10-12, 7-5) finished tied for second with Shaler Area in Class AAAA Section 3. Coincidentally, it will open the playoffs against Bethel Park (16-5, 8-4), the team it played Monday in its regular-season finale, on Tuesday at a site and time to be determined.

Unlike in years past, the Raiders did not go into February needing wins and help from other teams. They secured their postseason fate on their own and they did it by late January, with two section games to spare.

Seneca Valley defeated North Hills, 45-39, on Jan. 27 to clinch a playoff berth.

"When you want to become a head coach, this is the feeling you are supposed to have," Lombardo said. "After all the hard work the kids have put in, the light bulb finally went on this year.

"We didn't wait until the last week of the season. We didn't need to get help like we have had to get the past two years. This year we took it upon ourselves to win the games we were supposed to win."

One of Seneca Valley's strengths is its resiliency. No player on the team has experienced the postseason before. The program last made the playoffs in 2008. After last season, Lombardo had an inkling that this might be the season. He was due to return his top nine players from last season.

Then adversity hit. Top returning player Abbie Trzeciak went down with an anterior cruciate ligament injury in May. The team's returning point guard transferred and then in August, returning starter Paige Montrose was also lost for the season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury.

The Raiders stuck together. Trzeciak made an incredibly fast recovery and was back with the team by November. The team opened the season with a big win against Hampton. They also posted a section win at Pine-Richland before the holidays.

The team grew closer together on a trip to the KSA Holiday Tournament in Orlando, Fla., at the end of December.

"That really bonded this group together," Lombardo said. "The one thing I have noticed about this team, they just really like each other."

With a 10-11 overall record, Seneca Valley does not have the most attractive record in the postseason field, but the team is not about to apologize for making the playoffs.

"To these girls' credit, they really focused on their section games," Lombardo said.

Along with Trzeciak, a 6-foot senior forward, the other starters are 6-0 sophomore forward Melissa Carter, 5-3 junior point guard Meghan Hess, 5-9 junior guard Sarah Jones and 5-11 sophomore guard Lexus Lambert.

Trzeciak leads the team, averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds per game while Carter averages 9 points and 9 rebounds per game.

Depth has been a strength for the team with 5-8 junior guard Shaley Bream, 6-1 freshman forward Erin Danik, 5-6 sophomore guard Christina Dunning, 5-6 senior guard Hannah Parey and 5-11 senior forward Katie Brown all contributing off the bench.

"Normally this time of year we are figuring out what we can do for the seniors," Lombardo said. "Now the girls are coming up to me and talking about seeding and strength of schedule.

"They'll ask, 'If we win this one, does it improve our seeding? Who do you think we are going to get?' It is so cool to see the girls talk about this."

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