West Xtra: Hopewell girls team hasn't changed formula for success

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After graduating one of the top players in WPIAL girls basketball history, some might expect a team to completely change its approach the following year.

But the Hopewell High School girls basketball team, even without Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, clung even closer to their number one pillar -- defense.

While Walker-Kimbrough's scoring over her four years, including a 28.3-points-per-game average last season, was important, the team defense was one of the main reasons the Vikings won 11 playoff games over the past three seasons, including the 2012 WPIAL Class AAA title.

"We still play great defense," coach Jeff Homziak said.

With lowered expectations this season -- at least from those outside the program -- Hopewell surprised many, finishing the regular season 18-3 overall and going 10-2 in Class AAA Section 2 to finish in second place behind Blackhawk (19-2, 11-1) and ahead of Central Valley (14-7, 8-4).

Hopewell earned the No. 4 seed and after a preliminary-round bye, was scheduled to play Ringgold on Wednesday night in a WPIAL first-round game.

Said Homziak: "I told the kids at the beginning of the season: 'No one is expecting anything from you. It is up to you to prove people what is left on this team is a good group of basketball players.'"

Walker-Kimbrough was the Post-Gazette's Player of the Year as a junior and senior. She was the Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior and is now playing for collegiately for the nationally ranked University of Maryland team.

During her junior year she led the Vikings to a WPIAL championship while averaging 31 points per game in the playoffs. She went above that average in the WPIAL final, scoring 35 of her team's 50 points.

But Walker-Kimbrough was not alone. She played alongside a veteran group, including four current seniors who all returned this year, two 5-foot-5 guards Shaniya Rivers and Ali Marie Santina and a pair of 5-9 forwards Keri Steuer and Desirae Ritmiller.

"There is a lot of playoff experience on this team," Homziak said. "We have four seniors who were part of three successful playoff runs and that pays dividends that people don't realize. It helps tremendously to have experience and knowing what to expect in ballgames."

Rivers and Steuer are four-year starters, Santina and Ritmiller have seen starting time for the past three seasons.

Jazmyne Boyd, a 5-8 junior guard, is the fifth starter and 5-5 junior guard Chelsea Sundy is the first player off the bench.

Walker-Kimbrough was a three-sport athlete. She was a three-time first team all-state volleyball player. She led the Vikings to a WPIAL championship and she also finished as high as third in the WPIAL in the triple jump for the track team.

Following her example, a number of Hopewell basketball players continue to excel at other sports. Sundy is a three-sport athlete, also playing soccer and running track. A number of other players on the team run track in the spring.

"Chelsea is a very good soccer player," Homziak said. "It took her a while to get her [basketball] legs after the soccer season. She provides that quality sixth person that you need. If somebody is not having a good day, there is no hesitation to put her in."

Sundy had 13 points in a crucial section win against Central Valley earlier this season.

"That let her know she can perform on the basketball court, too," Homziak said.

Defense, specifically man-to-man defense, continues to be the name of the game for the Vikings. In 2011-12 the team allowed 38.4 points per game. Last season Hopewell held opponents to 35.1 points per game. This season it allowed 36.3 points per game, second best in Class AAA behind Indiana (34.7).

"We're not going to blow anyone out," Homziak said. "Defense is the one constant from prior years and probably the biggest reason for our success. Man-to-man is our staple and one of the things we live by.

"The kids have bought into it. I am happy to see that and it is something I credit them for."

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