Senior shooting her way to top

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Monica Burns' friends call her "Mo."

Her coach calls her the best player in the WPIAL.

But all Burns wants to be called is a state champion.

Burns, a senior at Hempfield, will try to lead her team one step closer to that goal tonight when the Spartans (19-9) take on North Allegheny (24-2) in a PIAA Class AAAA quarterfinal at Gateway.

Hempfield is in the stretch run of what has been the most successful season in program history. The Spartans reached the WPIAL championship game for the first time and are making just their second appearance in the "Elite 8" of the PIAA tournament.

It's no surprise that one of the top teams the school has ever seen features a player as good as the school has ever produced. Burns, a 5-foot-7 guard, is slight in stature, but a giant when it comes to the impact she has on the court.

Burns, who averages 20 points per game, is a lights-out shooter with incredible range for even a college player, an outstanding ballhandler, and possesses the speed and moves to carve up opposing defenses on drives to the basket. She played shooting guard for most of the season, but has moved over to point guard during the playoffs.

"I wouldn't trade her for anybody," second-year Hempfield coach Aaron Epps said. "Pound for pound, she's the best player in the WPIAL."

Burns has had some large scoring efforts this season -- including a career-high 34 points against Connellsville -- despite facing box-and-one defenses most nights. Burns scored her 1,000th career point in January. She now finds herself six points shy of the Hempfield career scoring record.

"Scoring has always been a part of who I am," Burns said. "Whether it's driving to the hoop, making a long 3 or getting to the foul line, I find any way possible to help the team win."

Although Burns doesn't want to be known as strictly a shooter, those "long 3s" are one of the signature aspects of her game. It's not uncommon to see her pull the trigger on a shot 2 or 3 feet beyond the 3-point line.

Against Penn-Trafford in the WPIAL championship game -- a game Hempfield lost, 56-45 -- Burns took one shot that appeared to be halfway in between the 3-point line and midcourt ... and she made it.

"Her range is when she steps off the school bus," Epps joked.

As good of a scorer as Burns is, her biggest contribution might be her leadership. She's the team's lone senior.

"Honestly, I wouldn't want it any other way," Burns said. "My role as a leader has increased and has changed the person I am. These girls are like my little sisters. I couldn't ask for anything more."

One of those teammates actually is her little sister. Michelle Burns, a freshman, is also a starting guard. Another sister, Mary, was a standout senior on last season's team.

Monica Burns, who was not heavily recruited by Division I schools, will attend IUP next season.

For now, her major focus is on extending what has been an unexpectedly successful season. Hempfield was the No. 12 seed in the WPIAL playoffs, but marched to the title game after knocking off No. 5 Upper St. Clair, No. 4 Bethel Park and No. 1 North Allegheny.

North Allegheny will get a chance to extract some payback tonight.

This is uncharted territory for Burns and her teammates, but not their coach. Epps was a star point guard at Butler in the late 1990s and helped the Golden Tornado advance to the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals in 1997.

"It's crazy how karma is," Epps said. "My team failed to reach the championship when I played. Years later, now as a coach, the opportunity is there again."

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