USC girls making the grade on the court

Published Jan 14, 2014 at 3:18 pm (Updated Jan 14, 2014 at 3:18 pm)

Basketball requires more than just brute strength. Just ask Ernie Koontz. For years, the Upper St. Clair coach has focused on mind rather than body with a great deal of success. He has guided his Lady Panthers to five district championships and one PIAA state title.

And, by stressing smarts over sinew, he has USC poised to make another run deep into the post-season. To start a difficult week (hosting Mt. Lebanon on Jan. 13 and Bethel Park on Jan. 16), USC was 10-2 overall. The first loss, 77-56, occurred against the Lady Hawks back on Dec. 12. The most recent occurred Saturday, 53-48, against Gateway in the Hoops Classic.

Of his players, who maintain a 3.5 GPA or better, Koontz said, “I have smart girls and we believe it makes them better players. We believe what you get in the classroom is what you will get on the court.”

Because Koontz stresses academics, he won’t let his players practice or play unless they have a 3.0. “We won’t let them go on the floor unless their grades are up to standard. If they are deficient in one class, then they work on that. They can do their homework in the locker room.”

And, on the door to that locker room, a schedule is affixed, outlining times for practices, arrival and departure times, as well as duties. For example, each week a different class is responsible for setting up the gym and cleaning up after practices.

“It’s all structured and we’ve found that the girls like structure. The lesson planning, the time management, the scheduling, it’s like another class. The girls love structure. They like having everything all laid out for them.

“Plus,” Koontz added, “it makes them responsible for their sport.”

For seniors such as Elayna Kaylor, Constance Raftis, Mandi Serio and Anne Steen as well as juniors Madison Serio, Rachel Mazzie and Diandra Conwell, they have been responsible for quite a bit of USC’s success in the past few years. Despite emerging as the final playoff teams from their league, the Panthers reached the Final Four in the WPIAL in 2012 and the Elite Eight in 2013.

“In my last 15 years, one or two teams from this section has been to the Final Four,” Koontz said of Section 4-AAAA, which produced WPIAL champions in five of the past six seasons. “So it’s a brutal section. Even the teams that don’t make the playoffs could be contenders for titles in the other divisions. It’s that tough. In this section, it’s about survival. The goal is to get out of the section in one piece.”

For example, last week, USC escaped with a 63-61 victory against Canon-McMillan. Though the Lady Macs forged a 27-26 lead at halftime, Madison Serio’s 3-pointer and two free throws propelled USC to a 59-57 lead with less than a minute to play. Free throws by Raftis iced the contest in the final 10 seconds. Serio led USC with 19 markers while Conwell and Mazzie pitched in 16 and 13 tallies.

Tops for the Lady Macs were Danielle Parker and Olivia Lorusso with 24 and 21 tallies respectively.

Despite their section record, CM has played opponents tough. The Lady Macs upset Baldwin, which some predicted would challenge for the league title because it returned five starters, 53-45, prior to playing USC. The Lady Macs also only lost to Bethel Park, 47-45.

“We knew from summer league what they had,” Koontz said of the Lady Macs. “You know Parker and Lorusso are going to hurt you.

“This whole section is loaded. Everybody had players back from last year. Games like these are the ones you have to win. You have to win at home and go at least .500 on the road.”

Last week, USC also took to the road and beat Peters Township, 77-73, but the Panthers needed overtime to do so. USC outscored the host Indians, 12-8, in the extra period.

Conwell (21), Mazzie (21), Serio (16) and Kaylor (12) provided the fire power for the Panthers while Cameron Morgan (26) and Madison Kerr (18) led the way for the Indians.

Before taking USC into overtime, PT defeated Baldwin, 61-57. Kerr tossed in 26 points while Morgan fired in a dozen markers.

Against the Lady Indians, USC again played well on offense. They always do as they average nearly 64 points per game. However, defensively, they surrender nearly 53.9 an outing.

“We score a lot of points,” Koontz agreed. “Even games that we have not shot well, we’ve been in the mid-50s. That’s really helped us overcome shoddy defense and not securing good rebounds.”

Therein lies USC’s fate for the remainder of the 2014 campaign. Regardless of their past playoff experiences, the Panthers must improve those two aspects of the their game says Koontz if they plan on being a contender for championships.

“No question, we have some big-time playing experience and that helps,” said Koontz, also noting USC’s success in summer league action. But, he also mentioned that AAU ball ‘doesn’t stress defense. “It’s run, run, run and score, score, score,” he said.

“There’s a difference here, playing (high school) basketball at the highest level. You have to rebound and you have to defend and take care of the ball. All year long, we have been stressing defense and rebounding.”

Despite a difficult schedule, featuring battles ahead Greensburg Central Catholic as well as defending state champion, South Park, on Feb. 1, the Panthers are working on those areas as well as attempting to develop their depth.

While Serio, Conwell and Raftis provide the punch on the perimeter, Kaylor gives USC a “big-girl presence” on the inside as well as the ability to shoot from the outside, Anne Steen, Ally Steve and Sarah McMurty have provided quality minutes off the bench. Katie White, a junior, Hannah Shephard, a sophomore, Mattie Groninger, a sophomore, also give the Panthers a lift.

“While Diandra has been a pleasant surprise and has really improved her shooting and gives us really good guards with Mandi and Constance, and Elayna and Rachel on the inside, we need more depth,” Koontz said. “We have kids who are playing well but some of them are still learning the game.”

With USC’s emphasis on education, the Panthers anticipate that may be a quick lesson, one that will inevitable lead to more success, no matter how challenging.

“The goal is just to get out of the section in one piece,” Koontz said. “We will do as well as our rebounding and defense take us.”

NOTES: In USC’s loss to Gateway, Mazzie (16), Serio (14) and Conwell (10) scored in double digits.

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