SLS stepping up on both ends of the court
Spencer Stefko respects all of his opponents. And, the Seton-La Salle first-year head coach never underestimates rivals, particularly like Bishop Canevin.
So, his philosophy of holding the ball with his starters on the floor protecting a 19-point lead with 1:53 to play should come as no surprise to any scholastic girls’ basketball fan.
Concern over Johnie Olkosky’s uncanny 3-point accuracy, as well as Gina Vallercorsa’s shooting abilities, fueled Stefko’s strategy. “They can come back from a 19-point deficit,” Stefko said seriously, noting Olkosky’s scoring alone could do in the Lady Rebels.
Olkosky did exactly that in 2013. She was the one that buried the Lady Rebels’ dreams of duplicating their 2012 championship season. The West Liberty Unviersity recruit connected on seven 3-pointers and scored 26 points during Canevin’s 56-47 upset win against SLS in last year’s WPIAL title tilt. The Crusaders also beat SLS in the state semifinals on their way to their first-ever PIAA banner.
“No matter how many points (you are leading by),” Stefko said, “you just want to win the game. You want to be sure. When we have the ball, they can’t score.”
When the Lady Rebels have the ball, meanwhile, boy do they ever score. They average 63 points per game, fourth highest in the WPIAL.
Pitt recruits Yacine Diop and Naje Gibson lead the attack.
Diop, who tossed in 15 points in last week’s 41-24, averages 13.9 points per game. The 5-11 senior from Senegal transferred to SLS last year from Virginia’s Oak Hill Academy. Though she lost her junior year of play because of the transfer, she gained attention from college recruiters because of her play on her national team as well as on Ron Mumbray’s AAU club.
Gibson, a four-year starter, is averaging 10.7 points per game. A starter on SLS’s undefeated state and district championship club of two years ago, Gibson is a 6-foot senior, who leads the team in blocked shots.
“They bring everything to the table,” Stefko said about Diop and Gibson. “They are tremendous kids who set a great example for their teammates.”
Cassidy Walsh, meanwhile, doesn’t just set the example. The junior, who is already committed to Pitt, is the leader. The 5-7 point guard leads the squad in assists while averaging 10.3 points per game.
On a team with Diop and Gibson, Stefko points out that Walsh was the unanimous choice for captain. “She has considerable intelligence as a player and she is our leader on the floor, even when she is not scoring 20 points. She doesn’t have to score,” Stefko emphasized and then added, “I feel very safe when the ball is in her hands.”
Stefko feels safe with Nicolete Newman anchoring the defense. The 5-6 junior averages 11.3 points while holding the opponents at bay.
“Nicolete is an unselfish kid. She’s what you want to have on a team. A spark plug,” Stekfo said. “She’s consistent. “She more than anyone else on the team has bought into our defense and the importance of it. As far as the game is concerned, Nicolete is light-years ahead of people.”
Just a sophomore, Shaunay Edmonds isn’t too far behind Newman. The 5-foot guard averages 8.8 points per game. “Shaunay is a spark plug, too. So much energy,” said Stefko. “She’s one of the other kids who would rather pass the ball than score. It’s important to have those kinds of kids on your team.”
Throughout the roster, including players such as Julie DeKlaven, Morgan Henderson, Giavanna and Alexia Facchiano as well as Madalena Psillidis, Julie Cipollone, Bridget Sigg, Delaney Daly to freshman Bailey Canavan and Mia Marzina, SLS boasts the type of teens that Stefko embraces to coach, regardless of level.
Stefko came to SLS from Chartiers Valley. In seven seasons, he compiled a 137-51 record. He coached last year’s team to the WPIAL Quad-A finals and to its fourth straight PIAA semifinal appearance.
“I miss the CV kids. I miss them to death,” said Stefko, who remains a social studies teacher in the CV school district. “But I have great kids here at Seton, too. I’m backed by a great administration and there are great families here. They let me coach.”
Coaching at the Class AA level brings with it challenges. For Stefko, the biggest obstacles that he has faced from moving down from Quad-A have been expected. “There’s the not knowing the teams,” he said. “Then there’s only one gym. One gym makes a difference, but we are blessed here. And truly,” he continued, “Basketball is basketball.”
By the Stefko book, basketball means playing defense and being diversified on offense. Though undefeated and atop the Section 4-AA standings at the halfway point and sporting a 12-3 overall record with all losses to out-of-state schools from Virginia, Maryland and South Carolina, there is room for improvement.
“You can do both,” said Stefko of playing well on both ends of the court. “That’s hard for a lot of players, but these kids are buying into the defensive end of the floor, and right now our focus has been on developing our defense. We are not as good defensively as we are going to be.”
Currently, the Rebels are surrendering 43.7 points per game. In their last three outings, however, it has been 35 or less. However, teams like Canevin are playing better defense, allowing only 38 points per game.
“This effort,” Stefko pointed to the Crusader contest, “is not going to get it done a month from now because they are going to be better. They proved that they can beat us. They just didn’t make any shots the first time against us. We have to be better.”
The Rebels also have to also improve offensively if they are to take the titles away from their rivals. Stefko anticipates facing the Crusaders long after section action. In fact, he equates the possibility to last year’s multiply confrontations (seven) his Colts had against Mt. Lebanon and Bethel Park, the eventual WPIAL Quad-A champion.
“I anticipate we’ll see them again. It’s certainly a possibility,” Stefko said recalling how his Colts beat Lebo in last year’s WPIAL semifinal.
“Offensively, we need to be more diverse. And,” he vowed, “we will get more diversified in the way we attack. We are not a one-trick pony, a slashing team on offense,” he said. “We will get better on offense and defense. We have to be masters of both.”