We still have six state champions to crown in football, but with the winter sports season upon us, it’s time to take a look at the high school basketball landscape around the area with our exclusive PUP season preview.

Here are some top girls storylines, teams and players to keep an eye on when the season tips off for WPIAL and City League teams Friday.

Big stories

Scoring machine: Can anybody keep up with Clairton’s Iyanna Wade in the WPIAL scoring race this season? After finishing fourth in the WPIAL as a freshman with an average of 23 ppg, Wade shot to the top of the leader board with 33.2 ppg as a sophomore despite the Bears bumping up from Class 1A to Class 2A. Now, the ultra-talented point guard will attempt to climb further up the all-time list of WPIAL scoring leaders with another monster season, and she could give herself a chance to join exclusive company before she graduates. But will it be enough to help Clairton compete for a WPIAL title?

Unfamiliar faces: Every year brings change on a handful of sidelines across the district, but you don’t always see a pair of bona fide coaching legends hang it up in the same year. Mars’ Dana Petruska and Blackhawk’s Steve Lodovico both retired after the 2022-23 season, paving the way for Zack Stitt to take over as Mars’ new coach and former Beaver coach Greg Huston to take the reins at Blackhawk. How will both handle the pressure of following in such lofty footsteps? Stitt is in his first stint as a head coach, while Huston oversaw Beaver’s undefeated run to a WPIAL Class 4A title in 2021.

Back-to-back?: The Union Scotties were the only local team to capture a state crown on the girls side last season, and there’s no reason to think they can’t make another run for double-gold after sweeping the WPIAL and PIAA Class 1A titles a year ago. Senior forward Kelly Cleaver and junior guard Kylie Fruehstorfer both return after earning all-state honors last season, and much of Union’s nucleus remains intact from last year’s championship team. It won’t be easy playing with the target on their back, but if any team is capable of going back-to-back as WPIAL and state champs, it’s the Scotties.

After scoring a game-high 19 points in a 46-29 win over Lourdes Regional in last year’s PIAA Class 1A championship game, Union’s Kylie Fruehstorfer is back to help the Scotties defend their WPIAL and PIAA titles. (Emily Matthews/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

The favorites

Class 6A: Norwin. There are several teams worthy of the top spot going into the season in Class 6A, but none more deserving than the Knights, who finished 24-5 overall last season while coming up just short of a trip to the PIAA championship game in a heartbreaking overtime loss to unbeaten District 3 champion Cedar Cliff in the state semifinals. Junior point guard Kendall Berger (13 ppg) and senior forward Lauren Palangio (11 ppg) are both back to lead the charge on Norwin’s revenge tour, with the Knights seeking their first WPIAL title since winning back-to-back crowns in 2015-16.

Class 5A: McKeesport. South Fayette is the two-time defending champ in Class 5A, but the Lions will have a tough time going for the three-peat without 2022-23 PUP Player of the Year Maddie Webber, now a freshman at Villanova. That opens the door for a number of new contenders to stake their claim for the throne, and it says here the Tigers have the best shot of the bunch. The main reason? Look no further than 5-11 senior Rachael Manfredo, a do-it-all guard-forward who averaged 16 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals per game as a junior while helping McKeesport to an overall record of 23-6.

Class 4A: North Catholic. You can’t go wrong with either the Trojanettes or Blackhawk here. Senior guard Alena Fusetti and sophomore forward Aubree Hupp give the Cougars a top-notch tandem, but they’ll need to adjust quickly to new coach Greg Huston’s system. Meanwhile, longtime coach Molly Rottmann is still at the helm at North Catholic, and she now shares the all-time record for WPIAL titles with her mentor, Don Barth, with 11 each. The return of PUP First-Team All-Star Alayna Rocco should make life easier for Rottmann as she attempts to guide the Trojanettes to a third consecutive WPIAL crown and No. 23 overall.

Class 3A: Avonworth. Another tough classification to pick a favorite in, as Shady Side Academy certainly has a case to be made coming off a 25-win season a year ago. But the Antelopes are the defending WPIAL champs in Class 3A, and with the combo of junior guard Greta O’Brien (15.6 ppg) and senior forward Becca Goetz (13.9 ppg) back in the fold, it’s hard not to like Avonworth’s chances of defending its WPIAL title — and potentially making a deeper run in the state playoffs as well.

Class 2A: Freedom. The Bulldogs appeared poised to make another run at the WPIAL and state finals last season before a season-ending injury to star guard Shaye Bailey derailed their championship aspirations. Fortunately for Freedom, Bailey is back for her senior year, and the two-time all-state selection will be more motivated than ever to bring the Bulldogs their first WPIAL title.

Class 1A: Union. The most overwhelming favorite in any classification, the Scotties bring back most of their championship core after capturing their first WPIAL and PIAA titles in program history last season. Senior forward Kelly Cleaver (15.6 ppg) and junior guard Kylie Fruehstorfer (12.4 ppg) provide a potent one-two punch in the frontcourt and backcourt for Rob Nogay’s unit.

City League: Obama. The Eagles are coming off back-to-back City League crowns, and despite graduating talented senior Ny’Asia Benton, they appear to be the front-runners to secure another title this season. Look for junior guard Taylor Phillips (15 ppg) and senior guard Gionna Simmons (10 ppg) to be the driving forces behind Obama’s three-peat hopes.

Clairton’s star point guard Iyanna Wade led the WPIAL in scoring as a sophomore with an average of 33.2 ppg. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Finest Five

Shaye Bailey, Freedom. A broken collarbone sidelined Bailey for the postseason last year, but it didn’t stop her from receiving all-state recognition for the second year in a row after averaging 21.6 points, 4.8 steals and 4.2 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs, including a school-record 51-point performance in a win over Aliquippa. Bailey is also one of the top soccer players and track and field athletes in the area.

Rylee Kalocay, Upper St. Clair. A 5-9 junior guard with a smooth shooting touch and a knack for doing all the little things necessary to win, Kalocay was arguably the best player for the Panthers as a sophomore on their run to the WPIAL Class 6A finals. Kalocay averaged 20 ppg while shooting 88% from the free-throw line, and she raised her game in the postseason, scoring 30 and 25 points in back-to-back wins against McDowell and Pennsbury in the PIAA playoffs.

Alayna Rocco, North Catholic. Rocco knows a thing or two about winning titles, having led the Trojanettes to back-to-back WPIAL crowns as a sophomore and junior with a chance to go for a three-peat in 2023. A lengthy 5-11 guard with the ability to score from anywhere on the court, the Harvard recruit averaged 17.6 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a junior while shooting 85% from the free-throw line.

Iyanna Wade, Clairton. Standing only 5 feet 4, Wade is often the smallest player on the court, but she’s also usually the best. An athletic junior point guard with a crafty handle, elite court vision and breathtaking speed, Wade led the WPIAL by a wide margin with 33.2 ppg as a sophomore, and she also tallied seven rebounds and five assists per game while helping the Bears reach the postseason after moving up from Class 1A to Class 2A.

Natalie Wetzel, Peters Township. A coveted 6-3 junior with a handful of Division I offers including Pitt, Arizona State, Kent State and Davidson, Wetzel averaged 18.6 points, 8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 blocks per game for the Indians as a sophomore. The all-state forward will look to take her game to new heights while attempting to lead Peters Township to its first Class 6A title since 2019.

Upper St. Clair’s Rylee Kalocay isn’t afraid to put her body on the line to help the Panthers win. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Must-see games

North Catholic vs. Upper St. Clair at North Allegheny, Dec. 1. The hoops season officially tips off on Friday night, and what better way to get it started than by checking out two of the top players and teams in the area? Alayna Rocco and defending WPIAL Class 4A champion North Catholic will try to take down Rylee Kalocay and WPIAL Class 6A finalist Upper St. Clair in one of the premier matchups at the North Allegheny Tip-Off Tournament.

McKeesport at Norwin, Dec. 21. The preseason top-ranked teams in Class 5A and Class 6A will go head-to-head just a few days before Christmas when the Tigers and Knights collide in a marquee non-section affair. McKeesport senior Rachael Manfredo is a walking double-double and one of the top all-around players in the area, but she’ll have her hands full going against 6-2 senior forward Lauren Palangio for Norwin.

Shady Side Academy vs. Avonworth at Ambridge, Jan. 6. Two of the leading title contenders in Class 3A will square off when Shady Side Academy meets defending champion Avonworth in a neutral-site showdown at Ambridge. Both teams are powered by a pair of dynamic duos, with sophomores Maggie Spell and Karis Thomas leading the way for the Bulldogs and senior Becca Goetz and junior Greta O’Brien at the forefront for the Antelopes.

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.

Steve Rotstein

Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at srotstein@unionprogress.com.