Here’s a forecast of the WPIAL girls basketball playoffs, which begin Friday and conclude Feb. 29-March 2 at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center.
Defending champion: North Allegheny
No. 1 seed: Norwin
Best quarterfinal game: North Allegheny vs. Upper St. Clair
Player to watch: Natalie Wetzel, Peters Township. Wetzel is a 6-3 junior with a handful of Division I scholarship offers, and it’s not hard to see why. The multi-talented forward averages 17.1 points per game and is a virtual lock for a double-double every time she steps on the court. She can also shoot it from outside, too — just check out her half-court buzzer-beater in a 53-46 win at Upper St. Clair on Jan. 2 for proof.
Sleeper: Upper St. Clair. Yes, the Panthers are playing without star junior Rylee Kalocay, who tore her ACL in an early January showdown against Peters Township after averaging 24 ppg through the first 10 games. In her absence, Upper St. Clair has found a way to jell together while playing a team-oriented brand of basketball, and the Panthers’ cohesion allowed them to win five of their past seven games to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. Even without Kalocay, Upper St. Clair still has several skilled players to lean on, including Meredith Huzjak, Ryan Prunzik and Liv Terlecki. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers book a fourth consecutive trip to “The Pete” for the WPIAL finals.
The lowdown: Defending champ and No. 3 seed North Allegheny has won five of the past seven titles in the largest classification, although each of those came with a future Division I player leading the way in Rachel Martindale (Akron), Lizzy Groetsch (Penn) and Jasmine Timmerson (Pitt). It remains to be seen if any of these Tigers players will reach that level, but they aren’t lacking in talent. Caroline Henderson is one of the WPIAL’s top 3-point shooters, and Lydia Betz and Kellie McConnell are both savvy, veteran guards and proven winners. … Norwin has come close to several WPIAL championship appearances since winning back-to-back titles in 2015-16, but the top-seeded Knights have yet to get over the hump. Many believe this could be their year, with junior guard Kendall Berger and senior forward Lauren Palangio forming one of the WPIAL’s top tandems and several key role players providing plenty of support. … Peters Township won 20 games in a row to start the season before falling to Canon-McMillan on Friday, 44-41. Led by Wetzel and senior guard Gemma Walker, the No. 2 Indians are seeking their first title since completing an undefeated season while capturing WPIAL and PIAA crowns in 2019. … Chartiers Valley lost its footing late after a strong start to the campaign, but the No. 5 Colts could still salvage their season in the playoffs. … No. 7 Pine-Richland boasts the highest-scoring player in the Class 6A tournament in senior Madison Zavasky, who ranked No. 15 in the WPIAL with an average of 19.2 ppg.
Championship picks: Norwin (Steve Rotstein), Norwin (Brad Everett), Norwin (John Santa)
Defending champion: South Fayette
No. 1 seed: Oakland Catholic
Best first-round game: North Hills vs. Plum
Player to watch: Emma Paul, Armstrong. This multi-sport standout has been shining on the softball field and basketball court for the River Hawks for what feels like an eternity, but now her senior season is finally coming to a close. Ranking No. 7 in the WPIAL with an average of 21.1 ppg, the 5-5 guard erupted for a school-record 45 points in a 78-70 win at Mars on Jan. 4. Paul will need plenty more where that came from in order to lead Armstrong to the promised land.
Sleeper: South Fayette. It sounds a bit strange to call the two-time defending WPIAL champions a “sleeper” pick to win it all, but the Lions are obviously a much different team without 6-4 forward Ava Leroux and 2022-23 PUP Player of the Year Maddie Webber in tow. Still, South Fayette managed to earn a No. 6 seed after a third-place finish in the rugged Class 5A Section 4, and they have a handful of playmakers who have taken turns playing featured roles this season, including Erica Hall, Juliette Leroux and Lainey Yater. The Lions might be underdogs this time around, but don’t count them out just yet.
The lowdown: The only remaining undefeated team in the area, Oakland Catholic is on a mission to avenge its WPIAL championship and PIAA semifinal setbacks against South Fayette from last season. Despite graduating four of five starters from last year’s 25-win team, the top-seeded Eagles have been even better in year two under coach Eddie Benton. Junior guard London Creach leads the way along with breakout freshmen Kaylee DeAngelo and Mia LeDonne. … No. 2 McKeesport underwent a midseason coaching change, with football coach Matt Miller taking over as acting coach in late January following Amy Gumbert’s resignation. Gumbert stepped away from the team despite another successful start by the Tigers following back-to-back 23-win seasons. McKeesport won its first four games under Miller before a 63-47 defeat against Oakland Catholic in the regular-season finale. … Trinity’s Ruby Morgan and Aggie Niccolai are both elite 3-point shooters capable of lighting up the scoreboard. The No. 3 Hillers have a balanced lineup and a stingy defense that could carry them deep into the playoffs. … Lincoln Park won its first 18 games before losing two of its last three, forcing the Leopards to settle for a share of the Section 4 title with Trinity and a No. 4 seed. This is still a team fully capable of winning it all, though, with numerous quality wins and a big-time scorer at the forefront in senior guard Maddie Syka. … Don’t overlook Hampton, no matter what their seed says. The No. 15 Talbots are led by Kent State recruit Meghan Murray, the No. 5 scorer in the WPIAL at an average of 22.6 ppg and the school’s all-time leading scorer.
Championship picks: Oakland Catholic (Steve Rotstein), Oakland Catholic (Brad Everett), Oakland Catholic (John Santa)
Defending champion: North Catholic
No. 1 seed: Blackhawk
Best first-round game: Laurel Highlands vs. Quaker Valley
Player to watch: Alayna Rocco, North Catholic. Since arriving on the scene as a freshman in the 2020-21 season, the 5-11 guard has steered the Trojanettes to three consecutive WPIAL championship appearances, winning back-to-back titles the past two years after losing to Mohawk in the Class 3A final in 2021. A Harvard recruit and returning PUP First-Team All-Star, Rocco averages a team-high 19.5 ppg, tied for No. 12 in the WPIAL.
Sleeper: Elizabeth Forward. Yes, the Warriors are 19-2 overall and the No. 3 seed after winning the Section 3 title, but most are likely expecting a two-team race between 2022 champion Blackhawk and defending champ North Catholic. If anyone can crash the championship party, though, it’s Elizabeth Forward. With 6-1 senior forward Alyssa Terza patrolling the paint, the Warriors led Class 4A with an average of 60 ppg during the regular season while allowing only 32.6 ppg, third best in the class. Elizabeth Forward’s only previous WPIAL title came in 1975.
The lowdown: North Catholic is seeking its eighth consecutive championship appearance, having won six WPIAL titles in the last seven years and a league-record 22 overall. Longtime coach Molly Rottmann has been at the helm for 11 of them, and she could surpass her mentor Don Barth by winning title No. 12 this year. Rocco will certainly have a major impact on the No. 2 Trojanettes’ title hopes, but she’ll also have her fair share of help from a supporting cast that includes junior Sarah Loughry and freshman Brady Wehner. … Points are always at a premium against Blackhawk. The top-seeded Cougars posted the No. 1 scoring defense in the WPIAL during the regular season, allowing an average of 27.4 ppg, and they carry a 14-game winning streak into the playoffs, having allowed less than 20 points in seven of those 14 contests. Senior guard Alena Fusetti and sophomore forward Aubree Hupp combine to form one of the WPIAL’s most productive duos. … Terza gives No. 3 Elizabeth Forward a low-post presence that North Catholic and Blackhawk may struggle to match, but the Warriors might not have enough guard play to keep up with the Trojanettes and Cougars. … Jocelyn Bielak, Katelyn Myers and Kalleigh Nerone each enjoyed solid seasons for No. 4 Highlands, which could make a run in the playoffs after mounting a five-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
Championship picks: Blackhawk (Steve Rotstein), North Catholic (Brad Everett), Elizabeth Forward (John Santa)
Defending champion: Avonworth
No. 1 seed: Avonworth
Best first-round game: Waynesburg vs. Seton LaSalle
Player to watch: Mallory Daly, Seton LaSalle. The No. 3 scorer in the WPIAL with an average of 24.4 ppg, Daly is a 5-8 guard and Buffalo recruit who fills up the stat sheet on a regular basis. Her ability to get to the bucket at will and knock down outside shots while simultaneously setting up her teammates for open looks makes the Rebels a contender to beat any team on any given night.
Sleeper: Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Despite graduating their entire starting five from last year’s lineup, the Chargers are once again surging into the postseason after making trips to the WPIAL championship game in 2022 and the PIAA semifinals last spring. OLSH was in somewhat rough shape at 12-7 overall and 3-4 in Section 2 play with three games to go, but the Chargers finished the regular season with three consecutive section victories, including a pivotal 40-37 triumph at Seton LaSalle on Morgan O’Brien’s game-winning 3-pointer. With six wins in its last eight games, No. 7 seed OLSH is peaking at the right time and primed to make another deep playoff run.
The lowdown: Avonworth and Shady Side Academy appear to be the front-runners after both teams cruised to section titles while winning 19 games apiece. Each have top-notch tandems doing much of the heavy lifting, with junior guard Greta O’Brien and senior forward Rebecca Goetz powering the Antelopes and sophomore guards Maggie Spell and Karis Thomas bolstering the Bulldogs. No. 1 Avonworth captured its seventh WPIAL title last season, while No. 2 Shady Side is seeking its first championship in program history. … Neshannock won back-to-back titles in 2021-22 before falling short in its bid for a three-peat last year, but legendary coach Luann Grybowski has the No. 4 Lancers back on the attack after splitting the Section 1 title with Beaver Falls. Neshannock won 13 of its last 16 games following a 2-4 start. … Waynesburg finished 19-2, but it remains to be seen if the No. 6 Raiders can hang with the top dogs in Class 3A. They should go as far as senior guard Kaley Rohanna (16.2 ppg) can take them. … Keystone Oaks, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and Seton LaSalle finished in a three-way tie behind Avonworth for second place in Section 2, and all three teams are capable of making a run at a title.
Championship picks: Avonworth (Steve Rotstein), Avonworth (Brad Everett), Shady Side Academy (John Santa)
Defending champion: Shenango
No. 1 seed: Greensburg Central Catholic
Best first-round game: Freedom vs. Clairton
Player to watch: Iyanna Wade, Clairton. A bona fide superstar who needs no further introduction, Wade is putting together a historic season for the Bears, who finished third in Class 2A Section 3. Rapidly approaching 2,000 points for her career, Wade collected her second consecutive scoring title after averaging a whopping 41.8 ppg, and the lightning-quick 5-4 guard broke the WPIAL single-game scoring record with a 65-point outburst against Steel Valley on Jan. 25.
Sleeper: Freedom. A popular pick to make their third consecutive championship appearance going into the season, the Bulldogs only finished 12-10 overall and tied Rochester for second place in Section 1, receiving a No. 7 seed for the playoffs. But make no mistake about it — Freedom played a schedule as tough as any team around, with out-of-section losses against Lincoln Park, Trinity, Moon, Blackhawk, Avonworth, Neshannock and Chartiers-Houston. Six of those seven teams won at least a share of a section title, and all of them play in a larger classification except Chartiers-Houston. Plus, the Bulldogs feature star senior Shaye Bailey, the No. 6 scorer in the WPIAL at an average of 21.3 ppg.
The lowdown: Is this the year Aliquippa returns to the WPIAL mountaintop? It has been 34 years since the Quips last won a WPIAL title by completing a four-peat of championships from 1987-90. No. 2 Aliquippa completed its first unbeaten season in section play since 1993, at one point winning 13 games in a row. … Greensburg Central Catholic has a resume as impressive as any small-school team in the state. With a record of 16-5, the top-seeded Centurions’ only losses to WPIAL foes came against Class 5A front-runners Oakland Catholic and McKeesport and defending Class 4A champ North Catholic. Sophomore Erica Gribble and senior Mya Morgan give Greensburg C.C. a formidable one-two punch that few teams can match. … With a deep, balanced core including Bri Battles, Cate Clarke and Abby Genes, No. 3 Serra Catholic is a threat to take down anybody in the bracket. … No. 9 Rochester has gone through a bit of a drought since capturing three consecutive WPIAL Class 1A titles from 2019-21, but this could be the year the Rams make some noise in Class 2A after winning eight of their last 10 games to close out the regular season.
Championship picks: Greensburg C.C. (Steve Rotstein), Greensburg C.C. (Brad Everett), Aliquippa (John Santa)
Defending champion: Union
No. 1 seed: Union
Best first-round game: Geibel Catholic vs. Eden Christian
Player to watch: Emma Larkin, Geibel Catholic. In any other year, Larkin would have a great shot at winning the WPIAL scoring title, but the sharp-shooting sophomore had to settle for second place behind Wade after averaging 30.6 ppg. Also an elite track and field athlete and talented softball player, the 5-6 guard has already surpassed 1,000 points for her career with more than two seasons still to go.
Sleeper: Monessen. Despite finishing unbeaten in Section 2 competition and 16-5 overall, Janine Vertacnik’s bunch only received a No. 5 seed for the WPIAL tournament. That could add some fuel to the fire for the Greyhounds, who won 10 out of 11 games before a 38-36 loss to Class 2A No. 6 seed Washington on Saturday. Monessen allows only 31.9 ppg, tied with Union for second-best in Class 1A, and the Greyhounds appear to be playing their best basketball heading into the postseason.
The lowdown: The only WPIAL team to claim a state title last season, Union is looking to sweep the WPIAL and PIAA crowns for the second year in a row — and with virtually its entire nucleus of key players back from last season, there’s no reason not to like the top-seeded Scotties’ chances. A 6-foot senior forward, Kelly Cleaver leads the team with an average of 15.1 ppg, and junior guard Kylie Fruehstorfer provides a reliable scoring threat in the backcourt. … Several teams can make a claim as the top challenge to Union’s throne, including Monessen, St. Joseph and Aquinas Academy. No. 3 St. Joseph is led by 5-11 senior guard Julie Spinelli, who ranks No. 8 in the WPIAL with an average of 21 ppg. … Don’t sleep on Geibel, though. With Larkin pouring in an average of more than 30 ppg, the No. 7 Gators have the potential to hang with every team in the tournament.
Championship picks: Union (Steve Rotstein), Union (Brad Everett), Monessen (John Santa)