The California girls basketball team trailed North Catholic heading into the fourth quarter of its WPIAL Class A quarterfinal matchup on Feb. 22. The Trojans, playing with just one senior in their lineup, were turning the ball over at a troubling rate and seemed to be rattled by the playoff atmosphere at Peters Township High School.
Just before California broke their huddle and got ready to take the court, Trojans head coach Chris Minerd pulled his lone senior, guard Tristen Conaway, aside and told her it was time to lead her young team when they needed it the most.
Conaway and freshman guard Jenna Miller combined for 32 points to propel California to the 45-43 victory over their heavily favored opponent. While the Trojans’ bid for the program’s first WPIAL title ended last week with a semifinal loss to Serra Catholic, they clinched a spot in the PIAA playoffs.
California (19-4) will play Kennedy Catholic (21-2), the District 10 champion, Saturday at Slippery Rock University in the first round of the Class A PIAA playoffs. Tip-off is 4 p.m.
Entering the 2013 season, Minerd knew how critical Conaway would be in the team’s bid for a third-straight playoff appearance. After the graduation of leading scorer Courtnee McMasters, the responsibility was thrust onto Conaway to help four incoming freshmen transition to varsity basketball.
“There was a lot to put on me entering the season because I had to lead the team, but they all grew up pretty fast so it wasn’t exactly hard,” Conaway said. “I talk to the girls and try to get them going because some of them will put their head down when we are losing and think we’re done, but we’re not.”
Conaway, a four-year starter, averaged 11.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game last season, but with the emergence of Miller and freshman forward Kylie Huffman, her scoring output has decreased this year. While the points have not stood out, it is Conaway’s work in other facets of the game that have played a pivotal role for the Trojans’ historic season. Minerd calls Conaway “the stability” of California’s state playoff-bound squad.
“When we lost the lead against North Catholic and things got out of control, she was able to settle things down by making a big shot or big defensive play,” Minerd said. “The stat line does not always jump out at you, but her stat line is consistent across the board. She has been a very consistent player. The team can rely on her in some area of the game. She provides that sense of comfort for the younger girls.”
Her leadership was evident last week in the Trojans’ 60-40 loss to Serra Catholic at Baldwin High School. With the Eagles’ guards swarming her, Conaway consistently found an open teammate with precision passing. She made a three-pointer in the third quarter to keep California alive when Serra Catholic began running away.
It is the type of consistent play Minerd is searching for after his team had a combined 54 turnovers in their last two games. With the program’s first state playoff appearance set, Cal will again face a team with postseason experience. Kennedy Catholic has won 10-straight district championships. April Bocian, a 6-2 sophomore forward, has played a critical role for the Golden Eagles. While Bocian will likely be shadowing Huffman, the Trojans’ leading scorer, role players like Conaway will be looked to for production. Conaway admits she is nervous about her first game in the state playoffs.
“We’ve come a long way and it’s been a big part of my life now,” Conaway said.
Minerd is pleasantly surprised his young team has made dramatic strides as the season has progressed, and he believes Conaway has been key to that development.
“It’s important to have that person the girls can go to because they haven’t been (to the playoffs),” Minerd said. “They don’t know how to act or know what to expect. Tristen definitely knows what’s going to happen and what to expect when we get to these higher levels of playoff basketball.”