Mark Moschella's at a point in life when one wouldn't expect him to be switching careers, but coaching this year's Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School girls basketball team almost was like doing that.
Moschella went from guiding a team last year that was starting five seniors and bringing two seniors off the bench to leading a team starting three freshmen, a sophomore and a senior who hadn't played organized basketball in years, and often spells them with two more sophomores.
"I knew this was going to be more of a teaching process," Moschella said, "than a coaching process."
Moschella's youthful Lady Marauders have learned their lessons well, though. Tonight they'll be right back where the 2013 team was a year ago, playing District 7 heavyweight Vincentian for the right to represent the west in the PIAA Class A basketball finals this weekend.
The game at Hempfield High School in Greensburg tips off at 6 p.m. Bishop Guilfoyle takes a 23-5 mark into the contest, while Vincentian is 25-3.
"I didn't have any target [in terms of advancement into the state playoffs], because you never really know how quickly a team is going to grasp what it takes to play at the varsity level," Moschella said. "We just had to take it one day at a time. We communicated every day that you're satisfied that that's not going to be good enough to be the best at what you do. You have to get better every day at practice. That's all that we did.
"They're a really coachable team. That certainly helps."
The Lady Marauders, to be sure, have had their growing pains throughout the season. They dropped close home games to Blairsville and Forest Hills and scored just 66 combined points in losses to Penn Cambria and Westmont Hilltop.
There also have been some fairly remarkable highs along the way. Guilfoyle fell behind Altoona by 13 points out of the gate on the road but came back to beat their quad-A rival by 22 behind standout freshman Lili Benzel's 36-point outburst, then won two games in the space of a few hours to secure a spot in the Laurel Highlands Conference championship game.
BG also posted comeback wins in the playoffs against more experienced Portage and Serra Catholic teams to get to this point.
"This year was just a matter of being patient and taking the strengths that [the players] had and putting them into a position to succeed," Moschella said. "Earlier in the season we played some good teams and in the last four or five minutes we just didn't finish the game off."
That often had been a hallmark of Moschella's squads, which, for the previous three years, essentially put the same lineup on the floor with the likes of Halee Adams, Kayla Bates, Elyssa Ehredt and Devin Stessney.
That group, however, had its scholastic career ended last season by a young, up-and-coming Vincentian team, 45-40, at Indiana Area High School. Vincentian, to that point, had been the team that couldn't get past the BG's of the world to make it to the PIAA finals.
"It meant a great deal to our team and our program. Bishop Guilfoyle has a lot of tradition, and they're well-coached. Any time you beat a team like Bishop Guilfoyle, it's great for your team, especially being as young as we were last year," Lady Royals coach Ron Moncrief said.
In fact, last year's Vincentian team was only a little more experienced than this year's Guilfoyle team when it took the court at Indiana. Nine of Moncrief's top 10 players were underclassmen, including do-it-all 6-foot junior Brenna Wise. Wise, who ended up first team all-state, led all scorers that night with 18 points to go along with 16 rebounds and hit two big free throws in the last half-minute.
Sophomore guard Torrieanna Cash also averages double-figure scoring for the Lady Royals this season.
"We're a year more mature. Last year, we were kind of in uncharted territory," Moncrief said. "This year's team seems more focused on the ultimate goal, and that's to win a gold medal."
While Wise definitely presents a big challenge for Guilfoyle, Moschella was more concerned with another sometimes less-publicized part of Vincentian's success.
"A turnover equals two points that they're going to get," Moschella said. "Our team needs to understand that when the go on a 16-2 run against Kennedy Catholic, 12-14 of those 16 points come from the pressure they put on you, how quick they are and how well they play the passing lanes. The number one thing is we need to value the basketball."
Regardless of the new faces, Moncrief expects a typical Guilfoyle team.
"Their coach always does a good job of putting them in a position to win. You've got to do the little things," Moncrief said. "No matter who plays for them, they're going to battle. They're not going to quit or lay down."