Eight long years.
That’s the last time the New Castle High School girls basketball team appeared in the WPIAL playoffs. That will change this week when Lady 'Canes (13-9) and Red Hurricane (15-7) open action in their respective Class 4A brackets. Bringing the ball up on offense for both teams will be a familiar pairing.
The No. 11 Lady ‘Canes take the court against Knoch on Monday in a game at Fox Chapel High School. The seventh-seeded ‘Canes, meanwhile, play Wednesday evening against Mount Pleasant at North Allegheny High School.
The New Castle girls and coach Kara Dinardo-Joseph begin their scoring opportunities with junior Mia Graham. Meanwhile, coach Ralph Blundo’s ball-movement offense starts with younger brother, Michael Graham, a sophomore.
Both spoke of the need for having a solid relationship between the coach and point guard.
"Sometimes when I'm going down the court, (Dinardo-Joseph will) tell me to slow down the game and I'm like, I got it,” Mia Graham said. “We have the same instincts."
It’s the same for Blundo and Michael Graham.
"We have to have a good relationship because (Blundo) always tells me I'm the coach on the floor, the floor general,” Michael Graham said. “We have to have a good bond."
Mia Graham has been Dinardo-Joseph’s point guard for the last three seasons. The fourth-year coach was also her mentor in junior high basketball.
"I had her in seventh grade,” Mia Graham said. “I built a bond with her and she knows the type of person I am and I know the type of person she is. She's watched me grow and I've watched her grow as a coach."
That familiarity has helped her better run the offense now that she’s been in the lineup for multiple years.
"I'm more comfortable now,” Mia Graham said. “I feel like now I can control the game better. It's my job to get my team where they need to be."
For Michael Graham, this season has been a learning experience. He came off the bench last year as a freshman behind starting point guard Payne Prowell.
"Payne used to talk to me a lot about how to control the game and keep it at my speed and to keep the tempo of the game at our speed,” Michael Graham said of the lesson from the since-graduated teammate. “You can't let the defense make us play how fast we're going to play. We have to play at our own speed and the defense can't determine how we're going to play."
Despite not starting last year, he was still counted on in big moments. In last March’s WPIAL title game, Michael Graham drilled a fourth-quarter 3-pointer as New Castle rallied to beat Quaker Valley and capture the program’s third straight District 7 crown and sixth in eight seasons.
"I definitely gained confidence, but then I lost it,” Michael Graham said of momentum from that shot. “Now, I'm trying to get it back. It's starting to come."
Part of that comes from the relative youthfulness of the ‘Canes. The team regularly starts just one senior, a junior, two sophomores and a freshman. Last year, there were three senior starters. That doesn’t mean the goals change, he said, adding he wants to help New Castle become the first team to win four consecutive WPIAL crowns.
"Everybody is coming at us,” Michael Graham said. “When we play teams, they want to beat us. That would be an accomplishment to come down here and beat New Castle. Everyone is out for us and we're the target."