When you start the season 16-0 like Southern Fulton's girls basketball team did, it's a fair bet your opponents will do anything to knock you down.
That didn't surprise first-year Indian head coach Terry Bard. He knew his players understood the road to capturing the goals they'd written out on a whiteboard before the season - to play as a team, to repeat as Sideling Hill League and Inter-County Conference champions, and above all to repeat as District 5 Class A champions - would be a tough one.
What Bard didn't predict was the adversity inhibiting his team from actually reaching those marks.
"I guess the grind of things, everyone trying to knock us off - it might have gotten to us," Bard said. "I didn't think it would given our veterans problems, but apparently it did."
SF is 7-3 in its last 10 games, including painful losses in the ICC and District 5 championship games.
On Saturday, the Indians (23-3) will face Juniata Valley, the fourth-place team from District 6, in a PIAA Class A first round, do-or-die game at the University of Pitt-Johnstown at 4 p.m.
Before Tuesday's practice, Bard held a video session. Instead of breaking down miscues from last Saturday's District 5 title loss to Conemaugh Township, Bard showed his girls a tape of them at their best - dominating Juniata Valley in a 72-37 regular season win.
"The video never lies," Bard said. "Our attitude, defensive tenacity, offensive motion - everything was better then than it is now. I told them honestly they were playing then just to play - whatever happens, happens. I said to think, 'If I can play as hard as I can, everything else will take care of itself.'"
With the season on the line, the Indians still have a shot at checking a PIAA sweet-16 appearance off their list.
"I like our bracket and think we have a chance," Bard said. "The biggest thing is getting everyone on the team believing we have a chance."
Southern Fulton had improved its record to 15-0 after beating the Hornets (17-9). Indian point guard and leading scorer Macey Hollenshead scored a career high 33 points.
"If she gets 33 we'll take it, but that's not our thinking, that she has to score 33 points for us to win the game," Bard said.
Juniata Valley coach Rachelle Hopsicker insisted she'll be bringing a much different team to the state tournament than the one that was routed by SF in January.
"We definitely have a different rotation," Hopsicker said. "We turned things around the next game (after the Southern Fulton loss). That's when we knew we were really good and found the right people for the right positions."
Hopsicker said her Hornets have refined a 1-3-1 defense that has allowed them to steadily improve all season.
Bard expects a much more competitive JV team the second time around, too. While he isn't focusing his players on it, SF's coach admitted his team has a history of struggling against teams it has already played.
"It's human nature to have a letdown because you already went through (playing a team) once," Bard said. "I honestly don't see that happening. We're not going to make that mistake again."
One thing that will be different this time around is the presence of Indian big girl Ashley Roman, who missed the previous meeting between the teams due to illness.
Bard is excited to have her back to help slow down the Hornets' main scoring threat, Abbie Zinobile, who is scoring at a 13.5 points-per-game clip.
"She really boxes out and goes for rebounds," said Hopsicker of Zinobile. "In transition (offense) we put it into her mind that an offensive rebound is a possession. Once that light went off she just went after it."
Roman's defense could equalize Zinobile in a big way, though.
"Ashley can run the floor a heck of a lot better than Zinobile," Bard said. "We have to keep up the tempo of the game for us to win."
A fast pace could mean more of the same as far as turnover margin - a category SF dominated the first time around, 17-6.
While the Indians are still recovering from the Conemaugh game, there is no doubt that Hopsicker has more worrying to do about how her team is feeling than Bard. That's because eight JV players missed Tuesday's practice due to illness.
"Right now our focus is on getting the kids healthy," Hopsicker said. "It's pretty much the same bug - they all have fevers. We're hoping for healing."
Jeff Kolb can be reached at 262-4819 or firstname.lastname@example.org
PIAA first round
Game data: Southern Fulton vs. Juniata Valley on Saturday, at University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown, 4.
Teams: Southern Fulton is 23-3 after falling to Conemaugh Township, 54-44, in the Dist. 5 championships. Juniata Valley is 17-9 after losing its last two games of the Dist. 6 playoffs.
Series: Southern Fulton beat Juniata Valley 72-37 on January 19.
Outlook: The Indians lost at Pitt-Johnstown in the first round of last year's tournament to the third-place team from District 9, Elk County Catholic, 53-47 ... The Indians beat Conemaugh Township in their first round game in 2011, 59-46.
P.O. pick: Southern Fulton by 15.