FORT WASHINGTON >> Josie Barrett and Demi Balasa couldn’t even get through the first day of their senior year before it snuck up on them.
The two senior starters of Upper Dublin’s girls’ basketball team were in one of those first-day assemblies when coach Morgan Funsten sat down next to them and started talking about the film he had been watching the night before. That was back in September.
It’s now March, and thanks to Barrett, Balasa and junior guard Maggie Weglos, Upper Dublin is still practicing as it heads into the PIAA tournament for the third season in a row. As the progression of time does to high school teams, things have changed for the Cardinals in that span but the constant has been that core trio, all starters the last three seasons.
“You’re dealing with three extremely competitive people and two of them who very rarely get recognition for individual achievements in Demi and Maggie,” Funsten said during the teams’ practice on Monday. “They’ve all accepted their roles on the teams the past three seasons, they’ve embraced them and they’ve been a major reason why we’ve been able to have the success we’ve had as a team.”
Plenty of teams have state appearance streaks, but it’s not an easy thing to do for consecutive years. Upper Dublin has been a solid program for the last decade-plus, and the Cardinals have made states in four of the five years Funsten has been the head coach. But it’s the way UD does it, by maximizing what it has, that makes the Cardinals unique.
As the trio has grown wiser the last three years, they’ve started to understand how a team that doesn’t always have the most talent on the floor is able to go out and do the things that it does. Upper Dublin plays one of the tougher schedules around and doesn’t always win its nonleague games.
Her first couple of seasons, Barrett said that was frustrating because as a competitor, she wants to win every night and can’t stand losing. Now she understands why UD tests itself that way, because it comes back and pays off at the end of the year.
“It improves us as a team, when we play those really tough teams, it exposes all the things we have to work on,” Balasa said. “That way, we can really focus and know what we have to go back and work at. Those are the type of teams we’re going to face in districts and states.”
Of the three, Barrett is the one who gets the most attention thanks to her prolific outside shooting. The senior has 179 career 3-pointers, which Funsten said is far and away the girls’ record and may even be the overall school record.
That’s not to take anything away from Weglos and Balasa bring to the team. Weglos has been the team’s best defender since she started playing and the junior has come into her own as the point guard this season. Balasa, who always looks to make the right play, is a textbook team-first player but also one who is plenty of capable of scoring if left open.
Where the three were part of the team the last two years, it’s their team this year.
“Demi leads by example and it’s something I never really had to think about,” Barrett said. “I always want to have fun and goof off sometimes during practice. The girls from past years, while they’re not on the team, they’re in a way still on the team. They always text us and give us advice, it’s so awesome, it’s like a family where we’re all helping each other out. The three of us, we try to lead by example outside of basketball as well as on the court.”
In an interesting twist, Upper Dublin opened its season against CB East and its last district playoff game, for the 9th seed in the playback bracket, was against CB East. Funsten said the biggest growth he’s seen in his team during that span was him knowing exactly what he’s going to get from each kid on a given night.
In early season games, a missed shot might have led to a player not taking it again even if they were open. Now, they have confidence that if a shot doesn’t drop, the next one will.
“Although we don’t all have the same strengths, we balance each other,” Weglos said. “Demi can lead by example, Josie encourages and we all learned a lot from our past captains. I think it just carries on into each season and new girls always step up and it’s great to see when everyone jives well and understands and encourages others.”
“Everyone has something leadership-wise inside of them,” Barrett said. “We want to see it come out on the court.”
Barrett, Balasa and Weglos all do different things on the floor and lead different ways, but they all agreed on the impact Funsten and assistant coach Monica Newman have had on them and the program.
“The coaches are very approachable, so having that is awesome,” Weglos said. “If we have any questions, or just need to talk to them, they’re always there. It helps getting whatever you need out or getting any questions answered. They also come back and give us advice.”
Funsten teaches math at the high school and his room is a frequent stop for the players throughout the day during the entire school year. That’s why Barrett and Balasa weren’t surprised when he dropped in on them at that assembly.
“Mr. Funsten, he’s an amazing coach, he always has our back and especially my back,” Barrett said. “He’s like one of my best friends, I talk to him about everything and he’s always supporting us and wants us to do well. He brings out our strengths on the court.”
Weglos and Barrett play volleyball while Balasa plays lacrosse and all three of them have seen Funsten at plenty of their games.
“He’ll take time out of his own schedule just to help you out,” Balasa said. “If you want to stay after practice longer, he’ll stay with you. He helps you with whatever you need to grow as a player, he’s even come to our AAU games and watched us there.”
Barrett is undecided if she’s playing in college, but Funsten has offered to write or contact college coaches on her behalf, an act the senior does not take lightly. The players appreciate the support from Newman and Funsten, Weglos saying her coach dedicates “all of his time,” Balasa noting that “he doesn’t even need to,” and Barrett adding “he’s crazy, he’s so into it.”
“That’s what makes it so awesome,” Weglos said. “He loves the game so much that he would do anything for it and that’s all you want to have in a coach. It makes us care so much and makes the whole team go all-in.”
Upper Dublin enters states on a three-game winning streak, but also faces a monster challenge in Cardinal O’Hara, the PCL champion, as its first-round opponent.
Weglos noted that it’s still a shock to all of them that the season is in its final leg and she, Barrett and Balasa all said they’re going to be very sad when it comes to an end. Barrett said her experience playing for UD has helped her be more comfortable opening up off the court while Balasa, who isn’t playing in college, said the way being on a team brings people together is what she’ll miss most.
Like their prior teammates have done for them, Balasa and Barrett said they plan on keeping tabs on he team next year and stopping by whenever they’re able.
“With basketball, we’re together so long that we know how to have fun with each other but we also know how to push each other at the same time,” Weglos said. “People not on the team don’t understand that. The other seasons are like two or three months and we’re together for almost five months. It’s so fun and we don’t want take anything for granted.”