A-K Valley basketball top storylines, players, teams to watch
By: Doug Gulasy
Thursday, December 6, 2018 | 6:39 PM
The 2017-18 basketball season ended with six Alle-Kiski Valley teams in the PIAA playoffs, highlighted by the Highlands boys’ run to the Class 5A quarterfinals. Record-breaking players and senior classes took their final bows.
Then, the offseason, as it always does, brought change. Those seniors graduated, leaving roster holes that up-and-coming players must fill. Coaches were replaced, sometimes by new faces and sometimes by familiar ones. And the WPIAL went through its realignment process under the PIAA’s six-classification system, so teams now will adjust to new sections and new opponents.
When the season begins Friday at tip-off tournaments around the WPIAL, coaches will get their first official look at how their teams look against outside competition.
Some questions will get answered, while others will remain uncertain for months. The biggest question — who will win the WPIAL basketball championships? — won’t be determined until March at the Petersen Events Center. Alle-Kiski Valley teams will battle to become the area’s first WPIAL champ since Leechburg’s boys took home the title in 2007.
With the season about to tip off, the Valley News Dispatch examined the top storylines, teams and players to watch in 2018-19.
5 STORYLINES TO WATCH
1. How high can Highlands fly?: No A-K Valley boys basketball team comes into the season with bigger expectations than Highlands after the Golden Rams’ run to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals. Juniors Luke Cochran and Johnny Crise, the top two scorers last season, return for the Golden Rams, who dropped to Class 4A in the offseason and could be a favorite to win the WPIAL title.
2. Stating their case: Fox Chapel, Leechburg, Springdale and Valley all qualified for the PIAA playoffs last season and will attempt to take another step in 2018-19. All four lost key players to graduation but also have strong pieces back.
3. Section shakeups: The WPIAL realignment brought changes in the second two-year cycle under the PIAA’s six-classification system. In the A-K Valley, some rivalries will resume: Highlands and Knoch joined Freeport in Class 4A; Burrell, Deer Lakes and Valley will battle against each other in Class 3A; Apollo-Ridge will meet up with Riverview and Springdale in Class 2A; and Leechburg joined old rival St. Joseph in Class A.
4. Ready to rise: A few A-K Valley teams hope to bounce back after missing the playoffs for various reasons. Apollo-Ridge fielded a mostly young roster last season, but those underclassmen return with a year of varsity competition under their belts and a new coach in Greg Fox. Injuries short-circuited St. Joseph, but an experienced — and healthy — group returns. Kiski Area has a new coach in Will Saunders and an experienced roster. Plum, too, boasts plenty of experience and the A-K Valley’s top scorer last season in Lamar Whiting.
5. Pace of play: Expect plenty of running in A-K Valley boys games this season, as teams like Deer Lakes, Freeport, Highlands, St. Joseph and Valley prefer a fast-paced game. Even traditionally defense-first Knoch has discussed playing a bit more quickly this season.
1. Dawn of a new era: Things will look much different this season at Leechburg and St. Joseph. After both schools made deep postseason runs each of the past two seasons — including a combined three PIAA tournament appearances — they both will break in entirely new starting lineups with new coaches at the helm. Those players must make up for some of the most successful players in school history.
2. Familiar faces, new places: The offseason saw some interesting player and coach movement that could affect A-K Valley teams this season. Star guard Harley Holloway, an all-section performer at Kiski Area last season, transferred to Freeport. Sophomore Neveah Ewing, will play for Knoch this season after playing valuable minutes as a freshman for St. Joseph. Joel Ceraso, who led Leechburg to the most successful four-year stretch in program history, became Burrell’s third coach in as many years.
3. Trust the process: A number of local schools continue to go through rebuilding and hope to take the next step this season. Nick Dizon took over as coach at Kiski Area after Nick Ionadi led the Cavaliers through a ground-up building process in the past six seasons. Courtney Udanis, a former Highlands star, hopes to do the same after taking over as coach at her alma mater. Ernie Sipolino, in his first season at Valley, is trying to bring success to a program that has seven wins in the past five seasons. Springdale will work to overcome a shorthanded roster. How the programs adjust to the various challenges they face could shape their fortunes for the future.
4. Time to grow: Cheswick Christian, Plum and Riverview all qualified for the postseason in 2018 — Cheswick in the Southwestern Christian Athletic Conference, Plum and Riverview in the WPIAL — despite fielding largely youthful rosters. Riverview nearly pulled off a first-round upset, bowing out only when Serra Catholic hit a half-court buzzer-beater. With a wealth of experience returning for all three teams, a playoff appearance and postseason run are the goals.
5. Defense not resting: Defense should reign supreme for several A-K Valley girls teams this season. Freeport will bank on that side of the ball as it seeks a third straight WPIAL playoff trip. Deer Lakes mixed and matched its defenses to advance to the postseason a year ago and likely will again. Apollo-Ridge used a strong defensive effort to upset Charleroi in the first round last season.
5 TEAMS TO WATCH
1. Highlands: Coming off a run to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals, the Golden Rams drop to Class 4A, where they should contend for their first WPIAL championship since 1995. Point guard Luke Cochran and swingman Johnny Crise will try to pick up the leadership void left by the graduation of players like Shawn Erceg, Romello Freeman and Christian Tanilli.
2. Valley: The Vikings won just one game three seasons ago but are coming off back-to-back playoff appearances and advanced to the PIAA tournament in 2018. Nyjewel Carter and Deonte Ross, veterans of those postseason trips, will attempt to lift the Vikings this season after the team dropped to Class 3A in the offseason.
3. Leechburg: The Blue Devils also advanced to the PIAA playoffs last season, their first such trip in 11 years. Senior John Miskinis, junior Jacob Blumer and sophomore Dylan Cook will lead the way for Leechburg after the graduation of top scorer Christian Hack.
4. Knoch : After missing the playoffs last season, the Knights drop to Class 4A, where they expect to contend for not just a return to the postseason but a deep playoff run, as well. Senior Julian Sanks, who averaged more than 16 points last season, leads a quartet of returning starters at guard.
5. Deer Lakes: The Lancers want to turn back the clock to 1985 this spring — the last time they won a WPIAL playoff game. With a core of four players with starting experience, Deer Lakes hopes to make a playoff run after dropping to Class 3A.
1. Freeport: The Yellowjackets, a WPIAL playoff team the past two seasons, already had one of the more intriguing rosters in the A-K Valley with juniors Sidney Shemanski and identical twins Madeline and Samantha Clark returning as starters. Then came the transfer of Harley Holloway, who will add scoring punch after leading Kiski Area with 17.6 points per game last season.
2. Deer Lakes: The Lancers feel it’s now or never in terms of earning a WPIAL playoff win. Four starters return for Deer Lakes, which qualified for the playoffs the last three seasons but did not advance past the first round. The Lancers fell to Class 3A in the offseason and will see how they adapt.
3. Riverview: The Raiders nearly pulled off a big upset in the WPIAL playoffs last year against Serra Catholic, but it might not be an upset if the team makes a postseason run this spring. A core of four juniors — Alyssa Cappa, Francesca Lio, Sydney McDonough and Alivia Schulties — will lead the way.
4. Apollo-Ridge: The Vikings chose to “play up” in Class 4A this season, citing better travel than in their previous Class 3A home, where they made the WPIAL quarterfinals in 2018. Senior Maddie Moore, a proficient shooter, will attempt to make up for the scoring void left by the graduation of post player Megan Ost, a career 1,000-point scorer.
5. Burrell: The Bucs saw their seven-year playoff streak end last season, and Joel Ceraso became the program’s third coach in as many seasons. But Burrell could see better days this season: senior Kaylen Sharrow led the team in scoring last season, and Ceraso led Leechburg to the first three-year postseason streak in school history from 2016-18 — not to mention the first four playoff wins, first two PIAA tournament appearances and first state playoff wins.
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
1. Johnny Crise, Highlands, jr., F: The 6-foot-7 swingman showed up on highlight reels all of last season with his above-the-rim exploits in the Golden Rams’ strong season. Crise, who has Division I offers from Robert Morris and USC Upstate, worked on improving his shooting in the offseason and could see a scoring jump after averaging 12 points last season.
2. Logan Bitar, Burrell, sr., G: Bitar led the Bucs in scoring last season as they shared the Section 3-3A championship. He suffered a knee injury during the offseason but should be back at full capacity as Burrell goes for its third straight playoff appearance.
3. Deonte Ross, Valley, sr., G/F: One of two returning starters for the Vikings, Ross can score both inside and outside and provides Valley with a good complement to sharpshooter Nyjewel Carter. Ross also is one of the team’s top rebounders and on-floor leaders.
4. Andrew Sullivan, St. Joseph, so., G/F: He led the Spartans in scoring as a freshman, shouldering a heavy load from his first game. He and senior Grant Bendis will get some more help this season with the return of Matt Arvay and Daniel Fábregas from injury.
5. Mike Zolnierczyk, Springdale, sr., G: The soccer goalkeeping star does plenty of damage on the offensive end in basketball, leading the Dynamos in scoring last season as they won their first postseason game since 2008 and advanced to the PIAA playoffs.
1. Harley Holloway, Freeport, jr., G: The sharpshooter last spring became Kiski Area’s first first-team all-section player in several seasons before transferring to Freeport over the summer. If Holloway, who is receiving Division I interest, can add her scoring ability (17.6 ppg, 42 percent 3-point shooting) to Freeport’s tenacious defense, the Yellowjackets could go far this season.
2. Kaylen Sharrow, Burrell, sr., F: The last remaining holdover from the glory days of Burrell’s basketball program, Sharrow last season led the Bucs in scoring and posted several double-doubles along the way. She’ll be key as Burrell seeks a postseason return after a one-year absence.
3. Kennedie Montue, Plum, so., G/F: Montue led the Mustangs in scoring as a freshman to help them to a WPIAL playoff appearance. The 5-11 sophomore can score inside and out and hopes to lead Plum to its first WPIAL playoff win since 2002.
4. Maddie Moore, Apollo-Ridge, sr., G: The Seton Hill commit already holds Apollo-Ridge’s career record for made 3-pointers with 70, and she likely will take on a greater offensive importance this season after the Vikings lost star post player Megan Ost to graduation.
5. Sidney Shemanski, Freeport, jr., G: The three-sport star was one of Freeport’s most consistent scorers and tenacious defensive players each of the past two seasons, and she’ll be counted on to fill both roles again as the Yellowjackets look for a strong run in Class 4A.
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at email@example.com or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.