A-K Valley boys basketball teams rely on backcourt leaders

Thursday, February 15, 2018 | 9:57 PM

Asked to detail his role, and those of his fellow backcourt members at Valley, Dru Stokes ticked them off one by one.

There's junior Nyjewel Carter, an outside shooter with range to spare and a willingness to use it, but also the ability to drive and score — “If you close out on him, he goes past you, and if you don't close out on him, it goes in. It's one or the other.”

There's Deonte Ross, a rugged junior who brings toughness, rebounding, transition baskets and “great enthusiasm.”

There's Alex Ward, a senior outside threat recently returned from injury — “Me and him are always on the same page.”

And then there's Stokes, the senior point guard with a penchant for big shots and whose biggest role as a leader is “keeping everybody calm.”

Those four guards worked in concert together to help Valley (13-4) tie for second place in Section 1-4A and earn the No. 8 seed in the WPIAL playoffs. Coach Mark Faulx emphasized roles and responsibilities all season, even as Ross and Ward missed significant time with injuries, and the Vikings' perimeter players are settling into theirs.

“People know when to push the ball, people know when to pass, people know when to shoot,” Stokes said. “If you can't shoot a 3, then don't shoot the 3. People know what to do in that situation. Those people know when to handle, when to not handle. I think that's when we work best.”

But Valley isn't alone in its perimeter strength. Guards lead all eight Alle-Kiski Valley boys basketball playoff teams in scoring, and most boast deep backcourts.

“Not only are leaders usually the guards, but they have the ability to get people involved,” said Fox Chapel senior Carson Cohen, a Tufts recruit averaging 20 points. “Teams are going to be at their best when role players are scoring as well as the guards are scoring, so I think if guards can get people involved, everything will get opened up and it becomes a lot easier.”

The guards around the area take a variety of different forms: knockdown shooters like Freeport's Ben Beale, Highlands' Luke Cochran or Fox Chapel's Ben Kelly; inside-outside threats like Burrell's Logan Bitar, Leechburg's Christian Hack or Springdale's Mike Zolnierczyk; floor generals like Freeport's Jalen Brown, Leechburg's John Miskinis and Springdale's Demitri Fritch; and defensive dynamos like Freeport's Isiah Bauman.

And that's just scratching the surface.

“We're good at attacking, good at shooting,” said Hack, a career 1,000-point scorer, of himself and fellow Leechburg guards Dylan Cook, Corey Keresz and Miskinis. “It makes defenders have a hard time of knowing when to play tight on us or give us space. I think that's what makes us a threat.”

The best guard groups work together. Cohen and Ben Kelly split the job of defending their opponents' top offensive perimeter threat. Valley's quartet of guards can create chaos in motion when on the court together, flying all over the floor offensively and defensively. The driving ability of Bauman and Brown helps open up outside shots for Beale.

“We've been playing together for two years straight,” Beale said. “A lot of team chemistry is reliable to that. We hang out outside of the court, too, and it's a fun time when we hang out with each other. We trust each other. It's a friendship.”

Teams like Freeport and Leechburg are undersized, giving greater responsibility to their guards in rebounding, but Beale said Freeport uses its smaller size to its advantage by outrunning opponents. Cohen and Kelly took on a bigger role for Fox Chapel after two post players were injured in preseason.

“Many people have stepped up, which is really great for us, but I think it starts with us,” Cohen said. “(Kelly) does a great job of getting the job done, and it's nice to have someone like him to play with.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cochran leads a forward-heavy Highlands team in scoring, while Bitar and 6-foot-5 Donovan Russell work an outside-inside game at Burrell.

Given the strength of the guards in the A-K Valley, it's fair to expect more of the same from opposing teams in the WPIAL playoffs. That's a challenge Beale, for one, is looking forward to.

“You're playing the best of the best,” Beale said. “One of your goals starting out the year is to make the playoffs, obviously. Then you're playing a lot better talent than you're used to playing, so that's going to make you play harder and more motivated.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

More High School Basketball

Harry Jenkins, longtime Fox Chapel basketball coach, dies
Penn Hills notebook: Drew Schifino plans basketball camp
Rising Stars Challenge adds underclassmen to Roundball Classic stage
NFHS eliminates 1-and-1 foul shots from high school basketball rulebook
Freeport grad takes over boys basketball program