Alle-Kiski Valley boys basketball teams work around inexperience

Wednesday, December 27, 2017 | 8:00 AM

Joe Tutchstone paused a conversation at Kiski Area boys basketball practice last week to join his team in a drill.

The Cavaliers coach took the ball and assumed a position familiar from his days as a Kiski Area point guard, directing his players as they ran through an offensive set during preparation for their first Section 3-5A game of the season.

The always-energetic Tutchstone is getting even more of a workout this season as he coaches up a team heavy in athletic ability but lean in experience. With just two returning contributors from last season, Kiski Area dropped its first five games of the season even as it showed Tutchstone some flashes of potential.

“They'll make a mistake in practice, and you show them how it should be done and the proper way to do it,” Tutchstone said. “And then you demonstrate it, you show them, but then when it gets into the game they get so caught up in how the game's going and the flow of the game and the pressures of the game that they do the same thing. Then you have to take it back and you have to show them on film how it looked and how bad they looked and what they should have done.

“… But I am seeing strides. We are doing things better.”

Several of the Alle-Kiski Valley's 2017 boys basketball playoff teams suffered heavy graduation losses after last season, leaving their coaches in a similar position as Tutchstone: teaching mode.

To wit: Deer Lakes graduated eight seniors. Fox Chapel lost three starters and Highlands lost four. All-time leading scorer Nico Sero graduated at Riverview, and St. Joseph lost three seniors and had an expected starter go down with injury during the preseason.

The teams are finding mixed results to this point: On the high end, Fox Chapel won its first four games of the season. Kiski Area, on the other hand, lost its first five games by 17 points or more.

“It's a teaching experience because you've got a couple very experienced players … and the rest of the kids, it's all new,” said veteran St. Joseph coach Kelly Robinson, whose team won its season-opening tip-off tournament before dropping three of its next four games. “It's a mix, and it's going to take a while.”

Injuries complicated the process further for some of the teams. Junior Matt Arvay, a returning starter for St. Joseph, suffered a preseason leg injury. Fox Chapel lost a pair of projected starters.

With inexperience in portions of the lineup, the teams are leaning on what they bring back.

• Guards Carson Cohen, a Tufts (Mass.) recruit, and Ben Kelly spearheaded Fox Chapel's 4-0 start before Kelly missed a loss to Woodland Hills because of illness. Post player Micah Morris also was a key returner after the Foxes lost much of their down-low presence.

• Despite an almost wholly new rotation, Highlands took advantage of summer-league play to split its first four games.

Leechburg, which lost starters J.B. Burtick and Cory Nulph to graduation, is getting significant contributions from returners Jake Blumer, Christian Hack and John Miskinis and freshman Dylan Cook. The Blue Devils won five of their first six games.

• St. Joseph is leaning on returning starters Grant Bendis and Daniel Fábregas and getting a huge scoring boost from freshman Andrew Sullivan.

“Having Carson and having had him for three years and having had Ben for two and Micah for two, these guys know what the expectation is,” Fox Chapel coach Zach Skrinjar said. “Any time you have guards that are experienced like (Cohen and Kelly) are, that alleviates some stress as a coach and also can help the younger guys.”

Nonsection games provide an added benefit for the teams breaking in new cores. Despite Kiski Area's tough start, Tutchstone believes the Cavaliers will benefit in the long run from road games against top competition — a pair of Class 6A teams and ranked opponents Indiana and Ambridge.

“I'm using that as a way to grow. I'm using that as a stepping-stone,” Tutchstone said. “I keep trying to tell them this is a process, and this is just part of the process. The teams that we're playing now, when we get into some section play and that, we're seeing things that we're going to see in section, so we can correct them now.”

Section play will heat up next week after holiday tournaments. The hope among coaches is growing pains will give way to growth.

“Every day these guys come with a good attitude. They put forth the effort, and they're getting it slowly but surely,” Skrinjar said.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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