Belle Vernon boys set to meet Freeport in playoff game that almost wasn’t

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021 | 7:59 PM


Thursday night’s WPIAL Class 4A first-round playoff game between top-seeded Belle Vernon and Freeport almost didn’t happen.

Belle Vernon (11-1) had its last two games postponed because of covid-19 and has not played since Feb. 20. Coach Joe Salvino decided last week not to hold practices, and it might turn out to be the best decision he made all season.

“We later found out one of our players has covid and won’t be able to play (tonight),” Salvino said. “But if we had been together and practiced, we’d be done. We would have had to forfeit and would not have played in the playoffs.

“That would have been a catastrophe.”

But that was the “new normal” for high school basketball during the pandemic.

“It’s been the longest shortened season I’ve ever gone though,” Freeport coach Wayne Greiser said. “It’s just been the craziest year ever. Never a dull moment.”

Barring any unforeseen issues, the Leopards and Yellowackets (6-8) will tip off at 6 p.m.

Freeport is coming off a 65-64 win over Blackhawk in a preliminary-round game. The first playoff win for Freeport in 12 years ended a late-season swoon. The Jackets had lost four of their last five regular-season games.

“I’ve watched them on film a couple times, and they aren’t a bad team,” Salvino said of Freeport. “They have a couple of nice ball players and will give us problems if we don’t come out and take care of business.”

Like Belle Vernon, Freeport has a young team with only one senior on the roster. Greiser will have a starting five that is composed of four juniors and a sophomore.

“We’re young, but we work hard,” Greiser said. “We know we will have our work cut out for us against Belle Vernon.”

Cole Charlton, a 6-3 junior, leads Freeport in scoring (13 ppg) and rebounding (6.0). He is the only player on the team averaging double figures, but three others starters are close.

Sophomore Ben Lane averages 9.9 ppg. Junior Conner Holloway averages 9.1 points and 5 rebounds, and point guard Vinnie Clark averages 8.6 ppg and 3.6 assists.

“We’re going to have to push an up-tempo game,” Salvino said. “We need to put pressure on them and try to get them out of the pace they prefer. Offensively, we’re going to have to keep our movement. Sometimes we tend to stand around.”

Greiser knows what his team is up against.

“We are going to have to handle their pressure, which seems to have given everyone they played a hard time,” he said. “We can’t turn it over and give them easy opportunities, which can be demoralizing.”

Belle Vernon, which averages 72 points, is led by 5-foot-9 junior Devin Whitlock’s 21 points per game. Juniors Daniel Gordon and Jake Haney average 14 points, and Gordon lead BVA in rebounding at 8 per game.

Even though his team is the top seed, Salvino has found a motivational edge for his players.

“It’s funny because we are everybody’s top seed, but I don’t see anyone picking us to win it all,” he said. “I told our kids nobody outside of here believes in us.”

Having been on a layoff so long is a concern to Salvino.

“I always worry about long layoffs,” he said. “A lot of times, it seems that toughest playoff game is the first one.

“We have to come out fast and dictate the pace of the game.”

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