Belle Vernon boys still looking to find groove in season of constant change

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Thursday, February 2, 2023 | 11:01 AM


A search for continuity is a seemingly ongoing adventure at Belle Vernon this season as the boys basketball team tries to grow into its expectations.

The journey has been met with flared locker room discussions, a maddening sense that the Leopards (9-9) should be better and the coach trying to throw a lasso of accountability around an athletically gifted group.

“I don’t think we’ve had the same lineup for three games in a row,” coach Joe Salvino said. “We’ve probably had four or five different (starting lineups). It’s been tough trying to get any consistency. I didn’t think it would take this long. I just hope we don’t run out of time.”

While frustration often has overshadowed any celebrating, Salvino has been trying to light a fire under a team he said had more potential — at least on paper — than some other teams he has coached. And there have been some good ones.

He can see it. Fans can see it. Opponents cringe, because they see it, too.

With Salvino, you’re talking nearly four decades of coaching experience, including 34 at Monessen, where he won six WPIAL titles and two PIAA championships.

He has more than 700 wins, one of three boys basketball coaches to reach that milestone in WPIAL history.

But the past can’t help the future of these Leopards, or reroute the on-again, off-again story of his 9-8 team.

Here’s a quick rundown of the narrative:

• Eight football players joined the team late after Belle Vernon won WPIAL and PIAA championships, so there is that.

• Sophomore Zion Moore transferred in from Ringgold, and, while he made his mark instantaneously, he needed time to blend in with his new teammates.

• Once things started to click, the Leopards reversed a slow start, winning four in a row to temper the four losses it sustained in the first four games.

“I talked to the basketball coach at Thomas Jefferson,” Salvino said. “He had been through this before, with football going late. He said it might not be until the end of January until we get everything together.”

• The Leopards won four in row, including a 98-73 victory over McKeesport in the football players’ first game back.

Then, they dropped games against Uniontown (79-64) and Laurel Highlands (69-64) before two more wins in a row.

The boat continued to rock, the waters still up and down wavy.

• The lineup changed again. Sophomore 6-foot-5 forward Tommy Davis broke his wrist.

Standout junior Quinton Martin went on a 7-on-7 football trip to Miami, and junior Braden Laux took a football recruiting trip to Eastern Michigan.

They missed a combined three games. Martin, a five-star football prospect with major college offers from across the country, could miss more if he travels again with his new 7s team out of Los Angeles.

Martin is the reigning Trib Westmoreland Boys Basketball Player of the Year.

“I think it’s great what the football team did, winning the WPIAL and state championship,” Salvino said. “But it just shows how times are different. (The PIAA) started (basketball season) two weeks earlier, and who knows why they did that. These kids have so many things pulling them in different directions.”

With Martin out, the Leopards lost to Gateway, 53-49.

Only Moore and sophomore Trevor Kovatch have been around since the start of the season.

“We’re working through it,” Kovatch said. “We go on the fly sometimes, and we work on what we need to fix at practice.”

After Belle Vernon tip-toed past visiting Southmoreland, 59-52, on Jan. 27, Salvino had a spirited talk with his team. He challenged them and questioned if there was a leader in the room.

“It’s just been a totally different year,” Salvino said. “We have kids who want to shoot the ball and play one-on-one basketball. They have been lazy on defense, and that has to change.”

The next night, the Leopards held off Franklin Regional, 66-52, showing signs that Salvino’s words resonated with them. They shared the ball, valued possessions and defended. Martin sent a block into the first row, while Moore, Alonzo Wade and Kovatch picked off passes that led to fast-break hoops.

“We understand what coach was saying,” Moore said. “We need to work together better and play better defense.”

A third game in three days was a thriller, but the Leopards lost to North Hills, 84-82, in overtime, as Moore had 32 and Martin 25. A 69-52 loss to Uniontown was next.

The Leopards were averaging 66.6 points, which might be expected from an up-tempo group, but they were allowing 63.7.

Salvino called a recent five-game stretch, which ends Friday when the Leopards host Laurel Highlands, a potential “breakout time” for his team.

He had hoped the team would be more balanced, end to end, offensively to defensively.

“Defense is the most important part of basketball,” Kovatch said. “Defense leads to offense. We know how important it is.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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