Boys basketball preview: Belle Vernon could thrive again in underdog role

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Monday, November 23, 2020 | 8:36 PM


It seems anyone discussing coach Joe Salvino’s long and successful high school basketball career can’t help but refer to all those victories achieved by the 69-year-old Mon Valley staple.

Salvino’s combined record in 36 seasons at neighboring schools Monessen and Belle Vernon stands at 667-279.

But it’s his latest loss that has the Leopards’ attention heading into Salvino’s third season at Belle Vernon and 37th overall.

Belle Vernon bowed out of last season following an epic, four-overtime, second-round defeat to Lancaster Catholic in the PIAA Class 4A playoffs on March 9 at Altoona.

“They took that loss very, very hard,” said Salvino, who, nonetheless, led Belle Vernon to a 20-8 record in 2019-20, the school’s first 20-win season since 2001. “They wanted to keep playing. But I tell you, they had nothing to be ashamed of.”

Salvino loses six seniors from that fan-favorite team he said overachieved from the season-opening tip, but he’s raring to find out if his current edition can make a similar run.

“Nobody thought we would get to the WPIAL championship game, (albeit losing to Highlands),” Salvino said, “and nobody thought we’d be playing Lancaster Catholic, the No. 2 team in the state, to a four-overtime game in the state playoffs.”

Perhaps, Salvino reasoned, nobody thinks Belle Vernon has a chance of accomplishing anything similar this season.

“There’s nothing better than being associated with a team that does really well,” he said. “There’s nothing better than participating in that. It shows what it actually, really takes to get to that point, and I definitely have those type of people again this year.”

Starting with tenacious point guard Devin Whitlock, a junior who averaged 21 points and 5 assists last season.

“He’s a kid, who, as a coach, you rely on his stubbornness and his will-to-win attitude,” Salvino said. “Devin might not always be the better player against someone else, but I don’t care who that someone else is, Devin is going to compete and he’s going to make it as difficult for you as he can. He won’t take no for an answer.”

The 5-foot-9 Whitlock is emblematic of Belle Vernon’s player stature this year. Among the Leopards’ roster purges were 6-4 Mitchell Pohlet, 6-3 Jared Hartman, 6-2 Thomas Hepple and 6-1 Hunter Ruokonen, all of whom have graduated.

Pohlot, who graduated a year early, was the team’s second-leading scorer (13.8 ppg) and leading rebounder (8.0 rpg), while Hartman served as a team captain and assumed a leadership role in the overtimes of that heartbreaking 84-82 playoff loss in the absence of Whitlock, who earlier fouled out.

“Mitch was a really tough, strong kid inside,” Salvino said. “We’ll miss him, as will we miss the rest of those guys who’ve moved on. But we’ve got a good group here now, and the experience they got from last year hopefully will carry over to this year.”

Belle Vernon is scheduled to open the season Dec. 11 at the Mon Valley Shootout, which originally was to be held at Ringgold. But the Rams dropped out because of covid-19 concerns, and Salvino hadn’t yet seen a revised schedule.

Charleroi, McKeesport and Thomas Jefferson are the other teams in the field.

Jake Haney, a 5-9 senior guard, joins Whitlock as the lone Belle Vernon returning starters and will form a backcourt whose diminutive look Salvino hopes will cause opponents fits.

“We don’t have a lot of height, but I’m hoping our quickness and speed and defense will carry us through,” said Salvino, who won two PIAA and six WPIAL championships and 21 WPIAL section titles at Monessen.

Salvino said the rest of the opening-day lineup might include 5-11 juniors Daniel Gordan and Tyler Kovatch and 6-1 junior Joe Klanchar.

Freshman Quinton Martin, a running back/receiver/defensive back on the Belle Vernon football team, is expected to make an immediate impact, while 6-foot junior Tommy Kovatch, who sat out the last half of last season with a broken ankle, also should see plenty of action.

The 6-3 Martin recently received a football scholarship offer from Pitt.

“I’m hoping some of the others will come around,” Salvino said. “I have some younger kids who I know are going to mature as they learn the system. A lot will depend on covid. We’re taking it a step at a time, like everyone else.”

Belle Vernon boys at a glance

Coach: Joe Salvino

Last year’s record: 20-8 (8-2 Section 3-4A)

Returning starters: Jake Haney (Sr., G), Devin Whitlock (Jr., G)

Top newcomers: Daniel Gordan (Jr., G), Joe Klanchar (Jr., F), Tyler Kovatch (Jr., G)

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