Brentwood, Thomas Jefferson, Baldwin boys basketball teams look to develop chemistry

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Sunday, December 13, 2020 | 8:40 PM


Here’s a look at boys basketball teams in the South Hills Record coverage area:

Brentwood

Graduation losses hit the Brentwood boys basketball program hard.

The Spartans were stacked with seven seniors in 2019-20, led by four-year starter C.J. Ziegler, a flashy 5-foot-11 guard and 1,000-point career scorer who is a freshman at Geneva.

Brentwood finished 18-7 overall after jumping out to 10-0 start last year. The Spartans advanced to the WPIAL and PIAA tournaments in Class 2A, winning seven of their final eight regular-season games.

“This is a very inexperienced team,” coach Dan Thayer said. “We have no starters returning and only two players that played significant playing time last year. For that reason, we are cautiously optimistic. The team plays really well together and is learning to work hard in practice. But with so little experience, we are not exactly sure what we will have until games start.

“With all that is going on in the world, we were unable to get anything accomplished in the offseason. This has given us no evaluation of how well this team will play together. We also are not sure what things really work with this team. But we feel like we can be a good team, and that we will get significantly better as the season progresses.”

There will be new names in the team’s starting lineup this season.

“The starting lineup is not set in stone,” Thayer said. “At this time, we are looking at Chase Rosing, Dalton Daly, Nate Ziegler, Talan Kammermeier, Mitch Fox, Tavian Miller and Riley Brendel as possible starters. We also believe Brady Fest, Zach Wuenschell and Carter Betz will contribute off the bench.

“Dalton Daly is playing really well. Brady Fest has taken steps to get varsity playing time. Zach Wuenschell has come in as a freshman and picked things up quickly. These have been just a few of the pleasant surprises we have had to this point.”

Rosing, who led the team in assists a year ago, is a 5-foot-10 senior guard. Brendel is a 6-3 senior guard/forward.

Daly and Ziegler are junior guards, Fox is a junior guard/forward, while Kammermeier and Miller are sophomore guard/forwards.

Fest is a junior guard/forward, Wuenschell is a freshman guard/forward and Betz is a sophomore guard.

Like every other WPIAL team, the Spartans are the dealing with the coronavirus pandemic on a daily basis.

“We try to just treat everything as normal as possible,” Thayer said. “We wear masks at practice and for games, but we don’t complain or worry about it. It is just part of what we have to do to play. There also have been a number of schedule changes so far, but again, we can’t control those, so we adapt and make the best of it.”

Thayer is in his fifth season as Brentwood’s floor boss. Under his leadership, the Spartans have gone from 4-16 to 8-13 to 11-12 to 18-7 and have qualified for the playoffs the past three seasons.

Brentwood put together two impressive winning streaks last season, starting 10-0 before losing four games in January, followed by five consecutive victories that wrapped up its playoff berth.

The Spartans, rotating as many as nine or 10 players, advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals and PIAA first round in 2019-20.

“The coaches are looking forward to seeing this team play this year,” he said. “They work really well together, and we want to see how well that translates to the games.”

Brentwood’s junior varsity team rolled through most of 2019-20 undefeated, racking up a 15-0 record through the first three months. The Spartans ended up 17-1 and with enough talent to help fill some of the void left behind by the graduation of last year’s senior class.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson missed advancing to the WPIAL finals by a just a few points last season.

The Jaguars dropped a heart-breaking 44-42 decision to Laurel Highlands in the Class 5A semifinal round, and the Mustangs went on to win the WPIAL championship.

It’s time to regroup and dive into the 2020-21 season.

Veteran coach Dom DeCicco has a full complement of players now that the hoopsters on TJ’s state champion football team have joined the mix.

“We’re looking to jell as a team,” DeCicco said. “Not having spring and summer workouts, it’s hard to get chemistry. But everyone is in the same boat. We do have a lot of football guys, so that puts us behind a little.

“We’re looking to compete to get in the playoffs and make a deep playoff run.”

Senior guards Jake Pugh and Ian Hansen and 6-6 senior forward Ethan Dunsey saw time in the starting lineup a year ago, while senior G/F Aiden Kelly was a notable contributor as well.

“Aiden Kelly has really improved,” said DeCicco. “Shawn McSwiggen will be a key (frontcourt) guy off the bench, as will (forward) Aidan Knorr and swingman A.J. Freiwald. I expect (forward) Preston Zandier to battle for the 4 position and (forward) Jordan Mayer for the 4 or 5. Really, our starting lineup is a work in progress.”

The 6-4 McSwiggen and 6-5 Mayer are sophomores. Knorr, Freiwald and Zandier are seniors.

Other players looking to contribute include juniors Nick Werderber and Joe Lekse, sophomore Ryan Lawry and freshman Evan Berger. All four are guards.

“We have a lot of young guards who can shoot it,” DeCicco said. “So as you can see, there is a lot of competition. We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that we get the season in. These kids deserve to play.”

Several TJ hoopsters competed for the Jaguars football team, which captured WPIAL and PIAA championships for the second year in a row.

Pugh, a 5-9 backcourt standout who averaged four assists per game in 2019-20, was the Jaguars’ starting quarterback this fall.

The other TJ gridders who have joined the basketball team are Hansen, Zandier, Dunsey, Mayer, Lekse and Lawry.

The Jaguars, who lost five seniors to graduation from last year, ended up 10-4 in section play and 16-9 overall after advancing to the PIAA first round.

DeCicco won the 200th game of a career that spans 14 years with a 59-54 victory Feb. 7 against West Mifflin on the final date of the 2019-20 regular season.

TJ’s longtime floor boss said he is thrilled about the leadership displayed by this year’s senior class.

“The sense of urgency by our seniors has been a pleasant surprise,” DeCicco said. “They are helping our young guys to learn how to compete.

The Jaguars, even moreso this season, aim to improve day by day and not look past their next opponent.

“Covid is something everyone and every team has to deal with,” DeCicco said. “We are always day to day. That’s just the way it is.”

Baldwin

The directional arrow is pointing up at Baldwin, which didn’t win a section game last season and finished 6-15 overall.

The 2019-20 season spun out of control for Baldwin after the new year began; the Highlanders lost 10 of 11 games, including their last seven.

With new coach Jeff Ackermann at the helm, the purple and white are vying for big improvements in 2020-21.

“My goals at Baldwin are very simple,” said Ackermann, who has won five WPIAL titles and one state crown with various teams. “We want to compete with everyone we play. We want to be able to take the court each night and be able to beat anyone.

“We are looking forward to the season, hopefully for a 22-game season.”

Senior guards Connor Lavelle and Joey Starzynski, both returning starters, were penciled immediately into the Highlanders’ starting lineup this year.

“Our lineup is still up for grabs,” Ackermann said in early December. “Two players that are definitely starting are Connor Lavelle, because he does a lot of great things, and Joey Starzynski, because he is our most gifted basketball player. Joey is a very talented basketball player. They are both seniors and our players voted them captains.”

Besides Starzynski and Lavelle, there are plenty of talented players looking to pitch in this season, including Virgil Hall, a 6-foot-7 sophomore center, freshmen point guards Bez Abdul and Nate Richards, sophomore guard James Wesling, junior guard Chad Cochran and junior forwards Connor Gitzen, Evan Lavelle and Jordan Brophy.

Also vying for playing time are Joey Carr, a sophomore guard, Elijah Moore, a junior forward, and Obi Abdul, a junior guard.

“We are going to let them battle and whoever produces will play,” Ackermann said. “We have a lot of depth right now. We have a lot of size. But our biggest weakness is just not understanding how to win and what it takes to win. And we have no playoff experience at all.”

Ackermann went 126-35 in six seasons at Pine-Richland, winning two WPIAL titles and finishing as a WPIAL runner-up and PIAA runner-up once. Before joining the Rams in 2014, he went 224-116 in 13 seasons at Moon with three WPIAL championships and one state title.

A 1991 Brentwood graduate whose career record is 350-151, Ackermann has been impressed by the athleticism displayed by the towering Hall during preseason practices.

“You could put Virgil down as a surprise,” Ackermann said. “I think he has a huge upside to him. He could be a kid that gets paid to go play college basketball some day.”

Size-wise, the Highlanders have eight players who stand 6-2 or taller.

“We have a tough schedule,” Ackermann said, “and we need to be ready to play right out of the gate.”

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