Cheswick Christian basketball teams push toward playoffs

Sunday, February 4, 2018 | 7:09 PM

Clinton Blazevich looks for the right balance when establishing expectations for the Cheswick Christian girls basketball team.

He tries not to aim too high, not wanting to overshoot. But aiming too low has drawbacks, as then the team's achievements might look unimpressive in comparison.

By those calculations, he likes where the Chargers stand. After splitting its first four games of the season, Cheswick Christian won eight of the next nine and is tied for first in the Southwestern Christian Athletic Conference East with the regular season winding down.

“We worked the girls pretty hard (in the preseason), but they've always risen to the occasion,” Blazevich said. “I would say this is where we hoped to be. Whether we thought this was where we would be or not, I'm not sure. We were .500 at Christmas, playing two really good teams and losing but sort of climbing from them.”

CCA boys coach Todd Rosio hopes his team can make a similar climb in the final weeks of the regular season. After losing all but three players from its 2016-17 roster, the Chargers (3-12, 1-5) are on the outside of the SWCAC playoff race, but Rosio hopes the team can “sneak our way in” after playing better basketball in recent weeks.

“You're seeing improvement now and getting some success and seeing them get excited about it,” Rosio said. “It's nice to end the season on an upswing.”

The basketball teams at tiny Cheswick Christian began the season on opposite footing. Although the girls lost leading scorer Kathleen Swartzwelder to graduation, the Chargers (10-3, 5-1) returned their four other starters and virtually every other significant contributor.

The boys, meanwhile, were breaking in an almost completely new lineup and lost perhaps the top player in program history: 6-foot-10 center Ben Pollock, who dominated the SWCAC by posting triple-doubles with regularity.

As the boys struggled early, the girls lost two of their first four games. The success picked up from there, with the Chargers' only loss since the New Year coming in a game against Trinity Christian when three starters fouled out.

“The girls have been playing really well,” Blazevich said. “They've worked extremely hard. We're right now in the heat of basketball, and when you're in the heat of the season, it's a delicate balance between pushing them too hard physically and wearing them out but keeping them focused enough that we can continue to play our game.”

Balance has been the key. Allyson Drake, in her first season playing organized basketball, provides a post presence for the otherwise guard-centric lineup with down-low scoring and rebounding. A strong defense is helping CCA win games, and the Chargers also rely on a balanced scoring effort.

“It's really been a team effort,” Blazevich said. “In my top five girls, I think there's only about 20 points separating my top scorer from the bottom of the top five. And that's pretty good. When you balance out the team and don't have one person dominating all the scoring, teams (can't say) we have to stop this person. They have to stop the team.”

The CCA boys had that dominant scorer in Pollock, and his graduation hit the team hard. The inexperienced Chargers struggled offensively in the early portion of the season, with totals drifting below 30 points per game.

“I think any time you're 0-and-something, the pressure sort of builds until you get rid of that ‘0,' ” Rosio said. “We had a few games that were winnable games, but they just didn't really know how to win because they hadn't won. The first breakthrough was when we got a win, and they could finally breathe a sigh of relief. They got the monkey off their backs and knew they could do it.”

The return of Isaiah Malloy, who started for the Chargers as a freshman before taking the past two seasons off, helped boost the team. So, too, has center Will Dryburgh, a regular contributor of double-doubles.

Rosio said the team had perhaps its best performance of the season last week in a win over First Baptist.

“The only way I think you can truly have confidence is to actually have success,” he said. “If you haven't had any success, you can try to muster up confidence, but I don't know that it can be real until you start to see real results. I think that's where they are.”

The end of the season will provide a test for both programs. CCA faces a rematch with Trinity Christian on Saturday with first place in the conference on the line, and the boys team needs a strong stretch run to make the SWCAC tournament.

“It'll be interesting just to see how this all finishes out,” Blazevich said.

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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