Coach Joe Salvino, Belle Vernon boys hit reset button for PIAA tournament

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Tuesday, March 3, 2020 | 8:49 PM


Joe Salvino won two PIAA basketball championships, in 1988 and ’89, when he coached at Monessen.

Both times, the Greyhounds were the third-place team to come out of the WPIAL.

“We didn’t win the WPIAL either time,” said Salvino, who coached Monessen for 34 years and also won six WPIAL titles. “We got it going again. Winning that first game is so important. If you get that one, you start thinking, maybe we can make a run here.”

Now the second-year coach at Belle Vernon has the Leopards (19-7) back in the state postseason, and his latest team, despite coming close, also did not bring home a WPIAL title.

Is that a good omen?

“When you get to this point in the season, you have to make it interesting,” the coach said. “We just lost the WPIAL championship. We can’t go back. But if we can get on a roll in states, everyone gets re-energized.”

But the road ahead is long. Literally.

The Leopards will travel roughly two-and-a-half hours to play their PIAA Class 4A opener Friday night. They will face District 9 champion Clearfield (15-8) at 7:30 p.m. at St. Marys High School, about 30 miles north of DuBois.

“The PIAA messed it up with the six classifications,” Salvino said. “You don’t have the East-West thing anymore. Teams are traveling several hours for first-round games. It doesn’t make sense. Ringgold’s game is four hours away.”

The Leopards don’t have much of a history in the PIAA bracket, but this could be the team to change that. They did make the PIAA tournament two years ago but were upended by Hickory, 92-52, in the opening game.

Belle Vernon has nine state playoff appearances and only three wins, the last coming in 1981, 73-52 over Punxsutawney.

“It’s been too long,” Salvino said.

WPIAL top seed Highlands (22-3) cruised past Belle Vernon, 72-54, in the WPIAL title game Saturday at Petersen Events Center. The Leopards struggled to string offense together against the Golden Rams, who used a second-quarter surge and the dominant play of senior forward Johnny Crise to pull away for their first WPIAL title since 1995.

“Highlands has all the pieces you’d expect to see on a (championship) team,” Salvino said. “They have the guards who can shoot the 3, and their big men are very strong. When that whole thing comes together, they’re hard to beat.”

The Leopards were back to work at practice this week, sharpening the rough edges. There is only so much a team can work on this late in the season and a determination to keep the season going comes from within.

“We need to be able to maintain momentum and stay engaged with our assignments on defense,” Leopards senior guard Hunter Ruokonen said. “We can’t force any shots on offense, and we have to play like coach wants us to. If we do those things, I’m confident in this team.”

Sophomore transfer Devin Whitlock continued his outstanding season with 27 points in the WPIAL final, eclipsing the 1,000-point mark for his budding career in the process.

He had 487 points last year as a freshman at Monessen. He is averaging 22 points.

“Devin is used to the big stage after what he did last year at Monessen in basketball and football,” Salvino said. “He wants the ball in his hands. He wants that responsibility. He loves being that person.”

Whitlock, though, can’t do it all himself. Salvino was hoping to get more offensive production from the rest of his lineup against Highlands, which was the case in playoff wins over No. 3 Quaker Valley and No. 7 New Castle.

The coach wants other players to be more assertive.

“He needs help around him,” Salvino said of Whitlock. “One person doesn’t win games. We have guys who can score. They have proven that. When you’re not scoring, you’re hesitant now and you’re not playing defense as well because you want the ball back. If we’re not scoring, maybe we pick it up on defense and that can lead to points.”

The question mark for Belle Vernon in the postseason has been senior guard Cam Nusser, who broke several of the program’s 3-point records this season. Nusser, who injured his ankle in the first round against Derry, was ruled ineligible for the semifinal against New Castle for an undisclosed reason.

He also was expected to miss the WPIAL final but played a few minutes as he tried to give the Leopards a spark off the bench.

Salvino confirmed Nusser is no longer on the team because of an off-the-court incident.

Despite the ups and downs, Belle Vernon has been quite a turnaround story. Some forget the Leopards were a seven-win team last year.

“Losing hurts,” Salvino said. “But you have to be proud of what we have done. Hopefully it will continue. This is the most fun time of year.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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