Hard-nosed approach carries Thomas Jefferson boys to strong season

Sunday, February 21, 2021 | 9:01 AM

Hard work does have its benefits.

“Our team has worked as hard as any team I have coached,” said Dom DeCicco, Thomas Jefferson’s veteran boys basketball floor boss. “We always take the approach of one game at a time and try to get a little better each day.

“After losing so many seniors from a WPIAL semifinal team, we thought we would have growing pains, but our senior leadership has been outstanding and the younger guys have been major contributors.”

Through 17 games, the TJ hoopsters had lost only three times and were 4-2 in Section 1-5A.

Jake Pugh, the starting quarterback on TJ’s state championship football team, also is the “quarterback” on the hoops team.

Pugh is a 5-foot-9 senior guard who leads the Jaguars in scoring and assists, averaging 11 points and five assists.

“I think our team has played incredibly well,” Pugh said. “We love playing together and have fun at practice and in games. I think we know what we like to do, and we’ve all bought in to what coach wants us to get done. We just play together as brothers and love to win.”

The Jaguars are looking to make a run in the WPIAL Class 5A tournament. Teams to beat include Chartiers Valley, New Castle, Mars, Highlands and Laurel Highlands — the top five in the Trib HSSN rankings.

“Honestly, our expectations are always the same: to be playing our best basketball at playoff time and hopefully make a run,” DeCicco said. “I think the whole team has bought into their roles. They just want to win. No one cares who scores as long as we come out on top.”

Pugh likes the Jaguars’ chances.

“I like where we stand for the tournament. We’ve built up a solid record,” he said. “The higher seed gets the home game, so we know how important that is and how much it means to host a playoff game.

“We just want a shot to prove ourselves to everyone who doesn’t think we can hang with some of the other teams.”

Two other leading scorers at TJ are 6-1 freshman guard Evan Berger (10.2 ppg) and 6-1 senior guard Aidan Kelly (10.1 ppg).

Ethan Dunsey, a bulky 6-6 senior forward, and Ian Hansen, a 5-7 senior guard, also chip in with 8.9 and 8.2 ppg. Dunsey is the leading rebounder, pulling down 9 per game, and has been complemented on the boards by 6-1 senior Preston Zandier, 6-3 junior Shawn McSwiggen and 6-4 sophomore Jordan Mayer.

“This has been an amazing season so far,” Dunsey said. “With everything going on in the world and for us to be able to focus and put a strong product out on the floor is amazing. We are a bunch of hard-nosed, tough guys who couldn’t care less about stats as long as we are winning games. But the job isn’t close to being done yet. As our coach always says, ‘We have one goal and that is to win the WPIAL championship.’

“I expect us to make a lot, and I mean a lot, of noise in the upcoming tournament. We have a roster full of solid players who have all bought into their roles. We will play anyone and never back down from a good game.”

As the season reached the home stretch, the Jaguars were averaging 59.8 ppg offensively and 47.3 ppg defensively.

“We play some of the best defense I’ve seen from any team I’ve played on,” Pugh said. “We play physical and make sure the other teams know it’s going to be a long game. And that is exactly how we want it to be played.”

Baldwin boys battle

The Baldwin hoopsters have battled their way through injuries this season, losing several close games both in and out of the section.

As of Feb. 17, the Highlanders were 2-4 in Section 2-6A and 5-10 overall.

The top five squads in their division in the Trib HSSN rankings were Upper St. Clair, Fox Chapel, Hempfield, North Allegheny and Penn-Trafford.

“This was a very trying year for us,” Baldwin coach Jeff Ackermann said. “We lost our best player, Joey Starzynski (to a wrist injury), before we even played a game. Then we had injuries to players like Virgil Hall and Connor Gitzen, who missed several weeks. To be missing so many starters made life difficult for us.

“My first year at Baldwin is not how I would have drawn it up. We did not have the success we were hoping for. We will continue to work hard in the offseason and try to bring a championship to Baldwin. We are a young team with only two seniors.”

The Highlanders are paced by senior guards Connor Lavelle and Joey Starzynski, a 6-3 sharp-shooter who recently returned to the starting lineup.

“Connor Lavelle plays harder than anyone,” Ackermann said. “He is such a special player and I have so much respect for him. I really wanted this year to be special for players like Connor. He deserves to be a part of a winning team.”

Lavelle, who stands 6-1, also was a team leader on the Baldwin football squad in the fall and ranked among the WPIAL’s top receivers. A Lehigh recruit, he is a four-year varsity player in both football and basketball.

“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs this season,” Lavelle said. “We are a big team, so rebounding has been a big factor for us. But there’s definitely been a lot of adversity that has hit us; we’ve had a ton of injuries.”

Lavelle believes Baldwin may surprise a few opponents in the WPIAL tournament.

“We finally have almost every one back (from injuries) so I expect to make some noise in the playoffs,” he said. “We can compete with any team on any day.”

Bez Abdul, a 5-10 sophomore, and Nate Richards, a 5-7 freshman, handle most of the point-guard duties for the Highlanders.

Sophomores James Wesling and Joey Carr and junior Chad Cochran have contributed in the backcourt, as well.

The team’s leading rebounders include 6-4 juniors Connor Gitzen and Elijah Moore, along with 6-2 juniors Nick Petrilli and Jordan Brophy and 6-3 junior Evan Lavelle.

Virgil Hall, an athletic 6-7 sophomore center, has missed most of the season with an injury.

“We are definitely going to the playoffs and are hopeful we can have a good showing and can make a run,” said Ackermann, who has won five WPIAL titles and one state crown with various teams.

Starzynski plans to continue his basketball career at La Roche.

Satisfying season for Brentwood

They could be referred to as Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside.

The only seniors on the Brentwood boys basketball team are 5-10 guard Chase Rosing and 6-4 forward Riley Brendel.

The tandem helped lift the Spartans into first place in Section 4-3A in the first half of the season. As of Feb. 15, Brentwood was 6-1 in section play and 8-3 overall.

“We have been really pleased with how this season has gone,” Brentwood coach Dan Thayer said. “We lost seven seniors last season, didn’t have an offseason and came into the season with really only two varsity basketball players returning. With all of that, we have still had a very good season. This has been a very satisfying season with all of the distractions that have been around us. We have seen a great deal of improvement in the players.

“I am just really proud of how the players have done with all the distractions. They just come and play and they don’t worry about any of that. We are all thankful we get to play.”

The Spartans posted one of their biggest regular-season victories in recent years in a 55-54 nail-biter Jan. 29 at home against Washington.

“That was a big win,” Thayer said. “We have had some pretty big regular-season wins. We beat Avonworth a few years ago to make it possible to make the playoffs. Also, the last two seasons, we have beaten Jeannette in some pretty big games. But this Washington win was a very good win for our team and our program.”

Rosing provided the game-winning margin against Little Prexies on a 3-point shot with 3.2 seconds remaining.

Despite suffering a gut-wrenching 43-42 section loss four days later at McGuffey, Rosing remained confident of his team’s chances in the WPIAL tournament.

“I expect to go all the way to the championship game,” he said. “We’ve been working very well as a team.”

Rosing and Brendel are joined in the starting lineup by 5-8 junior guard Nathan Ziegler, 6-2 junior Mitchell Fox and 6-2 sophomore Tavian Miller.

“I’m proud of how we’ve played for the most part this season, and I’m happy to be playing alongside my teammates like Chase Rosing and Nathan Ziegler, who have really stepped it up this season,” Brendel said. ”We’ve managed to play solid defense. I expect to make a deep run in the playoffs.”

Rosing (16.8 ppg), Miller (9.9 ppg) and Ziegler (9.4 ppg) lead the team in scoring. Rosing also leads in assists and steals. Brendel grabs a team-high 7.5 rebounds per game.

“Our team has a lot of balance,” Thayer said. “We get a lot of different contributions from a number of guys. Tavian Miller has come on a lot quicker than we thought this season and has had a real good year.”

Top reserves for the Spartans include sophomores Carter Betz and Talan Kammermeier, freshman Zach Wuenschell and juniors Daly Dalton and Brady Fest.

“With the inexperienced team we have, we’re not sure how the playoffs will go,” Thayer said. “If we can just relax and play the game like it is a regular season game, we could have a lot of success. We are going to play the games and see what happens.”

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