Boys basketball preview: Kiski Area hopes preseason competition leads to in-season success

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Monday, November 30, 2020 | 7:47 PM


Opportunity was a main theme as the Kiski Area boys basketball team began preseason practices Nov. 23.

Three starters from last season — 6-foot-7 forward Jason Baker (Legacy Early College charter school in South Carolina), and guards Kyrell Hutcherson (North Allegheny) and Joe Lukas (Kiski Prep) — transferred in the offseason. They were all-conference selections.

Third-year coach Will Saunders said a fourth starter, senior Kenny Blake, who battled through injury during football in the fall, chose not to play this season.

But Saunders said despite the losses from last year, there remains a lot of excitement.

“We did lose a lot, but we have a good group of guys who are hungry for their minutes this year,” Saunders said. “A lot of guys are looking forward to their chance and are showing that with good work in practice. There are minutes to be had and points to be scored, and each one wants to be the one to do it.”

Kiski Area (9-14 in 2019-20) was in a battle with Plum and Franklin Regional into the final week of the regular season for the fourth playoff spot from Section 3-5A. The Cavaliers defeated Plum and playoff-bound Hampton during a five-game winning streak, but losses to Mars and Franklin Regional in their last two section contests eliminated them from playoff contention.

Saunders said sophomore point guard LeBryn Smith, junior forwards Calvin Heinle and Brayden Dunmire and junior guard James Pearson are among those leading the way in the battle for starting positions.

“We’re a young team with no returning senior starters,” said Heinle, one of the first players off the bench toward the end of last season.

“It makes it a very competitive practice. No one likes to lose. It’s always a close scrimmage.”

Others looking to make an impact include senior forward Frank DiNinno, junior guards Dylan Hutcherson and Logan Johnson, sophomore guard Dom DiNinno and freshmen guards Isaiah Gonzalez and Jason Flemm.

“We lost some size, no doubt, and guys who could score different ways, but I think we will be a better perimeter shooting team, and that should help us open the floor for what we can do at the rim,” Saunders said.

Early-season matchups, Saunders said, will be crucial in determining a final rotation.

“We’re going to play a lot of guys early, possibly up to 11 or 12 in our first couple of games in varsity, to see who is most productive on the court and who is playing with high energy,” he said.

“Then, that number could get reduced to eight or nine guys as we start section play. Everyone is going to have an opportunity to earn minutes, and we’re excited to see how they do.”

Kiski Area will test its mettle Saturday with a scrimmage at North Allegheny.

“North Allegheny will be a good test for us,” Saunders said. “They should be preseason top three or four in (Class) 6A.

Kiski Area is slated to open its season Dec. 11 at home against Albert Gallatin. The next day, the Cavaliers play Burrell at noon on the road.

A game against Connellsville on Dec. 15 will precede the Dec. 18 Section 3-5A opener against Franklin Regional.

Kiski Area also will challenge Gateway, Greater Latrobe, McKeesport, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills in section play.

Penn Hills, McKeesport, Gateway and Franklin Regional were playoff teams a year ago.

“I think it’s one of the more athletic sections from top to bottom,” Saunders said. “With this section, we’re going to have to change our style. Our transition defense and our ability to close gaps are going to have to be a better. We’re going to have to defend a different kind of way with a lot of guys who can get to the cup, attack you off the bounce, get you into foul trouble, and collapse your defense and kick it out for another kind of attack.”

Kiski Area boys at a glance

Coach: Will Saunders

Last year’s record: 9-13 (6-8 Section 3-5A)

Returning starters: LeBryn Smith (Soph., G), James Pearson (Jr., G)

Top newcomers: Isaiah Gonzalez (Fr., G), Jason Flemm (Fr., G)

Michael Love is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Michael by email at mlove@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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