Saunders getting feet wet with Kiski Area boys basketball

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Friday, July 6, 2018 | 8:15 PM


Kiski Area split its first two games at Friday's Westmoreland County Coaches Association boys basketball shootout at Hempfield — winning comfortably in a bright-and-early game against Burrell before suffering a lopsided loss against Class 6A power Latrobe.

Guess which game new Cavaliers coach Will Saunders considered more valuable.

“I think the Latrobe game was pretty good for us,” Saunders said. “It kind of put us back in a reality check of maybe we're not as good as (we thought we were) and showed that we can compete with them.”

For Saunders, a veteran basketball coach with more than 300 wins, three WPIAL championships and a PIAA championship on his resume, this summer is proving a valuable time for teaching and learning as he attempts to bring Kiski Area back to the playoffs after a last-place finish in 2017-18.

The Cavaliers won four out of six games at an IUP tournament earlier this summer before Friday's shootout, giving Saunders several opportunities to see his players in game action against quality opponents even with some potential starters off playing other sports over the summer.

“I watched some film on them, and I know they struggled last year, but I know they played a lot of young guys or inexperienced guys,” said Saunders, who took over for Joey Tutchstone. “There was only one senior on the team. There were a lot of guys (where) it was their first varsity experience, so I think their record overall isn't indicative of the situation. Some guys really got battle-tested last year and they took their lumps, so although their record wasn't great, I think they got experience.

“So when I walked in, I just wanted to see them play a little bit. And there's a lot of guys back, a lot of guys now with varsity experience. We have a really good young group, and they've been very enthusiastic. When it's 90, 95 degrees, we're out in an open gym, and I've got 16 (to) 18 guys there, so that's great.”

A Northgate graduate, Saunders won three WPIAL championships and the 2000 PIAA title with Shady Side Academy and also had successful coaching stops at South Park (five postseason appearances in seven years) and Montour (two consecutive playoff appearances). He also coached the North Allegheny girls team for three years and served as a North Allegheny boys assistant the past two seasons.

With more than 20 years of coaching experience, Saunders said he felt a pull toward Kiski Area as he evaluated coaching vacancies this offseason. He was hired in May.

“It's a 5A school, and once I came out and interviewed, I was really encouraged that if I get this position, this is someplace where I can kind of coach the rest of my career,” he said. “No matter how long that's going to be, this is going to be my last stop, wherever it takes me. So I hope to be here another 10 to 15 years and have success here.”

Saunders said his experience as a North Allegheny assistant taught him more about communication that he hopes to use at Kiski Area.

“Being an assistant, you'll see how the end of the bench is reacting, how players who haven't played for three quarters, what they're doing,” he said. “It really made me get my antenna up to those guys at the end of the bench — are they involved, are they enthusiastic? And then coming off the floor, giving a message to every player that comes off the floor. Sometimes when you sub, as a head coach, you sub and you start focusing back on the game. My assistants and I have to make sure there's a message to every player that walks off the floor.”

Kiski Area made it to the WPIAL semifinals in 2002 and again in 2014 and qualified for the playoffs in 2017. But massive graduation losses left the Cavaliers short on experience last season, and they slipped to 1-21 overall and 0-10 in Section 3-5A.

But seeing his players' enthusiasm this summer is giving Saunders a reason for hope, and he has experience turning around programs — South Park went 3-21 the year before he arrived, and he helped the Eagles become a consistent playoff team.

A rugged, realigned section that includes defending WPIAL champion and PIAA runner-up Mars and WPIAL runner-up Franklin Regional awaits Kiski Area next season, but Saunders is encouraged by what he's seen so far. The summer is giving Saunders an idea of how to mold his philosophy to his team, and he hopes lessons like the Latrobe loss go a long way for a still-young squad.

“(It's about) consistency practice to practice, game to game,” he said. “It's continuing to build, not having bad days, not taking a step back. When you build, you want to reach that one step, get better and better and get to the next step, get better and better and continue to climb that mountain. What can hurt you is if you take bad steps, and that's what I'm encouraging guys all year.

“Our base, our foundation has to be that we're going to play hard, we're going to share the ball and we're going to be enthusiastic. We've got to master those things before we get into, hey, we're going to be the best 3-point shooting team, we're going to be a team that presses all over the place. We have to play hard first. We've got to play together first. We have to have enthusiasm first. That's kind of where we're at right now.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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