Starting 5: A guide to the 2020-21 A-K Valley high school basketball season

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Thursday, January 7, 2021 | 3:32 PM


WPIAL basketball season resumes Friday following a three-week pause initiated by Gov. Tom Wolf. Here is a look at the top storylines, teams and players to watch around the A-K Valley.

Boys

5 Storylines

Moving on up: Highlands won its first WPIAL title since 1995 last season and now the Golden Rams are moving up to take on WPIAL Class 5A competition. The last time they played in 5A, they made a trip to the WPIAL semifinals.

Newfound focus: Springdale was one of the top teams in WPIAL Class 2A last season but came up short in the playoffs. Coach Aaron Epps said the Dynamos lacked focus down the stretch but have a newfound concentration this year and are ready achieve their ultimate goal of a district title.

New face: Freeport grad Alan Bauman has taken over the Knoch basketball program and is looking to continue the success the Knights have had the past two seasons. With Ryan Lang returning at guard, the Knights should have a few pieces to build around.

No fluke: Fox Chapel is out to prove last year wasn’t a one-and-done type of season. The Foxes went 21-2, with both of their losses in their final three games. Junior Eli Yofan returns as one of the top players in the WPIAL but will have to take another step forward as the Foxes lost a few crucial players to graduation.

Another gear: Leechburg played fast enough last season to score 70 points per game and scored 85 points or more on four occasions. The Blue Devils even scored 103 points against Aquinas Academy. Now, they are ready to take it up another notch.

5 Teams to watch

Apollo-Ridge: Klay Fitzroy and Jake Fello will lead the way for the Vikings as they return all but one player from last season’s roster. They’ll look to take another step forward after finishing 16-7 and reaching the WPIAL playoffs.

Fox Chapel: Undefeated for the first 20 games of the season, the Foxes were on course to have a successful postseason, but two losses in their final three games proved to be their demise. With junior Eli Yofan back in the mix, the Foxes are out to prove themselves.

Highlands: A year after winning their first WPIAL title since 1995, the Golden Rams have jumped up in classification and will look to compete for the second straight year.

Knoch: Freeport grad Alan Bauman has taken the lead of the Knoch program, and the Knights have junior Ryan Lang back in the fold in Class 4A. They’ll look to continue their string of recent success with a new coach at the helm.

Springdale: The Dynamos were one of the top teams in WPIAL Class 2A last season but fell short of their expectations. With everyone returning and a different type of focus, Springdale should take another step forward this season.

5 Players to watch

Klay Fitzroy, Sr, F, Apollo-Ridge: If the Vikings are going to reach their expectations, Fitzroy will lead the way. The 6-foot-4 forward was key for the Vikings last season and will be even bigger as they try to make another push to the playoffs.

Demitri Fritch, Sr., G, Springdale: Fritch was one of the top players in the WPIAL last season and scored 23.0 points per game as the Dynamos went 20-4.

Jimmy Kunst, So., G, Highlands: As a freshman, Kunst played a limited role as the Golden Rams captured a WPIAL title. His role will grow this season with the graduation of Johnny Crise, Luke Cochran and Korry Myers.

Ryan Lang, Jr., G, Knoch: The only non-senior in Knoch’s starting lineup last season will have to take a big step forward for the Knights. He’ll be the go-to guy for new coach Alan Bauman and the Knights.

Eli Yofan, Jr., G, Fox Chapel: He led the Foxes as a sophomore last year and was one of the top players in the area. He’s back for his junior season and will have to play an even bigger role after the Foxes lost a few key players to graduation.

Girls

5 Storylines

Back to business: The Alle-Kiski Valley teams were in different stages of season preparation when Gov. Tom Wolf issued a three-week shutdown proclamation Dec. 10 as part of overall mitigation efforts to slow the spread of covid-19. Fox Chapel and St. Joseph were able to play the day before the orders went into effect. That “pause” has concluded, and the coaches and athletes eye the start, or resumption in the case of the Foxes and Spartans, of competition with fingers crossed that everything can be conducted safety with no additional stoppages. Masks are a requirement for practices and games, and the safety of their use in game action has been debated for weeks now. What shape will the season take as January progresses and the calendar turns to championship opportunities in February? Everyone is grateful for the opportunity to find out. Local matchups — Kiski Area at Burrell, Springdale at Highlands and Valley at Knoch — highlight opening night Friday, and Riverview also will be in action at Propel Andrew Street.

New leadership: Apollo-Ridge and Springdale begin their seasons with new coaches at the helm. The term ‘new’ is relative at Apollo-Ridge as Ray Bartha returns to the varsity post for the first time in a decade. Bartha lead the Vikings girls for 34 years until 2010, and he compiled 536 wins, 11 section titles and 23 WPIAL playoff appearances. He guided Apollo-Ridge to the 1991 WPIAL Class AA championship. Springdale is under the direction of Jerry Clark, who ascends to the head coaching position after time spent in the program at the junior high level. Despite a 2-18 mark a year ago, Clark said there is renewed energy with higher roster numbers, a pair of returning starters and new and younger talent ready to flip the narrative.

Moving on up (or down): Fox Chapel, Deer Lakes, Valley, Apollo-Ridge and Riverview are hoping to make things happen in new classifications after realignment in the offseason. Deer Lakes and Valley moved from Class 3A to Class 4A and into Section 1 for some local flair with Knoch, Freeport, Burrell and Highlands. Fox Chapel moves down to Class 5A and joins Plum and Kiski Area in Section 2. Apollo-Ridge, in Class 4A the past several seasons, slides back down to Class 2A and will match up up with the likes of Springdale, Greensburg Central Catholic and Winchester Thurston in Section 4. Riverview now is in Class A after making a playoff run in Class 2A last year. The Raiders will do battle in Section 3 with Leechburg and St. Joseph, as well as defending section champion and WPIAL semifinalist Clairton.

Second-year encores?: Several local teams got a boost last year from freshmen standouts who hope to increase their level of on-court influence. Breaking out were Knoch point guard Nina Shaw, Freeport forward Melaina DeZort, Fox Chapel forward Elsie Smith, Plum forward Dannika Susko, Apollo-Ridge guard Brinley Toland, Burrell’s Addy Landowski and Riley Sterlitz and Valley’s Jada Norman and Tori Johnson. Another sophomore, Kiski Area’s Lexi Colaianni, is feared lost for the season with a hip stress fracture. She averaged 8.5 points in a starting role last season.

Playoff streaks: Last season, the A-K Valley again was represented in the WPIAL playoffs by at least one team in every classification: Fox Chapel (6A), Plum (5A), Knoch (4A), Freeport (4A), Deer Lakes (3A), Riverview (2A) and St. Joseph (A). While that won’t happen this year — there are no teams in Class 6A — a number of teams hope to continue playoff streaks. Deer Lakes maintained the longest consecutive streak of WPIAL appearances with its sixth straight last year. Freeport and Plum both seek their fifth playoff trips in a row, while Riverview and Knoch hope to qualify for the fourth time in as many seasons. Fox Chapel will attempt to make it for a third consecutive season.

5 Teams to watch

Burrell: The Bucs hope to gain traction right out of the gate with experience and new blood in the rotation. All five starters return from a team that hopes to improve on last year’s 3-18 overall record and 2-12 mark in a loaded Section 1-4A. Junior Allison Fisher, always a threat to shoot it from long distance, led Burrell last year at 13.8 points a game.

Fox Chapel: The Foxes are hoping to break out in their second season under the director of coach Marty Matvey. Seniors Ellie Schwartzman and Domenica Delaney are among those who return to provide experience to a squad that went 13-10 overall, .500 in section action and played in the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Class 6A tournament. Sophomore forward Elsie Smith broke out last year in both points and rebounds.

Freeport: Despite losing several seniors, Freeport coach Fred Soilis is counting on an athletic group that he hopes can lead his team to its fifth straight trip to WPIALs. Senior Grace Soilis and sophomore Melaina DeZort earned starting time last season, and sophomore Ava Soilis and junior Leah Hartman also hope to make increased impacts.

Knoch: The Knights have a mix of veteran and youthful talent coming together in the hopes of a fourth straight trip to the WPIAL playoffs. Knoch, which tied Freeport for second in Section 4-1A last year and finished 17-7 overall, is led by a trio of returning starters: senior forward Nevaeh Ewing, junior guard Madilyn Boyer and sophomore guard Nina Shaw.

Plum: With several returning players, including four starters, the Mustangs hope to challenge for the title in Section 2-5A. A loss to Gateway at the buzzer in last year’s section finale denied Plum the championship by one game. Oakland commit Kennedie Montue filled the stat sheet last year, and she comes back to form a formidable lineup with fellow returning starters in senior guard Jamie Seneca, junior guard Kai Johnson and sophomore forward Dannika Susko.

5 Players to watch

Morgan Gamble, Sr., G, Apollo-Ridge: A threat to score from anywhere on the court, the veteran Vikings guard earned VND third-team all-star honors last year. She paced the team in scoring at 16 points per game with several 20-plus scoring efforts.

Reese Hasley, Jr., G, Deer Lakes: Entering her third year as a starter for the Lancers, the all-section guard averaged 14 points a game last year to lead her team to the WPIAL playoffs out of Section 3-3A. Hasley’s efforts last season landed her on the Valley News Dispatch first team.

Kennedie Montue, Sr., F, Plum: Last year’s VND Player of the Year hopes to again be a dominant inside presence for the Mustangs, who are aiming for another WPIAL playoff berth out of Section 2-5A. Montue averaged 22.1 points a game and surpassed 1,000 points for her varsity career. She is closing in on the school career scoring record held by Krista Pietropola.

Jada Norman, So., F, Valley: After a breakout freshman season, Norman hopes to again set the tone for an optimistic Vikings squad. She averaged nearly 18 rebounds a game. She hopes to stay on pace to challenge the school rebounding record (880) of her mother, Tonya Pryor-Norman.

Ellie Schwartzman, Jr., F, Fox Chapel: The Foxes’ veteran post player battled through injury last year and helped her team earn its second straight WPIAL playoff appearance after a two-year hiatus. The 2019-20 VND first-team all-star selection averaged 12 points a game and fought for several rebounds in each contest.

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