Starting 5: A guide to the 2020-21 Westmoreland County high school basketball season
Thursday, January 7, 2021 | 2:37 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 Westmoreland County.
An invisible opponent: A season unlike any other is about to unfold, and the manner in which teams treat the engulfing covid-19 pandemic could determine if their season can reach the finish line.
They’ll need a little luck, too, of course.
Safety precautions, including the wearing of masks in practice and games, and few to no fans, will be in place to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, which brought last season to a premature end by forcing a shutdown of the PIAA playoffs heading into the quarterfinals.
Class act: Five local programs will play in new classifications, including Greensburg Salem, which elevates to Class 6A. The Golden Lions elected to play up to benefit them better geographically.
Latrobe moves down from 6A to 5A, while Southmoreland shifts up a class to 4A, and Greensburg Central Catholic and Monessen slide up a level to 2A.
Leadership change: Penn-Trafford, Mt. Pleasant and Ligonier Valley will be led by new coaches.
Former assistant Doug Kelly takes over for Jim Rocco at Penn-Trafford. Kelly, the former Franklin Regional boys head coach, has four starters back from a playoff team. The Warriors (1-0) opened the season Dec. 11 with an upset of No. 3 North Allegheny.
At Mt. Pleasant, T.J. Kravits replaces Allan Billinsky at the helm. Kravits coached at Marion Center up until last season. He has seven seniors and three returning starters to build around.
Tim Gustin switches positions at Ligonier Valley, going from girls coach to boys coach, as the Rams make their debut in the WPIAL. Ligonier Valley’s boys reached the District 6 Class 3A championship the last four years.
Oh, brother: Several teams will rely on the play of siblings, including Norwin, which returns senior Ty Bilinsky and sophomore Adam Bilinsky in the backcourt.
Michael and Chase Sickenberger are back for Latrobe (0-1), while Jeannette will feature the Sanders brothers, senior James and sophomore Noah.
Open for business: For the first time since 1984, the WPIAL will adopt an open playoff field, allowing any team that wants to compete into the playoffs. Only WPIAL champions will advance to the PIAA playoffs. With that being said, can a Westmoreland team make another run in the state playoffs? Belle Vernon reached the second round last season before a thrilling yet exhausting 84-82 loss to Lancaster Catholic in four overtimes.
5 Teams to watch
Belle Vernon: Led by Devin Whitlock, one of the top junior guards in the WPIAL, the No. 3-ranked Leopards (0-1) will have a different look but remain dangerous. They put together a historic 2019-20 season for their program, going 20-8 and making trips to the WPIAL Class 4A championship and the PIAA second round. Replacing six solid seniors will be a challenge for third-year coach Joe Salvino, who begins his 37th season as a head coach, but a guard-oriented attack could have Belle Vernon playing faster.
Greensburg Central Catholic: Second-year coach Christian Hyland and the Centurions move up to Class 2A, where they could compete for a WPIAL title. Senior guard Christian McGowan and 6-foot-3 junior forward Brevan Williams make a talented scoring tandem and have a nice cast around them.
Jeannette: The third-ranked Jayhawks welcome back four starters and a deep, athletic bench, which makes them an instant contender in Class 2A. Experience abounds with seniors Toby Cline, James Sanders and Keith Rockmore, and junior Anton Good. Guard play should be a strength.
Ligonier Valley: The Rams, who open the season at No. 5 in Class 3A, have had more talented teams but could make a little noise with this lineup as they venture into the WPIAL for the first time. Watch junior guard Matthew Marinchak (15 ppg) lead the break for the Rams, who ruled the Heritage Conference in District 6.
Norwin: Size and senior leadership will be trademarks of this Knights team, which could rely on more balanced scoring and develop an outside-in approach with some post talent. Ty Bilinsky is one of the top returning scorers in the county, while 6-4 Jayden Walker and 6-3 Nick Fleming can control the low block.
5 Players to watch
Ty Bilinsky, Sr., G, Norwin: A talented shooter with a smooth pull-up jumper, he scored 16.5 points and dished four assists as a junior.
Gamal Marballie, Sr., G, Yough: Explosive at times with the ability to score in bunches, he led the Cougars last season with 20.2 points a game.
Matthew Marinchak, Jr., G, Ligonier Valley: Experienced and athletic, he provided backcourt leadership as a scorer (15 ppg) and facilitator (6 apg) as the Rams returned to the District 6 title game.
Christian McGowan, Sr., G, Greensburg C.C.: A transfer from crosstown Greensburg Salem who is anxious for a full season, he averaged 15 points but had to miss the WPIAL playoff opener because of transfer restrictions.
Devin Whitlock, Jr., G, Belle Vernon: A gifted athlete with a big-game mentality, the reining Trib Westmoreland player of the year averaged 19.9 points and eclipsed 1,000 career points in just his second high school season.
Ready to pivot: The covid-19 pandemic has affected everyone in some way and basketball won’t get a pass. Teams are adapting to almost daily changes to schedules and routines, from mask-wearing and constant disinfecting, to pauses in programs because of infected team members. It’s been one big on-off switch. The team that best withstands change could be the one competing late into the postseason.
Success and adaptation may not be mutually exclusive in a surely daunting 2020-21 season.
Scotties back for more: Southmoreland became one of the WPIAL’s feel-good stories last season as the Scotties ramped up playoff runs to the WPIAL Class 4A championship and made the second round of the PIAA playoffs. A team still young but rich with talent, Southmoreland has the tools to make another serious push under first-year coach Amber Cernuto. They begin the year ranked No. 1.
Put me in coach: The sidelines at several area programs will be occupied by new coaches, including Ligonier Valley, Belle Vernon and Southmoreland. A former standout who later became an assistant coach, Cernuto takes over for Brian Pritts at her alma mater looking to keep the arrow pointing upward for Southmoreland.
Emily Daugherty, meantime, is now in charge at Ligonier Valley, where she is an alum. She replaces Tim Gustin, who now is the boys coach. The Rams are playing up two classes to shorten bus rides.
And Kaitlyn Slagus, yet another alum who stood out as a player — she went on to play at Bucknell — is now leading Belle Vernon. Slagus took over after the resignation of Ronnie Drennen.
Cernuto, Daugherty and Slagus all were 1,000-point scorers in high school.
Class action: Penn-Trafford will be playing at a higher level of competition this season as the Warriors move up one classification to 6A. The Warriors will renew a rivalry with neighboring Norwin.
Greensburg Salem also is on the move, going from Class 4A to 5A, while Derry goes from 3A to 4A and joins an all-Alle-Kiski Valley section. Greensburg Central Catholic moves up to Class 2A, and Ligonier Valley joins the WPIAL as a member of 4A.
Tighter schedule: With most tip-off and holiday tournaments getting shut down because of covid-19 concerns, teams are going to have to sharpen their skills for section play with fewer nonsection games. Some teams may only play a section schedule.
5 Teams to watch
Belle Vernon: First-year coach Kaitlyn Slagus, fresh out of Bucknell where she was a standout forward before a short pro stint in Ireland, will look to nurture a young but talented group. Sophomore Viva Kreis and senior Taylor Rodriguez are among the Leopards’ top players. Sophomore Jenna Dawson is out with a knee injury.
Greensburg Central Catholic: Third-year coach Sam Salih is interested to see what his long-legged team can do, especially with Bailey Kuhns in the lineup for a full season. Kuhns, a 6-foot junior who transferred in from Southmoreland last year but only played a half-dozen games for the Centurions (18 ppg), is attracting Ivy League and Division II college interest. GCC, which has no seniors and moves up a class to 2A, has made 20 straight WPIAL playoff appearances. GCC begins the year ranked No. 5.
Latrobe: Five starters and eight letterwinners return for the deep Wildcats, including junior 6-2 forward Anna Rafferty, who has a Division I offer from Kennesaw State. Senior guard Rachel Ridilla can score in bunches, while seniors Ava Vitula and Lexi Weatherton are other backcourt keys. Sophomore 6-1 forward Emma Blair stands tall alongside Rafferty.
Penn-Trafford: The Warriors (1-0) will make a big jump, to Class 6A, and will look to compete with a guard-oriented lineup that hopes to make up for an overall lack of size with perimeter shooting. Junior Maura Suman and seniors Allie Prady and Kenzie Powell will power the Warriors on both ends of the floor. All three averaged 11 or more points.
Southmoreland: The Scotties went farther than any team in program history last year, rolling through the regular season 22-0 before falling in the WPIAL Class 4A final and again in the PIAA second round. Junior forward Gracie Spadaro and sophomore point guard Olivia Cernuto are set to co-pilot another run. The Scotties want to play fast and again let their defense do the talking. They allowed 36.8 points a game last season while averaging 14.6 steals.
5 Players to watch
Olivia Cernuto, So., G, Southmoreland: Looked the part last season as a collected freshman, averaging 11.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.9 steals and 3.5 assists.
Abby Mankins, Jr., G, Greensburg Salem: Another fast-rising talent with an all-around game, she averaged 19.2 points.
Anna Rafferty, Jr., F, Latrobe: A 6-2 pure post presence, she was a force at times around the basket last year for the Wildcats, who return an abundance of talent.
Danielle Rosso, Sr., G, Norwin: A quietly talented scorer and defender who will be valued on both ends of the floor for the fourth-ranked Knights, the West Liberty recruit averaged 15 points as a junior.
Gracie Spadaro, Jr., F, Southmoreland: The area’s reigning player of the year registered 15.2 points and 6.2 rebounds for the Scotties. The 5-11 forward who has shown her versatility is getting some Division II attention, including from national power IUP.
Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .
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