Starting 5: A primer for 2023-24 boys basketball season in the A-K Valley

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Thursday, November 30, 2023 | 5:54 PM


The WPIAL boys basketball season opens Friday. Here are some of the top storylines, teams and players to watch this season in the Alle-Kiski Valley

5 Storylines

New faces at the top: Four teams — Freeport (Rich Macura), Leechburg (Andrew McDermott), St. Joseph (Logan Acri) and Valley (Ed Jenkins) — are led by new coaches.

Macura knows all about Freeport basketball as a Yellowjackets graduate and a longtime assistant coach. He takes over for Sean Devinney, who resigned because of family reasons.

McDermott, a Blue Devils assistant under former coach Damian Davies, hopes to bring Leechburg back to the playoffs but has just one player with varsity experience.

Acri, a former assistant at Red Land and Susquenita in Eastern Pa. who also owns extensive travel coaching experience, will see an inexperienced group develop with the help of one returning starter in senior Charlie Ross.

Jenkins, also a first-year football assistant with the Vikings this past fall, leads a Valley team with three returning starters who hope to improve on last year’s 2-10 Section 3-3A record.

Going streaking: Highlands finished runner-up to Hampton last year in Section 1-4A, but the Golden Rams made it to the WPIAL semifinals. It was the Golden Rams’ A-K Valley-leading ninth straight trip to the postseason.

Deer Lakes and Fox Chapel are second to Highlands with seven straight appearances in the WPIAL playoffs, while Kiski Area, Freeport and Burrell hope to make it five in a row this season.

All of the streaks include entries to the open playoffs in the 2020-21 covid season.

Leechburg (seven years) and Springdale (five years) hope to begin new runs in the playoffs after both saw streaks come to a close last year.

On the move: Deer Lakes hopes to defend its WPIAL Class 3A championship, but for the next two years after this one, the Lancers will try to make their mark one classification higher.

They are one of four teams from the Alle-Kiski Valley to make a move in the next two-year cycle as the PIAA announces new classification parameters.

Deer Lakes will be in Class 4A with Freeport, Highlands and Knoch and will be joined by Burrell and Valley, which also are moving up from 3A.

Fox Chapel, which won a WPIAL Class 6A title in 2021 before dropping down to Class 5A, will be back in 6A.

Repeat performance?: The Deer Lakes boys ended OLSH’s state-record 74-game winning streak in the regular season and stopped the Chargers’ run of WPIAL titles at four with a victory in the Class 3A title game.

The Lancers were a deep team with 10 players in the rotation.

Can Deer Lakes make another run? Senior Billy Schaeffer, the team’s lone returning starter, is confident it can.

He is joined by four of last year’s top reserves — seniors Wayne Love and Aiden Fletcher, junior Nathaniel Moore, and sophomore Collin Rodgers — who coach Albie Fletcher said played major roles and would have cracked many starting lineups in the area.

Deer Lakes opens the season Friday against Westmont Hilltop at the Armstrong Tip-Off. The Lancers will play either Armstrong or Kiski Area on Saturday.

A foul change: A new rule set to take effect in boys basketball this season involves how free throws are administered.

One-and-one free throws will be done away with in favor of two-shot trips to the line when teams reach five fouls in a quarter.

The process will start with a clean slate in the following quarter.

In the old format, teams would go into the bonus after seven fouls (one-and-one automatically) and the double bonus after 10 fouls (two shots automatically).

The new format also is used at the women’s college level.

The National Federation of State High School Associations enacted the new rule and got the ball rolling.

The PIAA could have kept the one-and-one rule, but it chose to follow the NFSHSA decision.

5 teams to watch

Highlands: A trio of returning starters with big-game experience hope to lead the Golden Rams to another deep playoff run. Penn recruit Bradyn Foster, a force at 6-foot-8, as well as fellow seniors in guards Cam Reigard and Jordyn Tavarez form a nucleus for a team with its sights on unseating Hampton atop the Section 1-4A standings.

Burrell: Five starters — Macky Bennis, Tucker Bitar, Joey Discello, Dylan McKalip and Esau King-Buchak — lead a group that coach Mike Fantuzzo said displays the depth, leadership, playmaking ability and experience needed to make an impact in Section 3-3A and beyond.

Fox Chapel: Seniors Will Siegel and Jefferson Moorefield-Brown and junior Asher White hope to help the Foxes improve on last year’s 15-12 overall record and 5-5 mark in Section 2-5A. The Foxes, as the fifth seed from the WPIAL, took District 3 champion Exeter to the limit in the PIAA first round before falling 62-57.

Leechburg: An experienced group last year hoped to make an eighth straight trip to the playoffs but finished 7-14. Only one player with varsity experience is back: junior point guard Brady Rollinger. He will help form a core with what new coach Andrew McDermott feels is a promising group of sophomores.

Plum: Second-year coach Justin Walther said a strong Section 2-5A is no easy task to navigate, but he hopes his Mustangs, led by four returning starters in juniors Will Beckner, Max Grice and Darian Nelson and senior Sean Franzi, can come together for improvement on last year’s 6-16 overall record.

5 players to watch

Macky Bennis, Burrell: The senior guard is rife with experience. Last year, Bennis was one of the top scorers in the A-K Valley at 21.9 points a game and shot 48% from 3-point range, converting 80 of his attempts. Bennis also pulled down 89 rebounds, good for second on the team.

Bradyn Foster, Highlands: An imposing force in the paint, the 6-foot-8 senior forward hopes for a monster final season after averaging 19.4 points a year ago. He raised his scoring average nearly eight points from his sophomore season.

Billy Schaeffer, Deer Lakes: The senior guard enters his third year as a starter after averaging 12.1 points last season. He scored a team-best 17 points in Deer Lakes’ victory over Penn Cambria in the Class 3A state semifinals.

Isaiah Gonzalez, Kiski Area: The senior guard led the Cavaliers in several categories last year and scored 17 points in Kiski Area’s near-upset of No. 3 North Hills in the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs. He is roughly 150 points away from 1,000 for his career.

Mason Gent, Springdale: The senior forward fronts an experienced group of five returning starters. The 6-5 forward averaged 14.5 points and 9.8 rebounds last year.

Other senior starters back include John Hughes, Jackson Pribanic, Billy Lawrence and Chase Weihrauch.

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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