Starting 5: A primer for high school hoops season in the A-K Valley

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Thursday, December 1, 2022 | 10:46 PM


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

Boys

5 players to watch

Mackey Bennis, Jr., G, Burrell: With four starters lost to graduation, including VND first-team all-star Brandon Coury (21.9 points per game), Bennis will be asked to raise his game. The lone returning starter finished second on the team in scoring at 12.1 points per game. He also made 35 3-pointers and shot 80% (40 for 50) from the free-throw line. Bennis also pulled down 3.8 rebounds a game.

Jimmy Giannetta, Sr., PG, St. Joseph: Giannetta led the Spartans in scoring last year as they came up just one game short of a trip to the WPIAL Class A playoffs. Giannetta, who scored a career-high 40 points in a 90-66 win over Plum to close out last season, was selected a VND third team all-star.

Gage Johnston, Sr., G/F, Apollo-Ridge: A force inside and outside, he led the Vikings last year at 20 points per game and also led the team in 3-pointers made (77) and rebound average (6.4). The Vikings seek to rebound from last year’s 4-18 overall record.

Jimmy Kunst, Sr., G, Highlands: The Eastern Michigan baseball commit was at the heart of Highlands’ trip to last year’s WPIAL Class 5A semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals. He averaged a team-best 20.9 points a game, tied for the team lead in 3-point field goals with 51 and was voted a Section 4 first-team all-star.

Bryce Robson, Sr., G, Deer Lakes: The veteran Lancers performer is known for coming up big when his team needs him. Last season, Robson scored 24 points and made five 3-pointers as Deer Lakes handed North Catholic, No. 2 in Class 4A at the time, a 74-72 loss. The victory late in the regular season helped solidify Deer Lakes’ playoff positioning, and the team advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals and the PIAA tournament.

5 teams to watch

Freeport: The Yellowjackets hope to continue an upward trajectory after earning a playoff victory against Uniontown last year and finishing with their first winning record (13-10) in three seasons. Seniors Zach Clark and junior Brady Sullivan return as starters, and 10 seniors are on the roster. Depth hopes to be an advantage for Freeport in its battles with Section 1-4A foes Knoch, Highlands, Greensburg Salem, Hampton and Indiana.

Fox Chapel: The Foxes enjoyed another standout season last year as they captured the WPIAL Class 6A title and made the PIAA semifinals. The team enters the season hoping to reload as all five starters, including VND Boys Player of the Year Eli Yofan, were lost to graduation. Coach Zach Skrinjar said the team is focused fully on the upcoming season and its move down to Class 5A. The Foxes will face area foes Armstrong, Plum, Penn Hills, Shaler and Woodland Hills in section play.

Kiski Area: The mission for the Cavaliers under second-year coach and Kiski alum Corey Smith is to repeat their winning season (15-8) from a year ago and take it further while adding the program’s first section title since 2013. Three starters — senior Lebryn Smith and juniors Jason Flemm and Isaiah Gonzalez — are back from last year’s team which fell to Hampton, 66-60, in the WPIAL Class 5A first round. In addition to a rugged section slate, the Cavaliers will be challenged in nonsection play against Class 6A New Castle and Butler, Class 4A power Belle Vernon and WPIAL-playoff regular Highlands.

Leechburg: The mission doesn’t change for the Blue Devils, who have been a model of consistency with eight consecutive playoff appearances, including last year when they went 18-4 overall and made it to the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals. Leechburg was bumped up to Class 2A in the new alignment cycle, and five returning starters, including VND first-team selection Braylan Lovelace, will go into battle with section foes Clairton, Greensburg Central Catholic, Jeannette, Serra Catholic, Riverview, and Springdale.

Springdale: Springdale has made the playoffs five years in a row and hopes to add a sixth straight trip this season. It would be the 38th postseason appearance, second best in Alle-Kiski Valley history behind Ford City’s 49. The Dynamos will count on a mix of new and veteran players, including returning starters in juniors John Hughes and Mason Gent. Springdale’s new-look section features matchups with Greensburg Central, Clairton, Jeannette, Riverview, Leechburg, and Serra Catholic.

5 storylines to follow

Golden Rams attempt new section run: Highlands was denied one for the thumb as it saw its four-year streak of section championships come to a close. The Golden Rams finished 10-2 in Section 4-5A and reached the WPIAL semifinals and the PIAA second round, but they weren’t able to overcome undefeated Mars (12-0) in the standings. But with Highlands, the standard remains high and the team hopes to reach the top again in several areas. That includes the section where it drops down to Class 4A and will tangle with Freeport, Greensburg-Salem, Hampton, Indiana, and Knoch. The Golden Rams will go to battle with six of their top players back from last year, including starters Jimmy Kunst, Chandler Thimons, Cam Reigard and Bradyn Foster.

Playoff streaks on the line: Several boys teams in the Alle-Kiski Valley hope to maintain consistency this season by extending playoff-qualifying streaks. Highlands enters the season with plans of making it nine in a row. That streak includes its run to the WPIAL Class 4A championship in 2020. Leechburg, with five returning starters, including VND first-team all-star and Pitt football commit Braylan Lovelace (18.9 ppg. in 2021-22), are gunning for its eighth straight WPIAL berth. Deer Lakes and Fox Chapel both hope to build on six-year qualification runs, and Springdale will attempt to make its sixth trip to WPIALs in as many seasons.

Walther, Fletcher get started: There wasn’t as much turnover in the A-K Valley boys head coaching ranks this past offseason compared to last year when six new coaches took over at their respective schools. Only two – Albie Fletcher at Deer Lakes and Justin Walther at Plum – open new tenures this weekend. Fletcher, a Deer Lakes graduate and assistant coach under former coach Terence Parham, is ready to guide a Lancers team which brings back two starters, senior Bryce Robson and junior Bill Schaeffer, from a team that made the WPIAL quarterfinals in 2021-22 and punched its ticket to the PIAA playoffs before falling to Penn Cambria in a 66-63 first-round heartbreaker. Walther, a standout scorer at Central Catholic and Pitt-Johnstown, enjoyed coaching success at Serra Catholic and Winchester Thurston. He hopes to have similar success for a Mustangs team that went 6-15 overall last year and was 2-10 in section play.

Change of address: Five A-K Valley teams were on the move in the offseason under the new PIAA two-year alignment cycle. Fox Chapel, which ran the table in Section 3-6A last year (27-2, 10-0) dropped to Class 5A and will do battle in Section 2-5A with Armstrong, Penn Hills, Shaler and Woodland Hills. Burrell and Deer Lakes, playoff qualifiers last year in Section 1-4A, move down to Class 3A and into Section 3 with Apollo-Ridge, Derry, Ligonier Valley, Shady Side Academy and Valley. Shady Side was Section 3 co-champions last year, and the Bulldogs made a run to the WPIAL Class 3A championship. Leechburg will test itself in Section 3-2A with Clairton, Greensburg Central Catholic, Jeannette, Serra, Riverview and Springdale after finishing runner-up to Imani Christian last year in Section 3-A.

Teams manage early start to season: When area teams kick off their season Friday and Saturday at tournaments throughout the region, they will do so after having less time this season to prepare for the start of games than in recent seasons. Last year, teams had at least one more week of official practices before the season began the weekend of Dec. 10 and 11. The preseason stretch was sliced by a week by the PIAA with the start of official practices Nov. 18. Many teams were busy both weekends as they knew that in addition to the limited days, Thanksgiving would also take at least one day from their preparation. Coaches made sure their players made up that extra work with voluntary open gym workouts right up to the start of the official practice start dates. Will the shorter preseason time frame affect play this weekend and into next week? Only time will tell.

Girls

5 players to watch

Jocelyn Bielak, Jr., F, Highlands: The well-rounded Golden Rams standout hopes to take her game to the next level after a sophomore season which saw her average 10.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists a game. She garnered a spot on the Section 1-4A all-star first team and also was selected to the Valley News Dispatch first team.

Lexi Colaianni, Sr., G, Kiski Area: Opponents can’t afford to sleep on the Cavaliers shooter. Last year, in a 24-point victory over Freeport, Colaianni canned nine 3-pointers, setting a school record. She finished the season averaging 10.1 points a game and ended with a team-best 40 field goals from beyond the arc. Colaianni has committed to Penn State Altoona.

Melaina DeZort, Sr., G, Freeport: Since her freshman season, the Yellowjackets standout has been at the top of the team scoring list and one opposing defenses have to keep an eye on. A VND second-team selection last year, DeZort fronted the Freeport offensive attack at 14.5 points a game and sank a team-best 33 3-point field goals. She also collected 4.8 rebounds a game.

Nina Shaw, Sr., G, Knoch: The 5-foot-3 veteran recently finalized a commitment to play at Cal U (Pa.). But before she turns her attention to the college hardwood, she has some unfinished high school business to address. The quick point guard is coming off a junior season in which she averaged 12.9 points and 3.1 assists. Not afraid to mix it up for a reboun, Shaw scored a career-best 26 in a win at Highlands.

Julie Spinelli, Jr., G/F, St. Joseph: In the paint, at the perimeter or anywhere in between, the Spartans 6-foot presence made her mark last year in the regular season and during her team’s run to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA playoffs. She scored 15.6 points per game and went off for a career-high 33 in a nonsection victory over Freeport. She tallied a team-best 15 in the WPIAL quarterfinal upset of three-time defending WPIAL Class A champion Rochester.

5 teams to watch

Apollo-Ridge: All five starters, plus one — seniors Brinley Toland, Sydney McCray and Delaney Fitzroy; juniors Jaden Mull and Sophie Yard, and sophomore Kylar Toland — are back for a Vikings squad with designs on success up a classification in Section 3-3A with Burrell, Deer Lakes, Ligonier Valley, Mt. Pleasant and Shady Side Academy. Apollo-Ridge went 16-7 overall last year, made the WPIAL Class 2A quarterfinals and earned a berth to the PIAA playoffs.

Fox Chapel: It was a tough year for the Foxes in and out of Section 3-5A. A youthful team went 0-12 in section play last year and missed the playoffs. Fox Chapel finished 7-16 overall. The Foxes showed their competitiveness as five of the 16 losses were by six points or fewer. Senior forward Elsie Smith hopes for big things as a multi-year starter, and she is joined by returning starters in juniors Skylar Byrnes and Sarah Slember. Coach Marty Matvey said the varsity rotation can go nine deep.

Highlands: One starter, Maria Fabregas, and one head coach, Jason Kerr, moved on from last year’s successful Golden Rams squad that pushed Section 1-4A champion Knoch at the top of the standings, made it to the WPIAL quarterfinals and finished 19-5 overall. With former Burrell boys coach Shawn Bennis in the fold, Highlands hopes for bigger things with junior returning starters Kalleigh Nerone, Jocelyn Bielek, Kate Myers and Shelby Wojcik leading the way.

Plum: Expectations are high for the Mustangs under second-year coach Rich Mull. The Mustangs (6-14, 3-9 Section 1-5A) battled into playoff contention last year only to have things fall apart down the stretch, and a five-year playoff-appearance streak was snapped. Plum returns with an experienced group led by five players — senior Dannika Susko, Megan Marston, Camryn Rogers, Pascale Olczak and Rayla Smith — with differing degrees of starting experience.

St. Joseph: There is a high level of excitement and optimism surrounding the Spartans after last year’s upset of three-time defending WPIAL Class A champion Rochester, a run to the WPIAL semifinals, and a berth in the state playoffs. Four starters — VND first-team all-star in junior Julie Spinelli, as well as junior Emma Swierczewski, and sophomores Gia Richter and Anna Kreinbrook — are back with the hopes of making noise in Section 3-A and beyond.

5 storylines to follow

New leadership: Last year, teams in the Alle-Kiski Valley started their seasons with new head coaches. This season, that number is three with Paul Kostick at Cheswick Christian, Shawn Bennis at Highlands and Dave Williamson at Kiski Area. Bennis, a former boys coach at Burrell, will attempt to keep the Golden Rams, with four returning starters, flying high after a 2021-22 season during which they went 19-5 and made the WPIAL Class 4A quarterfinals. Williams, who takes over for Nick Dizon, hopes to lead a Cavaliers squad, also with four returning starters, back to the playoffs after a 3-9 mark in Section 2-5A last year. Kostick, a Cheswick Christian alumnus, plans to keep the Chargers moving forward after they went 10-9 last year and earned a berth to the Southwestern Christian Athletic Conference. Cheswick is led by returning starters in senior Bella Cullaj and junior Ally Sarmowski.

Going streaking: Several area teams maintained playoff-appearance streaks last year and hope to remain in the postseason mix come February. Deer Lakes, under second-year coach Sam Salih, leads the way in the A-K Valley and hopes to add a ninth straight playoff berth against the likes of Apollo-Ridge, Burrell and Shady Side Academy in Section 3-3A. Freeport is gunning for a seventh straight trip after tying for third last year with Deer Lakes in Section 1-4A behind Knoch and Highlands. Knoch and Riverview each are hoping to make it to the WPIAL tournament for a sixth year in a row. Plum is hoping to start a new streak after it saw it run of six straight postseason appearances snapped last year.

Knights go for two in a row: Knoch made history last year as it played for a WPIAL championship and qualified for the PIAA playoffs for the first time. The postseason run had its genesis in another milestone: the program’s first section title in 50 years. Knoch hopes to repeat as champions of Section 1-4A, and despite the loss to graduation of Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year Maddie Boyer, the Knights remain strong with the return of starters Nina Shaw, a Cal (Pa.) commit, Naturelle Ewing and Hattie McGraw and the return of senior Megan Vasas to the court after missing all of last year with a knee injury. Standing in Knoch’s way to another title include Highlands, as well as a Freeport team with three returning starters, and the return to the section of North Catholic, last year’s WPIAL Class 3A champion and a PIAA semifinalist.

Moving on up, or down: The realignment for the next two-year cycle had three teams on the move, and all three find themselves in the same section. Burrell and Deer Lakes, a playoff participant last year, move down from Section 1-4A where they shared space with Knoch, Highlands and Freeport the past two seasons. Apollo-Ridge moves up from Section 4-2A where it was a playoff qualifier against the likes of Greensburg Central Catholic and Winchester Thurston. The Lancers, Bucs and Vikings will fight for postseason berths in Section 3-3A with Ligonier Valley, Mt. Pleasant and Shady Side Academy. The only Class 3A mainstay in the section is Shady Side, a playoff qualifier last year. Ligonier Valley and Mt. Pleasant also dropped down from Class 4A.

Early start forces some changes: The PIAA didn’t do winter sports teams any favors with the preseason practice schedule with just two weeks from the start of preseason practices Nov. 18 to the start of competition Friday and Saturday. When you factor in two weekends and Thanksgiving, that didn’t give teams much time to prepare. Teams were scrimmaging as late as Wednesday to determine lineups and rotations before going full speed in tournament action that most likely will be treated as extended season prep for the start of section play next week. Many coaches had their teams in practice mode with voluntary workouts in the days and weeks before the official start. How will this affect teams as they move through December? Only time will tell.

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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