Starting 5: A primer for high school hoops season in Westmoreland County

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Thursday, December 1, 2022 | 6:31 PM


The WPIAL basketball season opens Friday. Here are some of the top players, teams and storylines to watch this winter in Westmoreland County.

Boys

5 players to watch

Adam Bilinsky, Sr., G, Norwin: A Mercyhurst recruit with hops, the 6-foot-3 Bilinsky is a tough matchup who has elevated his game in many ways since he became a starter a few years ago. He averaged 17.5 points and 10.6 rebounds as a junior.

Landon Butler, Sr., G, Latrobe: Following in his brothers’ footsteps, Butler (6-4) has added range to his arsenal and can create in space for what should be an improved Wildcats team. He scored 20 points per game last season to go with 5.7 rebounds and 4 assists.

Terek Crosby, Jr., G, Yough: Yes, he can score (24.7 ppg), but the 6-3 Crosby can also lead the offense down the floor and draw attention away from other key players in the lineup. He has 730 career points, and that is with a shortened 2020-21 season (covid).

Ty Keffer, Jr., G, Southmoreland: Another athletically gifted swingman — he also plays football and baseball — the 6-3 Keffer oozes confidence and has become a key scorer off the dribble and around the rim for the Scotties. A breakthrough football season showed his ability to out-jump opponents.

Quinton Martin, Jr., G-F, Belle Vernon: The prized athlete of the bunch, Martin is a two-sport standout who was the Trib Westmoreland Player of the Year last season when he averaged 19 points and 9.6 rebounds to lead the Leopards to a 20-5 season. Martin, who can drive or play on the low block, cleans up on the glass. He has 632 points in two seasons.

Sixth man: Tyree Turner, Jr., G, Greensburg Central Catholic

5 teams to watch

Belle Vernon: Once the Leopards get everybody back from a championship football season, they could be a force again in Class 4A. Martin, sophomore guard Alonzo Wade, sophomore Trevor Kovatch and junior Braden Laux (6-5) are expected back, and they will join Ringgold transfer Zion Moore. The Leopards made the WPIAL finals three years ago and the semifinals the last two years.

Franklin Regional: Coach Jesse Reed’s system has taken root, and he has some experienced players back. They include junior Cam Rowell (12.2 ppg) and junior Fin Hutchison, a 3-point shooter. The Panthers will have length: Rowell is 6-5, Jake Kimmich is 6-3 and senior post man Max Leven tops them all at 6-8.

Greensburg Central Catholic: The Centurions bring back Turner and big man Franco Alvarez from a 2A semifinal team that went two rounds in the state playoffs. The Centurions, who have the potential to build depth around some football players, are ranked No. 4 to open the season.

Latrobe: After a few thin seasons, something to which the Wildcats are not accustomed, things are looking up again. The Wildcats should bounce back nicely from a six-win season, led by Butler and a budding sophomore group that includes point guard John Wetzel, Max Butler and Darius Davis. Junior JaTawn Williams also will play a key role for a fast-paced and deep rotation.

Monessen: Ranked fourth in Class A to tip off the season, the Greyhounds are their usual athletic selves. A drop to Class A could lead to another deep postseason run for a team that could smother teams defensively. Junior guard Lorenzo Gardner (20 ppg) is one of three returning starters.

And-1: With a move to Class 3A and the return of four athletic starters, including Crosby and junior forward Austin Matthews, Yough has more confidence than in past seasons. Crosby is the key piece of the puzzle, but the 6-5 Matthews has shown vast improvement in the offseason, and Zander Aird and Parker Rost add more talent to the backcourt.

5 storylines to follow

Early start: Coaches have shown displeasure with the earlier start to the season — Dec. 2 instead of Dec. 10 last year — and have echoed sentiments that practice time was slashed because of weekends, a holiday and two scrimmages. Quality practices, over quantity of them, was a theme for the last two-plus weeks.

Football impact: The earlier time frame is the same for everyone, but opening night will come extra fast for teams that are temporarily short on football players. Teams such as Belle Vernon won’t have any football players for practice until after the season starts. The Leopards play a football semifinal Friday night, but the basketball team tips off that night against Ringgold at the MVI Classic.

Realignment: A number of local teams changed classifications, moving down as part of WPIAL realignment. Penn-Trafford went from 6A to 5A, Greensburg Salem dropped from 6A to 4A; Mt. Pleasant, Derry and Yough slid down from 4A to 3A; and Monessen went from 2A to A.

Title drought: Can a Westmoreland team break through and win a WPIAL championship to end a local drought? An area team has not hoisted a District 7 trophy since Monessen in 2017. The Greyhounds also won titles in 2015, and ‘11, and Jeannette won in 2008. GCC was the Class A runner-up in 2020-21, and Belle Vernon finished second in 4A in 2019-20. Before that, Monessen was a Class A champion in 2001 and ‘02.

Jam session: All they need is a sponsor, a gym and some ticket-takers. Imagine a slam dunk contest featuring Yough’s Crosby, Belle Vernon’s Martin and Norwin’s Bilinsky. All three can throw it down with the best in the state. “Let’s do it,” Crosby said. All-star events exist that have 3-point contests but don’t entertain dunk competitions because of risk of injury and the fact that there aren’t that many players who can dunk. This might be the year to try it.

In the bonus: There was only one local coaching change in the offseason. Cam Auld took over at Greensburg Salem.

Girls

5 players to watch

Emma Blair, Sr., F, Latrobe: The returning Trib Westmoreland Player of the Year is primed for a big senior season as she tries to lead the Wildcats to another deep postseason run. A South Carolina Upstate commit, the 6-foot-1 Blair averaged 13.6 points and 12.5 rebounds and shot 56% from the field.

Brooke McCoy, Sr., G/F, Hempfield: A key player since she came to the varsity level, McCoy will pilot a mostly young team. She has proven to be a dual threat with scoring ability from the perimeter and off the dribble.

Mya Morgan, Jr., G, Greensburg Central Catholic: One of the county’s top 3-point threats has been working on getting to the rim more as GCC looks to stay in the playoff conversation in Class 2A.

Olivia Pepple, Jr., G, Penn-Trafford: A fast-rising guard who has shown she can provide for the Warriors on both ends of the floor, Pepple is drawing looks from Division I schools going into her junior season.

Tiffany Zelmore, Sr., F, Mt. Pleasant: An unheralded scorer for the Vikings who seems like she has been playing for a lot more than three years, Zelmore led the county last season at 21.4 points per game (19.6 as a sophomore). Division II and III schools have shown interest in the 5-11 post player, who has 966 career points.

Sixth woman: Camille Dominick, Sr., G-F, Latrobe

5 teams to watch

Belle Vernon: The Leopards have a senior-led nucleus of Jenna Dawson, Presleigh Colditz and Farrah Reader to build into a playoff team. Sophomore Tessa Rodriguez also provides a strong presence in the backcourt, which will not include senior Viva Kreis, who opted out of basketball this year.

Greensburg Central Catholic: Morgan will be joined by budding freshman guard Erica Gribble in the backcourt, and they should form a dangerous tandem. Also watch Avery Davis, a junior transfer from Norwin. Height might be an issue to overcome, but GCC might not need it. The Centurions are ranked No. 2 in 2A.

Latrobe: A solid and experienced group will lead a Wildcats team that begins the season ranked No. 4 in Class 5A. Blair is the cornerstone, but senior Camille Dominick, a Pitt-Johnstown commit, is unsung in her versatility and importance. Junior guard Elle Snyder is the backcourt cog.

Norwin: A playoff regular will look to stay healthy to show its full potential. The Knights, ranked No. 4 in 6A to open the year, bring back 6-2 junior forward Lauren Palangio, a double-double threat, along with junior guard Ava Kobus and now-healthy contributors in senior forward Savannah Schneck and junior guard Bailey Snowberger.

Penn-Trafford: Young talent is a year older, and that makes the Warriors a contender in their new 5A classification. Pepple leads a backcourt-strong rotation that also includes senior Kylee Piconi, sophomore Kamryn Pieper and senior Lauren Palladino (Penn State Behrend).

And-1: Hempfield could be in line to win most improved team in the county. McCoy fronts a youthful group that had offseason success in summer and fall shootouts.

5 storylines to follow

New landscape: Will a drop in class mean higher expectations for some area teams? It is a strong possibility for Penn-Trafford, which goes from 6A to 5A, Greensburg Salem (5A to 4A), Mt. Pleasant, Yough and Ligonier Valley (4A to 3A), and Jeannette (2A to A).

Multi-sport players: Basketball-only girls are hard to find this season in the area. They exist, but there are more multi-sport athletes going into basketball mode for a few months. Take Blair, Dominick and Snyder at Latrobe. All three just came off a successful volleyball season. Mt. Pleasant’s lineup is chock full of soccer players from the Vikings’ historic playoff run, including Marissa Garn and Riley Gesinski.

New leadership: Only two Westmoreland programs have new coaches this season. Anna Leonard takes over at Jeannette, and Dave Williamson is the coach at Kiski Area. Both bring AAU experience to the table. Leonard replaces Bill Flow, who is now the athletic director at Yough. Williamson stepped in after Nick Dizon resigned and became the coach at Avonworth.

Streaking: A few programs are looking to keep the torch burning on playoff streaks. GCC and Norwin have the longest streaks, at 22 and 20 years, respectively. Southmoreland will try to make it five straight postseason trips, but it will have to push on without senior point guard Olivia Cernuto, who tore her ACL during soccer season. Cernuto, who would have been a four-year starter,d finished with 875 career points.

In the bonus: A Westmoreland team has not won a WPIAL title in girls basketball since Norwin lifted the second of back-to-back trophies in 2016. Southmoreland made the 4A final in 2019-20.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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