Starting 5: Westmoreland basketball teams, players and storylines to watch

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Thursday, December 9, 2021 | 6:27 PM


Teams to watch

Boys

Belle Vernon The Leopards will be one of the hottest tickets in the WPIAL with their fast-paced style and athleticism producing big numbers and highlights. Electric is not a strong enough word.

Greensburg Central Catholic Blessed with height and senior experience from a WPIAL 2A runner-up team, the Centurions will be another get-it-and-go team that will fill the score book.

Latrobe The uptempo theme continues with the Wildcats, who will play fast and aim to win shootouts with a talented backcourt led by senior Chase Sickenberger and junior Landon Butler.

Ligonier Valley The Rams will play with a lot of energy and have a year of WPIAL experience under their belts, which lets them shed the new kid label and play their game more freely.

Penn-TraffordWhile a preseason injury to big man Ben Myers sent ripple effects through the program, the Warriors look to have enough talent at guard to stay in the 6A race. Watch out for Nick Crum and Noah Wright.

And 1: Hempfield Joe Fiedor and Sean Gordon lead a senior-heavy rotation for a Spartans team that reached the 6A quarterfinals.

Girls

Greensburg Central Catholic Not making the WPIAL playoffs is not an option for GCC, which will look for its 22nd straight postseason appearance, led by five returning starters. The Lady Centurions are looking to add an defensive edge to their repertoire.

Latrobe The Wildcats are an intimidating bunch with their size that casts long shadows in the pregame layup line. If steady guard play can keep the turnovers down and give the bigs room to work, Latrobe could get back to the final four.

NorwinStaying healthy, not rolling out a lineup, is the challenge for the Lady Knights, who continue to produce talented players. Injuries plagued the rotation last year and already have reared their head this season. Senior Brianna Zajicek is quietly one of the top swing-forwards in WPIAL 6A. Watch 6-2 sophomore forward Lauren Palangio continue to develop her game.

Penn-TraffordThe return of sharpshooting senior guard Maura Suman to the backcourt boosts a team that also features sophomore Olivia Pepple, who didn’t shy away from big moments when she was in ninth grade last year. Size won’t be a strength, but Penn-Trafford will look to outwork teams again.

SouthmorelandWPIAL semifinals or bust? The Scotties’ mission statement isn’t presented in as many words, but it sure has that vibe. With WPIAL and PIAA playoff experience emanating from the lineup, anything short of another section title and a postseason trip that stretches deep into March isn’t just highly possible, it appears highly likely. Look for the defense to have a little more bite to it.

And 1: Belle VernonOnly two seniors are gone from a playoff team. Junior guard Viva Kreis returns.

Players to watch

Boys

Adam Bilinsky, Jr., G, Norwin High school players aren’t supposed to jump like Bilinsky, but the rangy guard has added some serious rise to his game. Show up to watch him shoot it, but stick around for the dunks.

Matthew Marinchak, Sr., G, Ligonier Valley Fear the goggles. Marinchak is explosive off the dribble and can hit 3-pointers in rhythm. One of the better pick-pocket defenders around, he will have a multi-layered role for the Rams. He is 32 shy of 1,000 points.

Caden Smith, Sr., G/F, Franklin Regional A dynamic player because he can do so many things on the court, the 6-3 Smith brings energy, hops and experience to the Panthers and new coach Jesse Reed.

Devin Whitlock, Sr., G, Belle Vernon — Name a more exciting guard in the WPIAL. Whitlock will wait. The game-changing point guard can flat out take over games, and he wants to cap his prep career with an elusive title.

Brevan Williams, Sr., G/F, Greensburg CC — The reining Trib Westmoreland player of the year averaged 20.3 points for the Centurions. The sinewy 6-3 swingman finishes fast breaks better than most and with more size around him, he might be more of a factor on the wings.

Five more: Landon Butler, Jr., G, Latrobe; Terek Crosby, So., G, Yough; Anton Good, Sr., G, Jeannette; Daniel Gordon, Sr., G, Belle Vernon; Quinton Martin, So., F, Belle Vernon

Girls

Olivia Cernuto, Jr., G, Southmoreland A proven big-play, big-moment point guard, Cernuto once again takes the reins of a talented lineup after averaging 12 points, five rebounds and five steals as a sophomore.

Bailey Kuhns, Sr., G/F, Greensburg CC — A strong post presence and leader on both ends of the floor, she averaged 17 points and eight rebounds as a junior while shooting better than 50% from the field. A fast-break finisher and go-to scorer.

Abby Mankins, Sr., G, Greensburg Salem An on-the-rise backcourt gem since she arrived on the scene, Mankins needs 60 points to hit 1,000 for her career. But she is more than a scorer, though, showing last year she can defend, rebound and run the offense with the best of them.

Anna Rafferty, Sr., F, Latrobe — Pure post players are a thing of the past in most programs, but Rafferty would love to wax nostalgic about back-to-the-basket players of days gone by because she is a throwback. She is tough to contain on the low block and is even more threatening on second-chance opportunities. She averaged 13 and 10 as a junior.

Gracie Spadaro, Sr., F, Southmoreland — Another post presence with guard tendencies, Spadaro can run the floor and defend with the league’s top forwards, and her experience in big games is indispensable to the Scotties. She produced 13 points a game last season, a year after winning Trib Westmoreland player of the year.

Five more: Emma Blair, Jr., F, Latrobe; Brooke McCoy, Jr., G, Hempfield; Tianna Moracco, Sr., G, Derry; Brianna Zajicek, Sr., G/F, Norwin; Tiffany Zelmore, Jr., F, Mt. Pleasant

Storylines to follow

Boys

Put me in, coach: Three county programs have new coaches. Jesse Reed is now in charge at Franklin Regional, Corey Smith leads his alma mater at Kiski Area and Lance Maha takes over at Norwin after years leading West Mifflin. All three coaches bring intensity, but how much will they change the way their teams play?

Tournaments return: When covid-19 did a number on sports, it forced schools to erase tournaments from their schedules. From tip-off and holiday events to midseason showcases, tournaments were shelved in 2020-21. But they are back in full force this year as teams stack schedules with nonsection opponents once again to help them produce a more polished product for section play.

State of the art: Covid also sliced through the PIAA playoffs, drastically reducing the number of qualifiers. But the state tournaments are expected to return to how they used to look with more than just WPIAL champions advancing. The WPIAL is expected to return to its follow-the-winner format for PIAA inclusion. The number of state qualifiers has not yet been announced. 

The top four teams in section with seven or more teams, and the top five from sections with eight-plus teams will make the WPIAL playoffs.

Getting the legs back: Some of the top local players gradually are getting back to basketball form after football playoff runs.

Belle Vernon’s Whitlock and Quinton Martin were a charismatic duo on the gridiron, but watch them flip a switch into an alley-ooping duo on the hardwood.

Franklin Regional’s Smith also was a terrific receiver and wildcat quarterback.

Changing lanes: While Jeannette was the talk of the WPIAL in football with its riches-to-rags story of how multiple transfers ravaged the program, the Jayhawks basketball team also could feel the effects of missing players. A few of the transfers also played hoops.

While roster numbers weren’t as punctured as they were in football, Jeannette will have to replace a few key players with only two starters back.

Girls

Old college try: A number of local girls have made college commitments, which could free them up to play out their final prep seasons with less worry about who is watching and more concern about their roles. Rafferty and Spadaro, both former Trib Westmoreland players of the year, will be college teammates at IUP as both committed to the Division II Crimson Hawks in the offseason.

Mankins will go against those two as she committed to play for PSAC foe Seton Hill. GCC’s Bailey Kuhns, a talented 6-foot forward, also is headed the PSAC with her pledge to Mercyhurst.

Brianna Zajicek is committed to Alderson Broaddus.

Coaching changes: GCC, Franklin Regional and Jeannette will have new leadership this winter.

Assistant-turned-head coach Chris Skatell is the new man at GCC, former Plum coach Bernie Pucka takes the reins at Franklin Regional and Bill Flow is in charge at Jeannette.

PIAA playoffs are back: Last year, only the WPIAL champions advanced to the state playoffs, leaving many to wonder what might have been for teams like Latrobe, Southmoreland, Norwin and GCC, which lost in the WPIAL semis or quarters.

This year, those teams could get a shot to showcase their talents in the PIAA bracket as more teams get to advance past the district level.

Multi-dimensional: While basketball is trending toward being a one-sport game for many talented players, this year’s crop is bucking that trend. Take Cernuto, who also stands out in soccer and track and field, while Spadaro, Rafferty, Mankins, Emma Blair and Suman also play volleyball. Belle Vernon guard Viva Kreis also competes in track and cross country.

Norwin has eight players who also were on the volleyball team.

Back to form: Suman can be a difference-maker for Penn-Trafford as she returns from an injury. The same can be said about Belle Vernon’s Jenna Dawson, who missed most of last season due to injury. Junior Savannah Schneck is working her way back from a knee injury and can help change the complexion of the Knights with her minutes.

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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