Trib HSSN 2023-24 WPIAL Class 6A boys basketball preseason breakdown

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Sunday, November 26, 2023 | 12:45 AM


Will there be a history-making repeat for Central Catholic as WPIAL champion, and can a district team finally win an elusive PIAA Class 6A state crown?

These are just a couple of questions facing the 12 boys basketball teams heading into a new season of Class 6A hoops.

Here is a rundown of players to watch, top 5 teams and other notes in WPIAL 6A boys basketball this season.

Preseason Player of the Year

Braylon Littlejohn, Butler

6-1, Sr., guard

21.1 ppg last season

Players to watch

Julian Dahlem, Upper St. Clair

5-10, Jr., G, 7.2 ppg

Nate Wesling, Baldwin

6-0, Jr., G, 12.9 ppg

Ty Iwanokiw, North Allegheny

6-11, Sr., F, 11.6 ppg

Ralph Blundo, New Castle

6-0, Jr., G, 10.0 ppg

Donovan Carney, Butler

6-3, Soph., G, 13.8 ppg

Preseason Top 5

1. Butler (14-8 last season)

The Golden Tornado are a perennial power in WPIAL 6A basketball since the expansion to six classifications in the 2016-2017 season. This year will be no different for coach Matt Clement’s team thanks to the return of Miami (Ohio) football recruit Braylon Littlejohn, who averaged 21 points per game last season. Also back is guard Donovan Carney, who is coming off a breakout freshman campaign.

2. Upper St. Clair (16-10)

The 2021 Class 6A champion Panthers have high hopes thanks to plenty of height returning this season. Coach Danny Holzer usually has a guard-oriented lineup. USC is led in the front court by 6-foot-9 junior Tyler Robbins, 6-5 junior Kaamil Jackson and 6-3 sophomore Peja Strobl. Leading the backcourt is senior Christian Ito and junior Julian Dahlem, who last year averaged 7.2 points and 5.3 assists per game.

3. Mt. Lebanon (16-9)

Coach Joey David’s Blue Devils are always in the mix in Section 2, although this season they will have to overcome the graduation losses of first team all-section guards Lucas Garofoli, Michael Pfeuffer and second team all-section guard Tanner Donati. Mt. Lebanon will rely heavily on senior guards Nate Girod and Brody Barber.

4. Baldwin (12-11)

The Highlanders finished tied for third place in Section 2-6A last season and nearly turned the playoff brackets inside out when they lost to eventual champion Central Catholic in the opening round by five points. A pair of Nates return to lead the Baldwin backcourt — senior Nate Richards and junior Nate Wesling — as well as 6-4 junior Matt Schenk.

5. Central Catholic (17-10)

The Vikings captured their first WPIAL championship since 2008 when they defeated New Castle in the district title game, 61-52. While Central Catholic lost first-team all section players Dante DePante and Debaba Tshiebwe among others to graduation, seniors Payton Wehner and Vernon Settles and junior Bradley Gompers return. Coach Brian Urso said Cole Sullivan, a Michigan football recruit, has asked for two to three weeks to decide whether he’ll play this season.

Notables

• History is not on the side of Central Catholic to repeat as 6A champions. In the last 43 years, only three schools have repeated as boys basketball district champs in the highest classification. New Castle won consecutive Class 4A crowns twice, first in 1997-1999 and then again in 2013-2014. Gateway won consecutive Quad-A titles in 2011-2012 and Pine-Richland won the 2016 4A championship and followed up by winning gold in the very first Class 6A tournament in 2017.

• Central Catholic bucked the odds last season in beating perennial power New Castle in the district title game. It was the Vikings’ second WPIAL basketball championship and first since Central knocked off Moon in a thriller to win the 2008 WPIAL 4A championship. In his fourth season since taking over for legendary coach Chuck Crummie, Brian Urso led the Vikings to a second-place finish in Section 1 and a win over the Section 1 champion Red Hurricane.

• Last year’s WPIAL runner-up New Castle bounced back and won first- and second-round games in the PIAA playoffs last winter. As the last District 7 team left in the state playoffs, the Red Hurricane lost to eventual state runner-up Reading in the quarterfinals. In the six year history of the PIAA 6A playoffs, District 3 Reading (2017, 2021 and 2023) has won three championships, District 12 Roman Catholic (2018 and 2022) has won twice and District 10 Kennedy Catholic won the 2019 title.

• The northern Section 1 had the advantage last season in the postseason over the southern Section 2. After the eight teams split in the quarterfinals, Central Catholic and New Castle were semifinals winners over Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon.

• Other players and teams to watch in 6A include North Allegheny with senior forwards Ty Iwanonkiw and Joey Dopirak and senior guard Anthony Sciote, Canon-McMillan senior Eamon O’Donoghue and junior Evan Morris, and Hempfield senior Caden Biondi and juniors Drew Gordon and Max Williams.

• Could this be the year that Baldwin, Canon-McMillan, Hempfield or Norwin win the Section 2 regular season title? That would be a rare feat since the southern section has been dominated by two teams for the last decade. Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair has won outright or earned a share of the section championship the last 10 years.

Alignment

Section 1: Butler, Central Catholic, New Castle, North Allegheny, Pine-Richland, Seneca Valley

Section 2: Baldwin, Canon-McMillan, Hempfield, Mt. Lebanon, Norwin, Upper St. Clair

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