Westmoreland basketball teams adjust to higher classes

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Wednesday, January 20, 2021 | 4:27 PM


Greensburg Salem has a proud boys basketball tradition. Past players like to wax nostalgic and follow the current team, and current players want to learn about the names of the past.

The program bumped up to Class 6A this season, a voluntary move the district thought would benefit the team geographically and competitively.

Section 3-6A pits the Golden Lions against neighboring Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Hempfield. When the Golden Lions played in 5A last year, they made trips to Laurel Highlands and Albert Gallatin.

“We have a basketball alumni group on Facebook, and these are the schools that the older guys reminisce about playing,” Golden Lions coach Mark Zahorchak said. “Guys that graduated thirty years ago have expressed the desire to come to games again. It’s created a little buzz — if we ever get to play.”

Greensburg Salem, which has faced delays because of covid-19 exposure and won’t play its first game until Jan. 30, isn’t the only local school that moved around this year. The bell rang, and several others also changed classes.

Boys teams at Latrobe (Class 5A), Southmoreland (4A), Greensburg Central Catholic (2A) and Monessen (2A) and the Penn-Trafford (6A), Greensburg Salem (5A), Derry (4A) and Greensburg Central Catholic (2A) girls also moved up.

In a typical season, Greensburg Salem likely would have played Hempfield twice and also had some of the other locals on the schedule. The difference now is games against those teams mean something in the standings.

“It’s more about those games now having the intensity and spotlight of being section games,” Zahorchak said. “Our kids get excited to play these schools because they know those kids. “

Zahorchak, whose team is set to return to practice Jan. 27 after a quarantine, said when the decision was first made to play up, he thought Latrobe would join his team in the WPIAL’s largest classification.

But Latrobe’s enrollment numbers dropped the Wildcats one rung to Class 5A.

“I was hoping they would stay, as that would have left us with a section of us, Latrobe, Hempfield, Norwin, and Penn Trafford — five Westmoreland County teams — plus Fox Chapel,” Zahorchak said. “Those five teams were the core of a section that we played in for almost 40 years before we moved down to triple-A in 2004-05. When Latrobe decided to play in 5A, that led to Central Catholic being added but I still like the core.”

Latrobe is adjusting to life in 5A. The Wildcats have never not played in the WPIAL’s highest class.

“I don’t see much of a change,” Latrobe coach Brad Wetzel said. ” We are one of the last really small 6A teams to drop down to 5A so practically every team we play was at one time on our schedule as a Quad-A or 6A opponent.”

Wetzel said the the Wildcats, who scored a 16-point win over McKeesport, won’t get a true feel for 5A until they have some success and make a run in the playoffs — until they build a larger body of work.

“At that point, I feel there could possibly be some disparity between those extremely large schools and those schools that have a more modest enrollment of boys,” he said.

The Penn-Trafford girls have been a staple in Class 4A for years. But the Warriors (5-0, 4-0 Section 1) look quite at home in their new surroundings in Class 6A. They’re off to their best start since 2012-13 as they get set to play Thursday night at Seneca Valley.

“It’s something new in our section,” Penn-Trafford girls coach John Giannikas said. “If you get a win, you have to stay humble because the next one won’t be easy. There are no nights off. You can’t look one game ahead.”

As much as Giannikas has wanted to scout No. 1 North Allegheny lately — the team his Warriors host Monday — he had to wait.

“Anyone can beat anyone in this section,” he said.

Penn-Trafford has had some talented teams in Giannikas’ tenure, including a WPIAL championship winner in 2014. But he had confidence circling this one as the 6A guinea pig.

“Our girls play well together and are willing to make the extra pass,” he said. “I knew we had good skill. We don’t have a ton of size, but I really like our guards.”

Opponents are taking notice of the Warriors, who beat Norwin this week.

“John does a great job with that program,” Norwin coach Brian Brozeski said. “It’s not a surprise to see them doing so well. Their girls play hard and put in the time.”

Zahorchak agreed the word brutal is apropos for Section 3.

“The main challenge of playing is 6A is simple: Our section is filled with very good basketball teams,” he said. “However, if you look at the teams in our section from the last year, we were going to be playing other very good teams anyway.

“In the end, playing in a section with established rivals is definitely the greatest benefit.”

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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