Westmoreland County basketball’s starting 5 season primer

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Thursday, December 7, 2017 | 5:21 PM


WPIAL basketball season opens Friday. Here are some things to look for this season in Westmoreland County hoops.

Boys

5 Teams to watch

Franklin Regional: New coach Steve Scorpion was a talented guard when he played, but he will have plenty of frontcourt talent to work at his alma mater. The Panthers, who reached the second round of the WPIAL and PIAA playoffs last season, are loaded with height. They have seven players at 6-foot-3 or taller, including 6-5 senior forward Hunter Stonecheck (15 ppg). Senior guard Nate Leopold (15 ppg) is a proven guard.

Greensburg Salem: With a key chemistry-building season set to pay dividends, the Golden Lions have the potential to improve greatly on a seven-win year. Senior guard Marvel McGowan (19.5 ppg) is the top returning scorer in the county and will have backcourt help from sophomores Dante Parsons and Jalen Page, and newcomer Rylan (Bumoskey) Crise, among others.

Jeannette: A promising group returns, led by 6-5 junior guard-forward Anthony Johnson, who averaged 26 points across four games before he was ruled ineligible by the WPIAL and PIAA for transferring in, at least in part, the organizations said, for athletic intent. Other key returnees include Robert Kennedy, Seth Howard and Tre Cunningham. Greensburg Salem transfer A.J. Sharp could be a key guard.

Latrobe: While most of the buzz surrounding the Wildcats (19-5 last year) is about who's gone rather than who's back, plenty of optimism remains. Junior standout Reed Fenton (14 ppg) is back to lead a long lineup that also features 6-6 Markus Dudzenski, 6-3 Bryce Butler and 6-2 Jason Armstrong. Replacing two-time WPIAL scoring champion Austin Butler and standout point guard Jake Biss is no easy task but the Wildcats appear ready to change their style if needed.

Penn-Trafford: Call last year a redshirt season for a young Warriors team that is fixated on sound guard play. With a healthy Sean Kelly back, along with junior Kevin Stinelli and rising sophomore point guard Zach Rocco, the Warriors should be in a lot of games. Defensive improvements will be necessary since the team allowed 67.9 points a game last year.

5 Players to watch

Reed Fenton, Jr., 6-3, G, Latrobe — Fast-rising Division I prospect appears to be the go-to scorer for the Wildcats after scoring 14 a game as a sophomore.

Anthony Johnson, Jr., 6-5, G/F, Jeannette — Can be a force as scorer, rebounder and shot blocker. Averaged 26.3 points in first four games with the team last year.

Sean Kelly, Sr., 6-1, G, Penn-Trafford — Returns from a nagging ankle injury and the Warriors are anxious to see what he can do for a full season. Averaged 15 points last season.

Marvel McGowan, Sr., 6-0, G, Greensburg Salem — One of WPIAL's top scorers as a junior, he scored 19.5 a game while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Hunter Stonecheck, Sr., 6-5, F, Franklin Regional — A throwback post player can post up on the low block and provide consistent rebounding for the Panthers.

5 Storylines to follow

Return of the big man: Back-to-the-basket hoops could be making a return in Section 3-6A. With “bigs” aplenty, teams could revert to halfcourt basketball with post play. Latrobe, Fox Chapel, Penn Hills and Hempfield all have players that are 6-foot-4 or taller.

It could be a contrast in style. With strong guard play, Section 3 saw tri-champions last season as preseason No. 3 Fox Chapel, Latrobe and Penn Hills all tied at 12-2. Coaches thinks more teams are expected to contend this season. Preseason No. 1 Pine-Richland also packs size inside.

More fireworks in Latrobe? Latrobe was one of the most exciting teams to watch last season, sprinting up and down the floor while averaging 76.3 points per game. The Wildcats should be good again, but it remains to be seen if they'll play at that pace. Coach Brad Wetzel said the team might slow it down more; whatever it takes to get the Wildcats back to the playoffs, where they went 0-2 a year ago.

Title town? The last time Jeannette won the PIAA football championship, in 2007, the school's basketball team also rolled through the winter and won WPIAL and PIAA titles. While that is a lot to ask of a group that will once again be slow-starting due to football overlapping its season, the No. 2-ranked Jayhawks have the talent and athleticism to go a long way.

Talented 6-5 transfer Anthony Johnson only played four games last year but will return in the hopes of playing a full season.

Staying on top: A few other county programs will look to stay among the best in their classifications, in Monessen, Belle Vernon and Greensburg Central Catholic.

Top-ranked Monessen (21-8) won the WPIAL Class A title and made the PIAA semifinals. The Greyhounds lost some key four-year standouts but return junior Lyndon Henderson. Monessen has won 44 straight section games.

Section 3-4A champion Belle Vernon has the potential to be dangerous. The Leopards (17-7) return eight experienced players and will once again present a deep rotation.

GCC went 25-2 and reached the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA quarterfinals in 2A. But a wiped-out lineup will start fresh under new coach Jim Nesser.

Derry products: Derry made strides last season with a young team, winning six games after a winless and injury-plagued 2015-16 season. The Trojans, led by senior point guard Conner Watt and four other returning starters, have not made the WPIAL playoffs since 2007-08 and have not had a winning record since 2000-01.

Girls

5 Teams to watch

Hempfield — Despite change in the program, the Spartans don't plan on altering their goals of making noise in the postseason. New coach Lindsy Muchnock, a former Latrobe and Seton Hill player, plans to uphold the standard Aaron Epps set before he resigned after last season, his fifth at the post. Senior Allison Podkul could be one of the top guards in 6A and Sarah Golden and Sarah Liberatore should complement her well.

Greensburg Central Catholic — A much smaller roster will lead to a much smaller rotation for the Class 2A No. 5-ranked Centurions, who reached the WPIAL semifinals last season, a year after finishing as the WPIAL runner-up. GCC will continue to rely on pressure defense and sound guard play, led by Olivia Stawovy.

Latrobe — Senior 1,000-point scorer Laura Graytok is the top returning scorer in 6A after averaging 21.6 points a game. Role players around her could help the Wildcats rebound from an 8-14 season in a strong Section 3. Five starters return, including guards Shelby Wetzel, Bethany Havrilla and Carly Augustine.

Penn-Trafford — With several players back from the WPIAL-champion girls soccer team, the Warriors will be physical and will look to out-hustle teams in a touch Section 3-6A. Tribune-Review all-star Mackenzie Aunkst leads a strong backcourt that also has sharpshooters Rachel Casper and Bella Long back. Aunkst will join the team late due to a soccer-related injury.

Southmoreland — High-scoring guard Cali Konek is back in the WPIAL and the junior transfer is expected to have an immediate impact for the Scotties, who just missed the WPIAL playoffs last season. With Konek and 6-2 forward Maggie Moore, Southmoreland should be among the Section 3-4A favorites.

5 Players to watch

Mackenzie Aunkst, Sr., G, Penn-Trafford — Once she returns from a soccer injury, she will be a key player on both ends of the floor.

Laura Graytok, Sr., G, Latrobe — American University recruit can score from the perimeter but also gets plenty of points going to the hoop. Also averaged four assists and four steals.

Megan Kallock, Jr., G, Greensburg Salem — Averaged 19.7 points a game last season for the Golden Lions, who made the WPIAL 5A playoffs.

Cali Konek, Jr., G, Southmoreland — Division I prospect transferred from Riverside Baptist (Md.) but played freshman season at Imani Christian of WPIAL and averaged astonishing 45.4 points a game.

Allison Podkul, Sr., G, Hempfield — Will take on elevated scoring and leadership role for the Spartans. Averaged 14 points per game as a junior.

5 Storylines to follow

The Konek effect

Cali Konek is one of the top junior prospects in the country but she wants to get back to the WPIAL playoffs. She made the postseason at Imani two years ago but the Saints lost in the first round. Konek, who has about a dozen Division I scholarship offers, has scored 1,295 points in three years.

Southmoreland has more than just Konek. Junior forward Maggie Moore and a few experienced guards will look to make Konek's transition a smooth one.

Freeze frame?

Greensburg Central Catholic's Joe Eisaman is a tell-it-like-it-is coach. He said his team's shortage of players (7) has triggered “survival mode” and he already referenced “Hoosiers.”

Eisaman also said he is not averse to slowing down the usually uptempo pace of his team's offense. He even hinted the team could hold the ball for stretches to help conserve energy, which could result in very low scores.

Streaks on the line

Several county teams will look to keep playoff streaks intact, including GCC, which has made 17 straight postseason appearances.

Hempfield and Norwin have made the playoffs 16 consecutive times, Mt. Pleasant has made the postseason 10 straight years, and Penn-Trafford nine years in a row.

Last year ended the county's three-year reign of producing a WPIAL champion in the largest classification (Norwin, 2015, ‘16; Penn-Trafford ‘14).

Watch BVA

Belle Vernon barely missed the WPIAL playoffs last year, finishing 12-10. But with all five starters back, the Leopards could be set to make noise in Class 4A.

After ending one game out of a playoff berth in Section 3, Belle Vernon will be heavy on senior leadership. Senior guard Kelsey Green is the top returning scorer but will have plenty of help from a defensively-charged backcourt.

New coaches

A rejuvenated Rick Klimchock returned to the sidelines as a head coach at Greensburg Salem this season after a few years away. He led the Jeannette boys for two decades and then coached six seasons with the Franklin Regional girls.

He is one of the county's four new head coaches, joining Lindsy Muchnock at Hempfield, William Tyler Johnson at Derry and Mike Gurnick at Yough.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BillBeckner.

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