By Matt Popchock
Is it time for “March Madness?” No, not just yet…this is February madness, the next best thing, according to Mr. High School Sports. He’s pumped up and getting ready to watch 79 boys’ teams and 82 girls’ teams begin their quest for four sets of gold medals in the various classifications. Sure, it might not have Gus Johnson or a peppy theme song, but there will be plenty of shining moments–not just one–over the next few weeks.
The 2011 WPIAL Boys’ and Girls’ Basketball Playoffs brings the predictable unpredictability of postseason hoops, and for that reason alone, it’s time to get excited. On Tuesday evening, as 93.7 The Fan was celebrating its first anniversary, its high school sports reporter was celebrating the annual release of the brackets. So without further ado, Mr. High School Sports will break them down, and offer some quick thoughts on what might be coming to a court near you:
(Click here for the complete boys’ and girls’ brackets in each classification.)
BOYS’ CLASS AAAA:
TOP SEEDS (in order): Shaler, Mount Lebanon, North Allegheny, Gateway.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: The Titans and Blue Devils are interchangeable as the top two seeds. Shaler has one of the premier players in western PA in transfer Geno Thorpe, and the Titans have played stifling defense all year long, though they might see a potentially long journey end prematurely if top scorer Thorpe is not on his game. Mount Lebanon plays a team-oriented game also built on a foundation of a reliable backcourt and an outstanding defense. North Allegheny’s guard play, led by Anthony Dallier, makes the Tigers dangerous, and Gateway has one heck of a dynamic duo in Tyler Scott and Devin Cottrell, but every now and then the Gators stoop to the level of their competition, despite being a very athletic bunch.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Moon, Butler, Penn-Trafford, Upper St. Clair, Franklin Regional, Penn Hills, Connellsville, Pine-Richland, Woodland Hills, Chartiers Valley, Norwin, Latrobe, Plum
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: Chartiers Valley vs. Norwin (Saturday, 3:30 PM, at Baldwin High School). The Knights can shoot lights-out as long as top-five scorers Matt Palo and Andy Carter are healthy, but the Colts possess the second-best offense in Quad-A behind Norwin and, with the steady shooting hand of Matt Noszka, are capable of exploiting a defense that is average at best. If Tim McConnell can teach his own guys how to play a little better “D,” the Colts are a surefire sleeper.
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: Mount Lebanon vs. Shaler.
BOYS’ CLASS AAA:
TOP SEEDS (in order): South Fayette, West Mifflin, Blackhawk, New Castle.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: South Fayette was one meaningless regular season game away from a perfect campaign, and with a loaded, fast-paced offense, the number one unit in Class AAA, led by Mike Lamberti, it’s hard to imagine the Lions losing again. West Mifflin is a logical No. 2, and the Titans will go as far as C.J. Hester takes them. It’s interesting that No. 3 and No. 4 are both from Section 2, because Section 1 has Highlands, featuring WPIAL scoring leader Micah Mason, and Mars, which was 7-1 out of section. Still, Blackhawk plays solid defense that can take the Cougars far, but will need Tyler Damazo to step up with freshman phenom Chandler Kincade out, and few teams can shoot the rock consistently the way the Red Hurricane can.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: South Park, Southmoreland, Uniontown, Mars, Trinity, Mount Pleasant, Highlands, Central Valley, West Allegheny, Valley, Montour, Thomas Jefferson, Ringgold, Keystone Oaks, Greensburg-Salem, Hampton.
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: West Allegheny vs. Valley (Friday, 8:00 PM, at North Allegheny High School). Four years ago the Indians went from having to win the dreaded play-in game to knocking off the top seed in its bracket to knocking off Chartiers Valley at the Palumbo Center to complete an amazing title run. Now West A finds itself in a familiar spot. It didn’t take long for leading scorer Dylan Bongiorni to fit in with new teammates, but the Indians have to deal with Geoff Fuquay, one of the best shooting guards in the WPIAL. Surely history won’t repeat itself…or will it?
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: South Fayette vs. Blackhawk.
BOYS’ CLASS AA:
TOP SEEDS (in order): Greensburg C.C., Beaver Falls, Monessen, Quaker Valley.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: This is old hat for GCC, which, with its strong inside game and man-to-man defense, has proven it is a worthy top seed, and might be the closest thing to a prohibitive favorite in a classification where a lot is possible. Many felt Beaver Falls would be unstoppable once Sheldon Jeter returned, and so far they haven’t been disappointed. Insiders have said Class AA is often the toughest to select, hence Sto-Rox getting left out of the top four. I’ve felt strongly about the Vikings since the beginning of the year, and with a knockout one-two punch of Shawn Smith and Rob Baltimore, and solid defense, they shouldn’t be overlooked. Still, it’s tough to argue with Quaker Valley at No. 4, which has shown consistency and balance, and Monessen at No. 3, which also spreads the ball well and, like GCC, has yet to lose to a Class AA team.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Riverside, Carlynton, Summit Academy, Charleroi, Shady Side Academy, Burgettstown, Bishop Canevin, Ford City, Sto-Rox, Northgate, Steel Valley, California, Fort Cherry, Wilkinsburg, Neshannock, Brownsville, Ellwood City, Springdale, Jeannette, Aliquippa, Riverview.
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: California vs. Fort Cherry (Saturday, 1:30 PM, at Keystone Oaks High School). The Rangers hope guard Nate Bellhy, the top scorer in the classification, can lead them to unexpected glory, but first they have to survive the strong backcourt tandem of Tanner Huffman and John Tyler…and then, if that happens, hope they catch Beaver Falls on an off night (good luck).
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: Monessen vs. Sto-Rox.
BOYS’ CLASS A:
TOP SEEDS (in order): Rochester, North Catholic, Lincoln Park, Vincentian Academy.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Since Rochester and North Catholic have acquitted themselves so well since moving from Class AA, determining who the best teams are becomes very easy for the steering committee. Putting these four teams on top of the bracket is pretty academic. E.J. Blackwell leads the loaded Rams, who own the second-best offense in Class A, while not-so-gentle giants Chaquille Pratt and Deontae Watson make the Leopards the one team that can best match up with Rochester. Ryan Lewis and North Catholic have a strong inside game and made a powerful statement by beating Vincentian for a share of the section title, but overall, John Bray and Chris Koryak have handled their business at both ends, and keep the Royals a deserving favorite.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Cornell, Clairton, Bentworth, Serra Catholic, Carmichaels, Geibel, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Sewickley Academy, Quigley, St. Joseph, Avella, Leechburg, Jefferson-Morgan.
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: Cornell vs. Clairton (next Tuesday, site/time TBD). Although the Raiders seem to be growing from playing in a rough section and getting humbled early on by Rochester and Lincoln Park, they have backed their way into the playoffs, whereas the Bears seem to be peaking at the right time after surviving an equally tough section and another slow start. Desimon Green represents the great athleticism of Clairton, which will be out for revenge after bowing to Cornell in last year’s quarterfinals. Does Cornell’s Dustin Goins have another clutch effort in him?
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: Lincoln Park vs. Rochester.
GIRLS’ CLASS AAAA:
TOP SEEDS (in order): Mount Lebanon, Shaler, Bethel Park, Oakland Catholic.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: A strong case could be made for giving Baldwin one of the top seeds, and having four Section 4 teams in the top four. The South Hills-based section was regarded as perhaps the toughest in the WPIAL entering the season, and it doesn’t appear they’re wrong. Led by Notre Dame recruit Madison Cable, all the Blue Devils have done is win…again, and again, and again, and they look like they have the inside track on a three-peat. On their best day, the Highlanders, featuring Quad-A scoring leader Belma Nurkic, and neighborhood rival Bethel Park, might be the only teams in western PA capable of beating them. Val McQuade leads Shaler, which has a lot of size, and Oakland Catholic’s defense makes the Eagles a definite dark horse.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Gateway, Kiski Area, Upper St. Clair, Baldwin, Plum, Fox Chapel, Penn-Trafford, Woodland Hills, North Hills, North Allegheny, Hempfield, Norwin, Pine-Richland.
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: Bethel Park vs. North Hills (Friday, 6:30 PM, at South Fayette High School). Candace Martino is a big body who can do a lot of damage inside for the Lady Hawks, who are the least scored-upon team in the classification. The Indians, who have the third-ranked defense in Quad-A, will provide an interesting early test.
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: Mount Lebanon vs. Bethel Park.
GIRLS’ CLASS AAA:
TOP SEEDS (in order): Indiana, New Castle, South Park, Chartiers Valley.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Determining the top three is easy, as the Class AAA bracket could be pretty chalk this year. Leslie Stapleton is a major scoring threat for the Little Indians, though they haven’t really needed a superstar this season, because they haven’t lost to a District 7 team and, as a group, they excel in just about every phase of the game. Keep your eye on defending champ New Castle, which was written off after Kaylynn Waters was shut down for the year, but the Red Hurricane have still dominated with Christina Talbert and LaShauna Brothers leading the charge. Shelby Lindsay has helped carry an intriguing young South Park team, though one wonders if inexperience will sink the Eagles. Section champ Chartiers Valley is legit with its defense, but a case could have been made to put Blackhawk, a solid under-the-radar bet, at No. 4, given its own team defense and the presence of lethal scoring duo Alexa Hayward and Alexis Graham.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: West Allegheny, Hampton, Kittanning, Uniontown, Ringgold, Mount Pleasant, Belle Vernon, Blackhawk, Thomas Jefferson, Valley, Mars, Laurel Highlands, West Mifflin, South Fayette, Highlands, Hopewell, Knoch, Montour, Ambridge, Elizabeth Forward.
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: Thomas Jefferson vs. Valley (Saturday, 1:30 PM, at Baldwin High School). This game features a noteworthy individual matchup between two of the most prolific scorers in Class AAA. The Vikings have not played exceptionally well down the stretch, but Lashay Madison has showed up every night, while Ashley Stoner, who finished the regular season third in the WPIAL, needs more help from her supporting cast for the Jaguars to make a run.
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: Indiana vs. New Castle.
GIRLS’ CLASS AA:
TOP SEEDS (in order): Seton-LaSalle, Riverside, Deer Lakes, Bishop Canevin.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Seton-LaSalle has the top-scoring offense on the girls’ side of the WPIAL and one of the most exciting freshmen in the area in forward Naje Gibson, while Sam Weir has come on strong for Riverside, which boasts one of the most consistently tough defenses in the WPIAL. Simply picking one-versus-two may seem boring, but there would be nothing ho-hum about that possible championship clash. Deer Lakes is another team like Riverside that wins by grinding down its opponent, but looking up and down Section 1, the Lancers aren’t quite as battle-tested as the rest of the top four. Canevin will rely on guard play from top-ten scorer Erin Waskowiak, which might not be such a bad thing, though the real x-factor in this bracket could be Avonworth, with the district’s best defense and the leadership of sharpshooter Lauren Mayernik, plus Catherine Costa, who comes from a long and talented hoops legacy.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Elderton, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Washington, Greensburg C.C., Bentworth, Freeport, Neshannock, Avonworth, Keystone Oaks, New Brighton, Quaker Valley, Ford City, Charleroi, Springdale, Beaver Falls, Shady Side Academy, Sto-Rox, Jeannette, Steel Valley, Brownsville.
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: Elderton vs. Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Friday, 6:30 PM, at North Hills High School). Jill Glover is the offensive focal point for the Bobcats, who don’t have a lot of scoring power otherwise, but are the only third-place team in Class AAA with ten section wins and already own a victory over No. 3 Deer Lakes. The Chargers have also survived a difficult section admirably and bring a defense that is just as stubborn.
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: Seton-LaSalle vs. Riverside.
GIRLS’ CLASS A:
TOP SEEDS (in order): Vincentian Academy, Monessen, North Catholic, Fort Cherry.
MR. HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS SAYS: Top-seeded Vincentian Academy doesn’t have a breakout superstar (this time), but the Royals have a bunch of talented girls who jell together and play extraordinary defense, and they’ve beaten teams three classifications higher, making them worthy of the top seed. Meanwhile, it’s a good year for hoops in the Mon Valley, and you have to like Monessen’s chances with the top defense in Class A, and a dangerous scorer in Geena Shrader. The other two top seeds are hard to argue against as well. The only team in the classification that allowed fewer points than the Greyhounds was Fort Cherry, and you’d better believe Bekka Bellhy will do her darnedest to step out of brother Nate’s shadow, and the only knock against North Catholic is that section rival Vincentian beat them twice–the only Class A team to beat the Trojans, in fact. But don’t count out two top Beaver County teams, Aliquippa and Rochester. The Quips have a ton of firepower, and the gritty Rams have a great two-way leader in Hayden Kimbrough.
OTHER QUALIFIERS: Rochester, Riverview, Geibel, Serra Catholic, Avella, Carmichaels, St. Joseph, Quigley, Sewickley Academy, Aliquippa, Chartiers-Houston, California, Cornell.
OPENING GAME TO WATCH: Serra Catholic vs. Avella (Saturday, 3:00 PM, at Chartiers Valley High School). Both teams enter the postseason on hot streaks, and armed with WPIAL regular season scoring champion Amanda Temple, the Eagles of Greene County hope the long bus ride is a fruitful one. The Eagles of Serra hope their strong team defense holds true to form, as they have already flourished under great coaching upheaval.
CHAMPIONSHIP FORECAST: Vincentian Academy vs. Monessen.
For continuing coverage of the 2011 WPIAL Boys’ and Girls’ Basketball Playoffs, be sure to check back later with Mr. High School Sports on 937thefan.com!