High School

“Mr. High School Sports” – High School Basketball 2010-11: Final Thoughts

By Matt Popchock
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While Mr. High School Sports was enjoying a fun-filled but busy weekend at the Pennsylvania Cup Finals, the 2011 PIAA Basketball Championships were taking place.  Suffice it to say, he probably had a better time on this particular road trip, as all but one of the WPIAL’s finest left Happy Valley with long faces.

However, the one District 7 team that did walk away with state gold, the Mount Lebanon girls, earned no ordinary victory last Saturday.  A most hearty congratulations are in order to head coach Dori Oldaker and her Blue Devils, who became the first girls’ Class AAAA team in PIAA history to win three consecutive titles.

If you’ve ever heard our own John Seibel on “Panther Game Day” during college football season, you’re familiar with his “Three Things” segment.  Therefore, inspired by our own afternoon drive host and Pitt sideline reporter, I’ll offer my own three things that point to why the Mount Lebanon girls won, and why the WPIAL boys’ representatives went home empty-handed:

WHY MOUNT LEBANON WON:

1. Underclassmen rise above. As previously stated in this blog, Lebo, in order to go all the way once again, needed to continue demonstrating its ability to win without Madison Cable strapping the Blue Devils to her back, and they did.  The Notre Dame newcomer only shot 2-of-9 from the field and had nine points, but ultimately it didn’t matter.  Kelly Johnson stepped up again with 13, Emma Pellicano added eight, and the underclassmen, together, gave the Blue Devils invaluable minutes, especially when they got into early foul trouble.

2. Team defense. It’s fitting that Archbishop Carroll and Mount Lebanon met again, because probably the only team in the state capable of beating the Blue Devils at the top of their game were the Patriots.  If you don’t believe me, check their margins of victory in these state playoff games.  It was going to take the kind of rock-steady defensive effort that Dori Oldaker’s kids had put forth all year, and the Blue Devils did not let their coach or themselves down.  Jen Carney was the only other player besides Johnson in double figures.

3. “Blue moon.” No, I’m not talking about the song.  I’m talking about the expression “once in a blue moon”…as in, once in a blue moon, Anna Kestler misses back-to-back free throws, much less free throws at a key juncture in the game…and once in a blue moon, a talented player like Jen Carney misses a one-on-one layup on the next play.  Carroll caught a big break in the game’s final moments, but karma spun back in Lebo’s favor when Carney missed.  Hey, even championship teams need a little luck sometimes too.

Okay, I lied.  There is a fourth reason why, in my opinion, the Blue Devils earned the three-peat:

4. Dori Oldaker. As another of my co-workers, Gregg Giannotti, once said, winners win.  Dori Oldaker is a winner.  She proved it at Blackhawk, leading her teams to multiple championships there, and she’s proven it yet again here at Mount Lebanon.  She seems to have done a really nice job handling the careful balancing act of being a tough-love coach, and yet not coming off so abrasively that she loses the respect of her players.  It’s easy to forget how tough it is to get five people on the same page (I’ve had enough trouble trying to get just one), but few in the WPIAL do it better than the Mount Lebanon head coach.

This is what went right for the Mount Lebanon girls.  So what went wrong for the WPIAL boys’ teams last weekend?

1. Relentless offense. We saw some pretty impressive numbers from the “eastern champions” in all four classifications.  No matter how well the western teams stayed with them, it seems like they always had an answer.

2. Been there, done that. There was a lot of state championship experience on the eastern side of the bracket.  Three of the WPIAL representatives, however, were making their first foray this deep into the PIAA Playoffs.  When two teams are matched up that seem evenly-matched, that experience can be an x-factor.

3. May the best man win. Sometimes the other guy is just better.  It’s a fact of life that, when I was a student athlete, I had to learn to cope with.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the high school basketball in eastern Pennsylvania, it’s that the teams are as good as advertised.  If WPIAL teams and Philadelphia area squads met again, would it yield different results?  Perhaps.  But in the meantime, the better team, in all four cases, did win.  Besides, what happened to the boys seems to be par for the course nowadays; the WPIAL hasn’t had three boys’ PIAA winners in the same season since 2003-04.

However, Mr. High School Sports likes to accentuate the positive (after all, they are just kids, yes?), and for Mount Lebanon, Montour, Greensburg Central Catholic, and Lincoln Park, there was a lot to feel good about in 2010-11.  A few highlights:

*Perhaps one thing I’ll miss most about the season–aside from seeing my man Tim McConnell as his usual vociferous self on the Chartiers Valley sideline–is not getting to see Chaquille Pratt suit up for Lincoln Park till next winter.  He definitely has the tools to play college ball, and his game-winning shot in the WPIAL Semifinals against North Catholic was unforgettable.  I really liked the chemistry he had with Devontae Watson, and when those two were on their game, they were the Harlem Globetrotters of Class A.

*Although their remarkable run did not end in state gold, the Montour Spartans are to be commended for showing what a team game basketball is.  They demonstrated that in the way they shut down South Fayette twice.  For my money, the Lions were easily the best Class AAA team in western Pennsylvania, but the way Montour defend against them in the WPIAL Championship and in the PIAA Playoffs was a real eyebrow-raiser.  Offensively, this was a very balanced team, and head coach Adam Kaufman deserves credit for leading a group that beat such a formidable opponent twice.  It’ll be real interesting to see how this team grows next year.

*One of the most exciting games I attended this year was the regular season finale at Jeannette in which Greensburg Central Catholic defeated its arch-rivals for the outright section title.  To me, being able to play a good, tough road game against such an athletic team established GCC as a force to be reckoned with in Class AA, and it came as no surprise to me that the Centurions ended up in the WPIAL Final.  It was fun to see Jesse Reed take over a game like he did against the Jayhawks; few players can use the dribble-drive like he can.  If he doesn’t play Division I hoops, he should definitely get D-2 or D-3 consideration.

*The Mount Lebanon boys are a team that definitely takes after their head coach, Joe David, who is one of the best at what he does.  On the sideline he always seems very composed, and in some tough spots this year, the Blue Devils did not come unglued.  A gritty road win at Chartiers Valley set the tone for what would be a great season, and on a day when Penn Hills was so close to pulling off a huge playoff upset, David wouldn’t let his team quit, nor did they.  Any postseason loss is hard, but it really is a moral victory for Lebo to play as well as it did against Chester, which isn’t ranked in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 for nothing.  Defensively this was one of the most impressive teams I saw all year, keyed on by the physical presence of Paul Lang and the quickness of Luke Hagy, two top-notch athletes.

Looking ahead, here are a few players to watch in 2011-12:

Anthony Dallier, North Allegheny: He averaged 25 points per game and, on his best day, can shoot lights out from beyond the arc.  Furthermore, he seems to save his best for his toughest opponents.

Micah Mason, Highlands: The WPIAL regular season scoring champ will get a chance to defend that honor.  Can he possibly exceed that 64-point effort that was the second-best single-game performance in district history?

Sheldon Jeter, Beaver Falls: He averaged 23 points per game, and that was after he got back from nursing a broken hand.  Imagining this kid play a full season at full health is downright scary.

Devontae Watson, Lincoln Park: Given his amazing physical maturity, it’s hard to believe Pratt’s partner-in-crime still has another year of high school left.  He’s perhaps the top defensive player in western PA…and one heck of a post presence.

Taylor Wentzel, Baldwin: With Duquesne recruit Belma Nurkic moving on, she becomes the focal point of the Highlanders’ offense.  She shoots well, she passes even better, and she’ll help Baldwin stay competitive.

Kaylynn Waters, New Castle: Without a healthy Waters, the Red Hurricane took a small step backward, from probable repeat champion to WPIAL Semifinalist.  Having her back gives New Castle as good a shot as any to take back the gold.

Naje Gibson, Seton-LaSalle: Considering she was the leading scorer on the WPIAL’s top girls offense, it’s no giant leap to say this freshman has nowhere to go but up.  She can run the floor and finishes plays consistently.

Geena Shrader, Monessen: It’s always tough to replicate the kind of success the Greyhounds had this year, even though it didn’t lead to a WPIAL title.  Averaging over 17 points per game and providing great leadership, Shrader makes it possible.

Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you at the gym in December!

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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