By Matt Popchock
The ship has sailed on the 2011 portion of the 2011-12 WPIAL basketball season, which means, starting this week, it’s full steam ahead into section play for both the boys and girls.
A lot happened between our coverage of the EQT Energy Classic and C.J. Betters RBA Holiday Classic, especially pertaining to last season’s district champions. Therefore, we figured we’d use our first edition of The Court Report to catch you up on what they’ve been up to, and what obstacles await them on the road back to the Palumbo Center.
There were questions about Gateway’s character during the 2010-11 campaign, even though the Gators were one of the biggest and most athletic teams in Quad-A. But they showed their mettle with an impressive schooling of Chartiers Valley in the WPIAL Final, and they’re off to a 6-3 overall start, splitting their first two AAAA-Sec. 2 games. Gateway dominated its own holiday tournament and has games against first-place Woodland Hills and McKeesport coming later this month, and one of its losses was to Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary’s–the alma mater of LeBron James–so it seems like the ceiling for this team is still high.
Montour’s success on the gridiron has followed the Spartans into the gym as well. Led by football heroes Dillon Buechel and Aaron Reed, they’ve scored a whopping 240 points through their first three games, all victories, getting a bit of a (planned) late start due to the length of football season. Montour has been dominant on both ends of the floor early while allowing just 45 points per game, and fittingly, that puts them in a virtual dead heat with AAA-Sec. 5 leader South Fayette, the team it upset for the WPIAL Class AAA championship, for the No. 3 scoring defense in the classification. The Spartans open 2012 with a nice opportunity–four straight home games–before heading to South Fayette Jan. 17 for a rematch.
Monessen, the reigning WPIAL Class AA champion, has picked up where it left off too. The Greyhounds have rolled over the competition through their season-opening eight-game winning streak, earning all but one of their victories by a double-digit margin. Senior guard Jalen Madison has been just one of several contributors to an offense that leads the classification with 72 points per game. Longtime coach Joe Salvino leads them into an interesting game Tuesday night against AA-Sec. 3 rival Wilkinsburg, which was one of the surprise teams in last year’s playoffs, and Monessen will measure itself in the Chuckie Mahoney Classic in a couple weeks.
Despite significant roster turnover, head coach George Yokitis has defending Class A champ Vincentian Academy playing some pretty good ball too. John Fedko recently put that school in the headlines by starting a football program, but the boys’ basketball team is doing things that shouldn’t be overlooked. The Royals appear to have depth, work ethic, and team chemistry, and they also have a four-game winning streak entering the new calendar year, not to mention the classification’s best offense at 76 points per game. The game to keep an eye on is Jan. 20, when Vincentian heads to North Catholic efforting to avenge its only loss of the season thus far.
The Shaler girls pulled off one of the upsets of the year when they survived a Quad-A title bout with Mount Lebanon, and the Titans are in the thick of things again this year with a 1-1 section record and 6-2 overall mark. Shaler lost a lot offensively, so new coach Melissa McQuade has seen her team win games with its defense this season, which ranks third with only 38 points allowed per game. Their visit to AAAA-Sec. 3 leader Oakland Catholic Monday should be a real good test for this group, which has just three seniors.
By the way, just to refresh your memory, Mount Lebanon enjoyed the last laugh in the girls’ PIAA tournament, becoming the only WPIAL team, regardless of gender, to win a state basketball title in 2011. Madison Cable may be gone, but Kelli Johnson and Emma Pellicano are still factors for the Blue Devils, who lead Quad-A with 68.8 points per game, and are coming off an impressive performance in Miami, Florida’s Junior Orange Bowl Tournament. Next week will be an interesting one, as Mount Lebanon visits arch-rival Bethel Park and hosts AAAA-Sec. 4 leader Peters Township.
Meanwhile, Blackhawk looks eager to continue adding to its girls’ basketball legacy in Class AAA. The Cougars have ripped off six wins in a row to open the season, including a recent victory over WPIAL Class A champion and perennial hoops power North Catholic. They lead the classification with an average of more than 65 points per game, and they defend exceptionally well. Next Monday’s matchup with AAA-Sec. 2 co-leader Hopewell should be very entertaining.
Last year’s freshman phenom, Naje Gibson, is a year wiser and a year stronger, and it shows in the way WPIAL Class AA champion Seton-LaSalle has been able to run its offense. The 7-0 Rebels are pacing Double-A with 66.6 points per contest, and so far they’ve proven they can take any opponent, any time, anywhere, in any classification. They have a daunting schedule on the horizon with games against Keystone Oaks and Carlynton, though their Jan. 16 date with visiting Bishop Canevin could go an even longer way toward deciding the section title.
It’s not easy to get a read on Section 2 of Girls’ Class A, where Vincentian Academy, Riverview, and district champion North Catholic are all off to spectacular starts. But it is easy to see a Herculean effort will be necessary to take the Trojanettes down this year. They own quality wins over New Castle, Bishop Canevin, and Fox Chapel, and quality losses to Oakland Catholic, Blackhawk, and North Allegheny. North Catholic has a change to really take charge of its destiny when it hosts Riverview Monday night, then after the Don Graham Classic, they have another important contest at Vincentian.
Keep reading the “Mr. High School Sports” blog for continuing coverage of WPIAL boys’ and girls’ basketball!
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)