By Matt Popchock
Whom do I like in each bracket?
I’ve withheld judgment on the girls’ playoffs until I saw the matchups, but to me, the teams most likely to defend their WPIAL titles are North Catholic in Class A and Seton-LaSalle in Class AA, and I didn’t have to spend a ton of time thinking about that one. The Trojanettes are an experienced team coming off an impressive playoff run a year ago, and that program has dominated the sport for generations. Vincentian Academy, which won it all two years ago, seems to be on a collision course for a rematch. Meanwhile, Seton-LaSalle is the only girls’ team in the district with a perfect regular season record, and led by exciting sophomore Naje Gibson, the Rebels were the only team in the WPIAL to average 70 points per game. Still, neighborhood rival Bishop Canevin, which earned a No. 2 seed, might make for an emotional final battle if the Crusaders can hold serve.
The top two classifications are another story. Although Blackhawk’s beautiful bevy of freshmen has played with incredible maturity, the youth of the Cougars, I think, will eventually sink them, to say nothing of the general emergence of other teams in Class AAA around the defending champs. Hopewell, featuring Shatori Walker-Kimbroguh, one of the WPIAL’s top scorers, is my favorite after winning that meat grinder of a section, though South Park, which barely lost to the Vikings last season, has taken a big step forward after an impressive 2010-11 campaign. In Quad-A, my team of destiny is Gateway, led by Baylor recruit Destiny Brown…though one can never count out Mount Lebanon, a solid bunch again despite roster turnover, nor Oakland Catholic, a top-notch defensive team that will need to pick up its offensive game to survive.
I don’t expect any repeat champions in the four boys’ brackets, but I do anticipate a rematch in Class A. This year, however, Lincoln Park will rewrite the script against Vincentian Academy, and the third straight time on The Bluff will be the charm for the Leopards. The Royals, the highest-scoring squad in the classification, are well coached, they are well rounded, and last year, they were well prepared; they took away LP’s top scorer, and made the rest of that team beat them. The plan worked, but this season, Temple recruit Devontae Watson, already one of the WPIAL’s best defenders, has picked up his game in the forecourt, Trey Hosack and Ryan Skorvanko have added scoring depth, and there’s some skill on Mark Javens’ bench too. The Leopards aren’t a one- or two-man team anymore, and, with the exception of the Pittsburgh Basketball Classic, in which they were nipped by Shaler, every one of their games I’ve seen has been men versus boys.
One wonders how Beaver Falls, a nearly prohibitive preseason favorite in Class AA, will respond to adversity a year removed from an upset loss to Wilkinsburg, and a month removed from some off-the-court issues. Nevertheless, Doug Biega has done a fine job keeping his Tigers together, and Sheldon Jeter, the most scrutinized (undecided) D-1 prospect in the area, has done an equally fine job keeping his own head in the right place. We already knew BF could score, but that team has really grown defensively this season, particularly Jeter–who has also bulked up a bit. A potential final matchup with reigning gold medalist Monessen would be a lot of fun to watch; the Greyhounds are another team that excels at frustrating opponents into costly mistakes, and they might even have a little bit more depth than Beaver Falls. But I’ve had a strong feeling since the beginning of the year that Sheldon would follow in Lance’s footsteps, so I’m sticking with my unnecessarily large gut.
Montour pulled the rug out from beneath the feet of section rival South Fayette last March, and the Spartans, another team with great balance, have demonstrated they can still hang with the best of the best inside and outside Class AAA. Having said that, it would be downright silly of me to pick against New Castle, which is not only the only WPIAL boys’ team to go undefeated in regular season play, but the only team to beat Montour and make it look convincing. The dynamic backcourt duo of Corey Eggleston and Shawn Anderson seems to mature every game, and championships are usually won with superior guard play. The Red Hurricane averages a district-high 81 points per game for a reason.
The Quad-A tournament is the most difficult one to decipher. Gateway still has some talent, but the Gators seem to be a notch below the team that went all the way in 2011. Woodland Hills is a potential sleeper with Shakim Alonzo leading the charge, but can his supporting cast keep up? Chartiers Valley, which settled for silver at the time, can score almost at will, and Wayne Capers, one of the best pure athletes in the classification, is finally healthy, but the Colts have hit a couple road blocks after opening the season on cruise control. One of those road blocks was Mount Lebanon, which might not have the horses up front, but plays suffocating defense; plus, I never count out a team coached by renaissance man Joe David. Shaler is led by Penn State recruit Geno Thorpe, and the Titans earned the No. 1 seed by surviving one of the most brutal sections in the WPIAL. But what will Shaler do if an opponent throws a junk defense at Thorpe…and succeds?
I’m swimming against the stream and picking a different team from Shaler’s section to win gold: North Allegheny. Statistically, the Tigers were actually a better team offensively than Thorpe and the Titans, and they’re not necessarily uncomfortable playing a track-meet style game against other talented offensive teams, even though their defensive numbers leave something to be desired. NA’s dribble-drive offense can cause problems for teams, and it has kids inside who are deceptively good at outworking their counterparts when they are on their game. Furthermore, despite recent inconsistency, North Allegheny proved, on its best day, it could beat a team of Shaler’s caliber by being the only WPIAL team to defeat the Titans this regular season. You don’t have to be the best team on paper to win your bracket. You just have to play your best basketball at the right time.
And so, with that in mind…let the madness begin! See you in the gym.
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)