By Matt Popchock

It’s way past time to turn out the lights on the gridiron and turn on the lights in 131 gymnasiums throughout western Pennsylvania.  Mr. High School Sports has been so busy shoveling snow and recovering from another action-packed year of high school football he almost completely forgot that another WPIAL boys’ basketball season has gotten underway.

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A number of regional tournaments on opening weekend has given us an early indication of the teams to beat in District 7 in 2010-11, but 93.7 The Fan’s high school sports reporter is thinking big picture.  There are several major storylines to which he is paying attention over the next three months, so without further ado, here are five big things to follow on the local boys’ high school hoops scene:

1. Will supplanted teams make a smooth transition or a bumpy one?

The winds of change that blew through the district this past off-season were blustery.  Chartiers Valley, the reigning PIAA runner-up, has abdicated its WPIAL Class AAA crown by moving up to Quad-A, and the Colts are not the only prominent team to switch classifications.  Just one year after winning its first-ever state title in boys’ basketball South Fayette has moved from Class AA to Class AAA, and the team that ousted the Lions from the WPIAL tournament, eventual Class AA champion North Catholic, has moved down to Class A.  In Class A the Trojans will have some new but familiar company in Rochester, which is also playing down after losing to North Catholic in the WPIAL Class AA Final.  Plus, after its miraculous football campaign, how could we forget about Central Valley?  The Warriors have launched their Class AAA program one year after Center competed in that same classification, with Monaca in Class A.  How will these teams fare in their new surroundings?  Chartiers Valley has depth, and they will need that depth while dealing with key injuries to Wayne Capers and Christian Kuntz, and dealing with Section 4 favorite and defending WPIAL Class AAAA champ Mount Lebanon.  The meeting between those schools on Dec. 22 will be a good early barometer for Tim McConnell’s Colts.  To leapfrog an athletic Montour team in Section 5 will be no easy feat for South Fayette, but the Lions do return one of the better guard tandems in Class AAA, Mike Lamberti and Pat Zedreck.  Guard play will also be important to Central Valley, and first impressions being what they are, the newborn Warriors look like a balanced bunch, led by guard Nick Delisio.  Moving should benefit North Catholic as well, as Martin Long takes his razzle-dazzle from the football field to the court and makes the Trojans the team to beat in a modest Section 2.  Meanwhile, in Section 1 of Class A, Rochester fields a team featuring E.J. Blackwell and Giovanni Ellis that is big, strong, and productive, but the same can be said for section rival and WPIAL runner-up Lincoln Park.  Still, it appears the Rams, along with the other aforementioned teams on the move, are primed for solid seasons.

2. Who will be the new sheriff in town in Class AA?

The defending WPIAL champion is gone, and so is the defending PIAA champion…so now what?  Since North Catholic and South Fayette have switched classifications, that leaves the door open for a number of other talented squads in Double-A, and Greensburg Central Catholic seems to be at the top of that list.  The Centurions won 19 games last season, Josh and Terrance Stepoli will be joining the team after transferring from Monessen to play football, and they boast one of the most versatile players in the classification in Jesse Reed, who is one of four returning starters.  With their arch-rival, Jeannette, also fielding a talented team led by premier forward Demetrius Cox, it’s very likely the next gold medalist could come out of Section 4.  Section 6 isn’t too shabby either, as Beaver Falls looks like a safe bet to win four section titles in a row, and the Tigers should be particularly strong once leading scorer Sheldon Jeter comes back from injury.  But don’t count out Quaker Valley and Aliquippa, both legitimate contenders themselves, though both have to prove they can replace key personnel before thinking about long playoff runs.  If defense wins championships, you have to like Freeport’s chances too.  The Yellowjackets don’t have a ton of high-profile scoring talent but were one of the toughest teams to score against in the WPIAL last season.  We can’t tell where the road to the Palumbo Center goes through in Class AA, but we can tell you the rankings may fluctuate there more than anywhere else. 

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3. Will Lincoln Park get a shot at revenge on Sewickley Academy?

As tough as it is to determine a champion in Class AA, doing so in Class A might be even tougher.  Four of the five teams in the Post-Gazette’s preseason rankings won over 20 games in ’09-’10, and the same can be said for the preseason rankings put out by MSA Sports.  Lincoln Park seems to be the consensus favorite, and after seeing the Leopards take their first-ever Midland Tip-Off Tournament crown last weekend it’s no wonder why.  They have some of the best all-around athletes in the classification, talented playmakers on both ends, and they outclassed Blackhawk, a team two classifications higher, to win that tournament.  If they get the chance to meet defending WPIAL and PIAA champ Sewickley Academy in the playoffs, it should be quite an emotional contest, as last year the Leopards stubbed their toe against the Panthers in both the district and state tournaments.  However, it might be a bit tougher for Sewickley Academy to make that rematch happen.  They lost most of their starters, including Tom Droney, perhaps their best player during their state title run, although forward Carrington Motley seems ready to emerge as a team leader and will be joined by other worthy successors.  Both should be top-of-the-bracket playoff teams, and it’ll be real interesting to see how both are seeded.

4. How will Serra Catholic deal with a new bench boss?

Speaking of fascinating Class A teams, one of the most prolific boys’ basketball coaches in the WPIAL has retired from the program he led for 32 seasons, making that team one of the most scrutinized ones in the classification.  Bob Rozanski is out, and Vince Gibbons is in as head boys’ basketball coach for the Eagles, and following a local legend is never easy, to say the least.  The good news, however, is Gibbons inherits a group that appears quite skilled…and quite tall.  Serra Catholic returns a starting trio up front with an average height of around 6’5″, and you can bank on 6’8″ forward Daryan Robinson creating all kind of problems for opponents down low.  Last season the Eagles racked up 20 victories en route to a berth in the WPIAL Class A Semifinals, and this is a team with most of its key components back, a team that, during last year’s stretch run, scored 70 points a game on a pretty regular basis.  In Section 4 Serra has to contend with St. Joseph, one of the premier offensive squads in Class A, and Clairton, one of the better defensive squads, but as long as they stay healthy, the Eagles seem perfectly capable of coming out on top and easing the transition for their new coach.

5. Can anyone stop the Mount Lebanon juggernaut?

Last season there were two repeat champions in WPIAL boys’ basketball, and this year there might only be one.  The Mount Lebanon Blue Devils, who went wire to wire, will have the bullseye on their backs again, and throughout the 2009-10 campaign they wore it well, running the table in the WPIAL before stumbling in the state playoffs against fellow District 7 member North Allegheny.  With football stars Luke Hagy and Paul Lang back to lead Lebo, the Blue Devils definitely have another great run in them, but the level of competition in Quad-A has gone up a notch.  Their section is highly competitive, and as previously noted, the addition of Chartiers Valley makes it that much tougher, though if there’s one Class AAAA school capable of dethroning Mount Lebanon, conventional wisdom points to Gateway.  The Gators really made the Blue Devils work for their aforementioned WPIAL title in the championship game, and they return three of the top all-around players in the classification: guard Tyler Scott, forward Devin Cottrell, and center Barnett Harris.  Offensively Gateway should be one of the more consistent teams around, and the potential exists for them to be one of the best defensive teams in the WPIAL.  Mount Lebanon knows how to win on the big stage.  The question is, have the Gators learned how to win on the big stage?

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For continuing coverage of WPIAL boys’ basketball, be sure to check back with Mr. High School Sports throughout the 2010-11 season!