Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Canon-McMillan is the story of the year in WPIAL basketball

Canon-McMillan head coach Rick Bell

Canon-McMillan has stunned Class AAAA basketball. The Big Macs were seen as a program in transition entering the season with a plethora of talent from last year graduating and an incredible amount of opposing talent in Section 4.

The likelihood of the Big Macs reaching the playoffs was minimal at the beginning of the season with Luke Blanock’s cancer diagnosis and other key players suffering injuries stunning the players. When Canon-McMillan lost back-to games against Wash High and Bethel Park in the first week of the season, the adversity seemed too much to overcome for the Big Macs.

Canon-McMillan answered by winning seven of their next eight section games, including a key victory over Bethel Park on Jan. 17. The doubts of the Big Macs’ underclassmen being able to step into key roles were trumped by the play of a group of kids who are determined to make the best out of an adverse situation.

Junior Alex Hammers, who was struck by the news of Blanock’s diagnosis, is having an incredible season by averaging 17.4 points per game. Hammers has made clutch shots for Canon-McMillan in several key games and paces their offense. Freshman Britton Beachy shook the jitters of his first season as a varsity starter to make an immediate impact for the Big Macs (6-2, 10-5). Sam Bohn has also been a steady offensive presence.

I received a phone call from a reader last week, who brought to my attention the possibility of Canon-McMillan winning Section 4-AAAA. The accomplishment is in their crosshairs and the Big Macs took a gigantic leap forward when they defeated Baldwin, 62-46, on Tuesday night. Canon-McMillan now sits atop the section and will have the chance to secure their standing with back-to-back games against second-place Upper St. Clair.

The story is incredible. The Big Macs have two seniors on their roster and have freshmen logging major minutes. I Tweeted on Tuesday night that Canon-McMillan head coach Rick Bell should be coach of the year in Class AAAA and I stand by that statement.

Yes, New Castle is undefeated and Hampton also has an incredible team, but the Big Macs do not have a roster of Division I recruits like Malik Hooker or Ryan Luther. They aren’t flashy and are not a trendy pick to win the WPIAL. While I commend New Castle head coach Ralph Blundo and Hampton head coach Jack Lafko for the job they have done, neither had to face a locker room of teenagers with news of a teammate and friend laying in a hospital bed with Ewing’s sarcoma.

Bell is the clear-cut choice for Coach of the Year. It does not matter if Canon-McMillan fails to make a lengthy run in the playoffs or if they drop both games to Upper St. Clair, Bell gave his team the confidence to persevere in the face of adversity.

Give the kids some credit, as well. I can’t imagine being a high school basketball player in that situation. They blocked out the doubters and gathered together for a common goal. Friday night’s game against Upper St. Clair is another step in the Big Macs’ quest for that goal.

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