Friday, February 28, 2014

Private school debate or not, Monessen and Lincoln Park ready for Palumbo

How about those Monessen Greyhounds? Entering the WPIAL tournament, the talk of Class A surrounded two teams: Lincoln Park and Vincentian Academy. Nobody thought Monessen could compete with the polished play of the Royals if they happened to meet in the semifinals.

On Tuesday, the Greyhounds replicated what they have done since the season began. They ignored the critics and played the fast-paced brand of basketball that earned them the No. 3 seed in the tournament. The result was a record-breaking 110-99 victory.

Everyone’s criticism surrounded Monessen’s athleticism not translating on the basketball court. Yes, they are stellar talents on the gridiron, but can they compete against a team that dedicates 12 months out of the year to basketball. Watch Javon Brown and Clintell Gillaspie make defenders look silly, and your opinion will change. From tip-off on Tuesday, it was apparent that Vincentian had underestimated the Greyhounds.

Gillaspie gave them a wake up call early when he crossed a defender over and hit a perfect pull-up jump shot that made the crowd at Montour gasp with surprise. From that point, the cheers in the gym were one sided. Monessen’s fans were behind their team with unmatched enthusiasm, while Vincentian’s fans erred on the side of caution. Brown was making highlight reel passes to stretch the Royals’ defense, Justice Rawlins was relentless in the post and two freshmen picked the Greyhounds’ up when questionable foul calls had Monessen’s veteran leaders on the sidelines.

How could you not pull for this team tonight when they face Lincoln Park? They bucked the trend of private schools dominating WPIAL basketball and have pulled together with a team-first mentality. There are no personalities getting in the way for Monessen. I do attribute that to head coach Joe Salvino, who has led the program to nine WPIAL title games, but the seniors on Monessen’s team have pulled them together and have made eachother believe that they can play with the best.

They will face the best tonight when they face sophomore Maverick Rowan, a Pitt recruit, Ryan Skoranko, a 6-7 senior guard headed to Duquesne, and Elijah Minnie, a 6-9 former Greyhound whose highlight tape is filled with jaw-dropping plays.

The key for Monessen will be to avoid the foul trouble that almost doomed them against Vincentian. Jaden Altomore and Justice Rice were able to bail them out against the Royals, but with those two being incredibly undersized against the Leopards, I don’t see them being able to have the same success at the Palumbo Center.

Gillaspie, Brown and Rawlins will be the key to the game. Gillaspie has silently been one of the most dominating guards in Western Pennsylvania this season and when taking to Lincoln Park’s coaching staff, the lack of respect for him stems from Monessen’s location in the Mon Valley. Teams close to Pittsburgh rarely hear of him and the Leopards learned of his and Brown’s play on Tuesday. There will not be any surprises for Lincoln Park. They fully scouted Tuesday’s game and after losing to a similar Clairton team in last year’s WPIAL semifinals, will enter Palumbo with a chip on their shoulder.

Yes, private schools have the upper hand on public schools, but come tip-off tonight, the debate will end. It will simply be five kids battling five others for a trophy they have coveted since they arrived at high school.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ringgold must act quickly to find head coach

Ringgold QB Nico Law
It has been a tumultuous week for the members of Ringgold’s football team. After a playoff appearance last season, expectations were high and excitement was aplenty for the Rams’ 2014 team.

That changed on Monday when head coach Matt Humbert took the head coaching position at Belle Vernon ­– Ringgold’s bitter rival. It is unknown who will take Humbert’s place on the sidelines, but one thing is for certain, a decision must be made quickly.

Opposing teams will not stop offseason conditioning while Ringgold’s school board makes a decision. With an incredible amount of talent returning, there is pressure to find the perfect replacement for Humbert. In Western Pennsylvania, finding an up and coming coach looking for an opportunity at a Class AAA school should not be difficult.

There is an influx of talent at Ringgold, including quarterback Nico Law, who will be a senior once the season kicks off. Law had a record-setting season in 2013 when he compiled 2,604 total yards and 29 touchdowns. He is one of the top returning talents in Western Pennsylvania.

The Rams’ potential is not limited to Law. Running back Chacar Berry was great last season and will only improve with time. Law did lose his top receivers in Alan Pritchett and Dayshore Majors, but the Ram will have five senior wide receivers in 2014, including Jake Gerard, and plenty of depth on the offensive line.

The school board has its hands full. The athletic director position is open and with the football coach opening, Ringgold has immediately become an intriguing destination for not only a young coach, but an experienced one. Plenty of coaches have succeeded while undertaking both roles and maybe that’s what it takes. It’s always better when the athletic director has a familiarity with the strengths and weaknesses of a school’s athletic programs.

From what I have seen on Twitter, the Rams’ players are frustrated with the recent events, but not discouraged. They plan on continuing their offseason preparation on their own and leaving the details up to the district. It’s great to see them continuing their work without a head coach.

One thing is for certain: the job will be incredibly attractive.

Humbert did a great job building the program up and had the ability to relate to the kids. With the amount of personalities in a locker room, that aspect is important. While his departure came at a tough time, it is just a bump in the road for Ringgold’s football program. Some have asked why would Humbert leave, but let’s not get caught up in his reasoning. The focus is on the future.

While Clairton has the state championships and recent success, they do not have a district that is the size of Ringgold and the Bears do not have Law commanding the huddle. Some see him as too short to play quarterback at the next level, but my advice is to watch him play. He’s an incredible talent and along with his teammates, make Ringgold an immediate contender in the Big Nine Conference.

The ball is in the school district’s court. A search needs to be thorough, but also requires a somewhat speedy conclusion.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monessen ready for shot at Vincentian

Monessen's Justice Rawlins
The WPIAL quarterfinals have come to a close and the semifinals are upon us. None of the matchups are as intriguing as the one in Class A boys basketball. After soundly defeating Wilkinsburg on Friday night, Monessen clinched a spot in the PIAA playoffs and more importantly, earned the right to face Vincentian Academy on Tuesday with a trip to the AJ Palumbo Center on the line.

Vincentian has been the talk of the WPIAL all season with a 22-2 record and a deep roster. Instead of debating on whether private schools have a foot up on the competition, let’s focus on the one public school that emerged from Class A to make the semifinals: Monessen.

The Greyhounds have a plethora of big game experience, including a contingent of football players that spoiled Clairton’s dominant winning streak in the fall.

Clintell Gillaspie has been consistent on both sides of the court and physically, can match up against a guard or a forward.

When I covered Monessen’s football playoff loss to Neshannock, at the conclusion of the game, Justice Rawlins knelt down on one knee in the far end zone; crying with his head in his hands. After defeating Clairton, many expected Monessen to make a deep run in the playoffs. That did not happen, but that loss has this basketball team hungry for a shot at Lincoln Park. Rawlins plays a tenacious brand of basketball by grabbing the tough rebounds and is not shy of displaying emotion. Like his teammates, he is a winner with a massive chip on his shoulder.

They have heard the media talking up Lincoln Park and Vincentian all season long while they dominated the competition in Class A and unseated Uniontown, a Class AAA semifinalist, on the road. On the other hand, the Royals average a Class A-best 90.9 points per game with their lone losses coming against City League runner-up Obama Academy and Summit Academy, which was eliminated in the Class AA semifinals by Seton-La Salle.

The talk has surrounded Gillaspie, Rawlins and the defensive play of Javon Brown, but it is the depth of this Greyhounds team that has gotten them this far. Freshmen Jaden Altomore and Justice Rice are major contributors off the bench, while junior Noah Rullo has relieved Brown during games without the offense skipping a beat.

Let’s skip the details and get down to the question everyone has been asking: can Monessen upset Vincentian? I’ve had multiple members of the media tell me that there is no chance, but my immediate response is always the same: have you seen Monessen play this season?

Greyhounds head coach Joe Salvino has this group ready to wash the bitter taste out of their mouths after that football playoff loss. With WPIAL titles in both Class AA and A, he is familiar with what it takes for a team to win playoff games against top competition. He specifically tailors the non-section schedule to prepare them for this moment. Salvino told me weeks ago that the team wanted to be mentioned with Vincentian and Lincoln Park as the best in Class A. Wish granted.

I took some heat on Twitter this week when I pointed out Uniontown cancelling a rematch with Monessen to finish the regular season, but to be honest with you; I can’t blame them. Why would a Class AAA team that only lost one regular season game walk into a trap to finish the season against a hungry Greyhounds team, on senior night nonetheless? The smart thing was to rest for the post season, although another Uniontown/Monessen game would have been great to see. They know how physically draining games against Monessen are and Vincentian will find that out on Tuesday at Montour High School.

It will take a perfect defensive effort to stop the Royals. Junior guard Ryan Wolf  (24.5 ppg) is a sharpshooter that has to be accounted for, while Jamison Nee and Jay Cortese, who both stand at 6-1, average double figures.

I do think a team with size could give Monessen trouble, but Vincentian does not have that. They have a solid lineup that is very similar to the Greyhounds. Everyone has all but written Lincoln Park into the championship game so the true question is: whom will they play?

"It’s going to come down to who is going to out hustle who," Monessen head coach Joe Salvino said. "One thing Vincentian has is they are probably better outside shooters than we are. I think everyone on their team can shoot threes. We’re going to have to eliminate that, we’re going to have to play good defense and we can’t turn the ball over."
If Monessen hits shots early and frustrates the Royals’ offense, I truly believe it will be the Greyhounds playing for the title on Friday night at Palumbo.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Dunn, Trinity prepares for South Park

Trinity sophomore Mary Dunn

Trinity’s girls basketball team will travel to West Allegheny tomorrow to seek revenge. After losing to South Park twice this season, the Hillers are looking to prevent the Eagles from winning a second-consecutive Class AAA WPIAL title.

It won’t be easy. Trinity’s average margin of defeat against South Park this season is 38 points. The Eagles (19-4) won Section 5; earning them the No. 3 seed in the Class AAA tournament.

South Park’s success has come behind the play of their front court: senior forward Halie Torris and sophomore forward Allison McGrath. The two have combined for 744 total points this season as McGrath is averaging 16.7 per game and Torris has added 16.4 per game.

Both are a tough matchup for opponents with their combination of size, strength and shooting ability. The one advantage Trinity (17-6) has: sophomore center Mary Dunn. Listed at 6-0, but obviously taller, Dunn’s jump shot is rare. She dominated for the Hillers in the team’s 59-53 first round victory over Hampton.

While her post play is still developing, she altered shots and forced the Talbots to switch their best defender to account for her strong first half. That made space for freshman Sierra Kotchman and senior Kelly Korpus. The duo’s perimeter shooting made Hampton pay for switching to man-to-man defense.

South Park is the favorite to reach the WPIAL title game and is seeking the program’s fourth WPIAL title, while Trinity has yet to win the championship game.

The Hillers have their work cut out for them, but with a young, developing lineup, even if Trinity falls short of their goal, there is much to look forward to. That long-awaited WPIAL title won’t be a far-fetched goal in the near future. With the amount of young talent on head coach Bob Miles’ team, the best is yet to come for Trinity girls basketball.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Future is bright for Wash High basketball

Nate Swart and DeQuay Isbell 
Wash High’s season ended on Wednesday night with a 75-65 loss to Summit Academy at West Allegheny High School.

I received shocking news prior to the game that senior guard Dupree Jenkins would not play because of academic issues. It was a huge loss for the Prexies, but more importantly, Jenkins. You could see how badly he wanted the chance to play and I don’t care what team you root for, it’s never a good situation when you see a teenager forced to watch his teammates compete in a playoff game.

Jenkins was unable to play in his final game, which ended in a dramatic defeat. The chip on senior Quorteze Levy’s shoulder got bigger and it showed in his play. He was relentless on the boards and while the shots did not fall the way he had hoped, he left it all out on the court.

The Prexies finished their season with a 17-7 record, which tied for most wins in Washington County with Chartiers-Houston, and the future is extremely bright for Wash High. Once again, a senior class departs for the program and another waive of talent is prepared to fill the void.

Junior DeQuay Isbell was the most improved player for Wash High with his post play becoming more polished and his offensive game steadily improving. At the beginning of the year, I noticed Isbell was too deep in the paint; making it difficult for him to use his 6-2 frame to grab rebounds. Now, his positioning is precise and his rebounding ability keeps getting better.

Sophomore Nate Swart was Wash High’s steady offensive presence all season long. His size allows him to match up against opposing forwards while his outside shooting makes him a nightmare to guard for an inside player.  People rave of his jump shot and for good reason. Like Isbell, it will be exciting to see the strides Swart makes next season.

Junior Jon Spina has proven to be a solid point guard for Wash High. He made several terrific passes tonight and as the quarterback of the Prexies’ football team, is accustomed to assuming a leadership role. That will help next season when the team is without Levy and Jenkins, who were leaders in their own right.

How about Matt Popeck? The freshman hit two huge three-pointers in the second half tonight when he came off the bench. He also showed tremendous skills in other areas of his game, which bodes well for Wash High.

The talent keeps flowing at Wash High and to no surprise. The school has produced top-notch athletes for decades and once again, look for that reputation to become reality on the basketball court next year.

Monday, February 17, 2014

McGuffey ready for lengthy run, a look at WPIAL girls playoff hoops

McGuffey's Sammie Weiss

Whether it be the 25-game section winning streak for McGuffey or the unlikely rise of Ringgold in Class AAA, WPIAL girls basketball has never been more exciting. The talk surrounds Seton-La Salle and Burrell in Class AA, but don't overlook the Highlanders. Sammie Weiss and Rachel Czulewicz will let their play do the talking as McGuffey prepares for a first round matchup with Brentwood.

Class AAA

No. 12 Ringgold (12-9) vs. No. 4 Hopewell (18-3) Weds., Feb. 18 at Chartiers Valley, 6:30 p.m.

The Rams shocked  people on Saturday when they upset South Fayette to claim the 12th seed in the Class AAA tournament. Six-foot-six junior center Marlena Schmidt dominated for Ringgold, while solid guard play kept the Lions at bay. South Fayette hit six three-pointers to stay alive, but timely free throw shooting in the second half sealed the win. When Schmidt grabs five or more rebounds, the Rams are 12-0. When she doesn't, they are winless.

Hopewell does not have a player over 5-10, which will once again make Schmidt a player to watch for the Rams. Shaniya Rivers is averaging 14.6 points per game for the Vikings, who finished in second place behind Blackhawk in Section 2.

No. 11 Trinity (16-6) vs. No. 6 Hampton (14-8) Weds., Feb. 17 at West Allegheny, 6:30 p.m.

One year after missing the playoffs, the Hillers finished as the second place team in Section 5, behind South Park. Trinity has been consistent in Class AAA all season behind the play of two underclassmen: Mary Dunn and Sierra Kotchman.

With wins over Canon-McMillan, Ringgold, Laurel Highlands and North Cathoic, the Hillers are positioned well for the playoffs and most importantly, received a highly coveted break to rest one of its ailing stars. Dunn suffered a mild concussion last week and her status is unknown for Wednesday.

Hampton possesses a deep bench and is led by sophomore guard/forward Lexi Griggs. The Talbots tied for first place in Section 1 with Mars. Hampton reached the WPIAL quarterfinals last year, where they fell to South Park, 69-37.

Class AA

No. 11 Brentwood (14-6) vs. No. 7 McGuffey (19-3) Tues., Feb.18 at Peters Township, 6:30 p .m.

This is not the same McGuffey team as last season. Yes, they still have Washington County’s best girls player, Sammie Weiss, but the Highlanders also have junior point guard Rachel Czulewicz. Teams draw defenders into the lane to stop Weiss, but that often leaves Czulewicz open for uncontested threes. The sharp-shooting quarterback of the McGuffey offense has been the perfect complement for Weiss’ game.

I do think that the Highlanders could have trouble against a team with size, but that won’t be the case with Brentwood.  Look for McGuffey to advance to the quarterfinals, which would likely set up the first great matchup in the WPIAL girls basketball playoffs: the Highlanders vs. No. 2 Burrell.

No. 9 Fort Cherry (15-6) vs. No. 8 Our Lady of Sacred Heart (15-7) Tues., Feb. 18 at Chartiers Valley, 6:30 p.m.

Winners in 12 of their last 14, Fort Cherry is on a roll in Class AA. Led by seniors Rachel Bellhy and Jenna Lucas, the Rangers are looking to reach the WPIAL quarterfinals for a potential matchup with top-ranked Seton-La Salle, who defeated Fort Cherry twice this season.

Bellhy and Lucas form one of the better back courts in Class AA and are athletic enough to match up against any duo. OLSH features a small lineup that, like the Rangers, is only averaging 48 points per game.

The Chargers are one of only two Pennsylvania teams (Belle Vernon) to defeat McGuffey. The Highlanders’ other loss came to St. Mary’s of Massachusetts at the KSA Classic Tournament at the ESPN Sports Complex during Christmas break. OLSH lost in their second game during last year's playoffs to Deer Lakes, 52-43.

No. 12 Washington (14-8) vs. No. 4 Neshannock (21-1) Tues., Feb. 18 at North Hills, 6:30 p.m.

The Lancers are led by one of the WPIAL’s leading scorers, senior guard Madison McHale, who is averaging over 20 points per game for a Neshannock team that lost just one game this season. The champions out of Section 2, the Lancers average 57.3 points per game, but lack a strong non-section win.

Wash High has not really hit their stride this season, but did give McGuffey a good game on Feb. 7 and in their win over Shady Side Academy on Friday, showed that they don’t necessarily rely on perimeter shooting. Mikala Maltony and Tajah Gordon are solid post players for the Prexies. India March is one of the most unheralded players in Class AA with a jump shot that few can replicate.

Class A

No. 16 Carmichaels (8-14) vs. No. 1 Vincentian Academy (18-3) Weds., Feb. 19 at Keystone Oaks, 6:30 p.m.

The Mikes earned the right to face top-ranked Vincentian with a 41-37 preliminary round victory over Monessen on Saturday. Carmichaels is no stranger to the playoffs. Head coach Jim Lane’s teams have reached the postseason in 14 of his 17 seasons as the bench boss of the Mikes. Amanda Brown and Caroline Cree are the leaders for Carmichaels.

Much has been written about both the boys and girls programs at Vincentian. The Royals, led by junior forward Brenna Wise (18.6 ppg), had already clinched their section when they suffered their first loss to a Class A opponent - North Catholic. Torrionna Cash (10.8 ppg) is also a major factor for Vincentian’s offense.

No. 10 Aliquippa (12-10) vs. No. 7 Avella (15-7) Weds., Feb. 19 at Moon, 6:30 p.m.

Jim Matalik has done it again. In 15 years as the head man at Avella, his teams have reached the playoffs 14 times. This time around, the Eagles are led by senior guard/forward Kenna Drazich. The second place team out of Section 3-A, Avella has been overlooked because of the surprising play of their biggest rival and section champion, California. The team’s biggest non-section win came Dec. 10 over Sewickley Academy.

Aliquippa, the third-place team in Section 1, is led by junior forward Ciara Clark (13.3 ppg) and freshman guard Queenisa Gilbert (10.1 ppg).