Sunday, March 23, 2014

The WPIAL's strength is not limited to football

When I took this job at the Observer-Reporter, many warned me that the excitement in Western Pennsylvania’s high school sports was limited to football season. Coming from Northeast Ohio, where LeBron James’ success at Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron dominated the sports landscape, people thought the WPIAL’s basketball could not compare to the reputation James built. Well, after covering and watching plenty of basketball this season, including WPIAL title games, I beg to differ.

I’ve had the pleasure of covering some great athletes and witnessing remarkable achievements. Yes, there is not a LeBron James in the WPIAL, but talents like that don’t come along too often. As the NCAA Tournament is reaching the round of sixteen, there are more former WPIAL players having success than ones from Ohio.

Players like Arizona’s T.J. McConnell  (Arizona) and Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane (The Patterson School) are more likely to reach NCAA greatness this season than any player hailing from the Buckeye State. That’s not bashing Ohio. I was blessed to cover some great athletes there, but WPIAL high school sports are vastly underrated. I would pit every championship team from District 7 against Ohio’s best any day and that has truly made my job a pleasure.  Lincoln Park and New Castle would claim both Ohio and Pennsylvania’s state titles, if given the chance.

When I reflect on the excitement of high school sports in the area, I remember a conversation I had with USA junior hockey gold medalist Riley Barber’s father, Don, who played in the National Hockey League. Don said it best when I asked him about amateur athletics in the Pittsburgh area: “There must be something in the water. From football to basketball, there is not a better area for high school sports.” Touché’, Don.

Anyone doubting the WPIAL’s talent in basketball should have attended the basketball championship games at the Palumbo Center. From Elijah Minnie’s reverse put back dunk to Central Valley’s historic victory over Chartiers Valley in the Class AAA title game; there was plenty of talent on display.

I still keep in touch with some Ohio-based reporters I worked with during my college years and every one has been cautiously accepting of my praise for the WPIAL. Yes, they’ve seen the football talent, but could not believe my praise for the basketball around Pittsburgh. I’ll put it this way. I covered a Mid-American Conference men’s basketball championship game at the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Quicken Loans and I saw more talent at the Class A and AAA WPIAL title games than watching Akron clinch a bid to the NCAA Tournament. There are a few players for While some dismissed them because of the 44-point loss to Lincoln Park in the Class A championship game, even Monessen had a few players could play basketball at the next level if they chose to do so, but they are playing college football instead.

The talent is here and it always will be. Watching McConnell and Kane gain national attention only reinforces that; and with players like Lincoln Park’s Maverick Rowan waiting for their turn, the WPIAL’s strength in basketball is not going anywhere anytime soon.

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