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Cager Classic turns 15

From a simple idea in a small room to producing standing-room-only crowds, the Cager Classic has soared since its inception in 1997.

It was in the quiet confines of B&J Sports in Natrona Heights where founders Glenn Mills, Gary Miller and Doug Scholl came up with the idea -- and funds -- to construct the Alle-Kiski Valley's postseason basketball showcase for senior players. And 14 years later, it remains a staple in the local basketball season.

The tradition will continue this weekend when the 15th annual A-K Valley Cager Classic senior all-star games are played Saturday at Highlands High School.

"After the first year or two, we really thought we had something," Mills said. "We've had some new guys come in and help over the years, but we all worked for a common goal."

The teams -- East and West, chosen according to schools' sides of the Allegheny River -- will practice together Thursday night. The annual skills competition, with 3-point and hot-shot contests, will be at 7 p.m. Friday.

The all-star games themselves will be at 6 p.m. (girls) and 8 (boys) on Saturday.

The Cager seems to have gained strength over time.

"The Cager Classic means everything to the A-K Valley. It gives the basketball fans of the communities one more chance to cheer on their team," said Highlands' Shawn Bennis, who will coach the West boys. "This event brings seniors who used to compete against each other in junior high one more shot for bragging rights."

The other coaches are Highlands' Meghan Ziemianski (West girls), Kittanning's Janelle Kotyk (East girls) and Harry Rideout of Kiski Area (East boys).

Little has changed in a decade and a half of the Cager. The games seemingly have gotten more exciting -- the boys games produce NBA-type scores -- and crowds larger.

The high-scoring games have been competitive, to say the least. Both the boys and girls East-West series are tied, 7-7.

The players enjoy the experience of playing one last game at the prep level.

"It's my first all-star game ever," said Plum's Lindsay Deemer, a Marietta recruit who will play for the East. "It's a big show the way they introduce you and things, and I'm looking forward playing with some girls that I might have played against. I never really got to play in front of a big crowd since the girls teams don't draw that well, so that will be fun too."

Although Miller and Scholl stepped aside in 2006, Mills and his staff continue to provide an "all-star weekend" setting for local hoops junkies.

"The last time I coached the Classic was the inception year," said Bennis, who served as an assistant with then-West head coach Rich Falter in '97. "I can remember how proud all of the players were to have one more opportunity to shine. Also, I can remember the Highlands gymnasium was packed with well-wishers and fanatics."

The Cager has a considerable cast of volunteers, from former Highlands athletic director Bill Heasley, to Tracy Edwards, Kerry Kordes, John Mason and Ken Elliott, to the ball boys and girls and others.

An event that lasts roughly three nights -- including team practices, the skills contests and the games -- takes months of planning.

"We meet at the store, and guys do a lot of behind-the-scenes work," Mills said. "We have had great support from the Highlands School District. Ninety percent of our ads (in the program) are from Tarentum and Brackenridge. For three days, Highlands is ours."

Mills said despite the fact the Cager invites players from 21 schools in and around the Valley, the committee never has considered moving the event to a school other than Highlands.

"It's a joy to work with Highlands," Mills said. "We give to the library fund because of what they do for us. They don't charge us a dime. With the way they treat us, we wouldn't think to go anywhere else."

The Cager awards $500 essay scholarships annually and gives players a gift bag, complete with a game uniform.

Countless letters from former players, parents and casual fans have been sent to the Cager committee over the years.

The game represents a family affair for many of the players, whose brothers, sisters or cousins played in Cagers past.

Springdale's Bill Arch, for instance, is the third brother in his family to play in the event -- Ray and Greg were the others.

In honor of the 15-year anniversary of the Cager, Mills said officials may use a red, white and blue ball for Saturday's games.

No matter the shade of the ball, the fans will cheer and the players will put on a show.

"One thing to ponder," Bennis said. "Have you ever heard a boo at the Cager Classic?"

Cager Classic

The 15th annual Cager Classic all-star basketball games take place this weekend.

» March 26, Highlands High School

» 6 p.m. girls game; 8 p.m. boys game.

» Tickets: $4 students; $6 adults. Available at B&J Sports, Natrona Heights (724-226-2762).

» Skills competition, 7 p.m. Friday

Rosters

East boys

Zach Barker, Kiski Area

Anthony DiCarolis, Valley

Geoff Fuquay, Valley

Cooper Handelsman, Shady Side Academy

Ken Kruszka, Plum

Kyler Martin, Apollo-Ridge

Caleb Orendi, Leechburg

Zac Shybloski, Burrell

Garrett Sigler, Ford City

Nathan Stolitza, Kittanning

Brandon Wilhelm, Riverview

Shane Wingard, Apollo-Ridge

West boys

Bill Arch, Springdale

Kevin Bair, Cheswick Christian

Andrae Boone, Highlands

Jake Campbell, Freeport

Zac Capan, Deer Lakes

Brendan Duquette, Fox Chapel

Seth Goheen, Highlands

Brian Heinle, St. Joseph

Nathan Junk, Knoch

Christian Locher, Mars

Alex Schneider, Hampton

Brad Weischedel, Mars

East girls

Anne Brady, Leechburg

Lindsay Deemer, Plum

Delaney Fischer, Shady Side Academy

Mariah Hudzick, Valley

Danielle Konopski, Burrell

Leah McKelvey, Kittanning

Celena Meighan, Kiski Area

Sara Ohm, Kittanning

Ashlee Panchik, Ford City

Maggi Russo, Ford City

Beth Schrecengost, Apollo-Ridge

West girls

Nikki Blake, Freeport

Anna Christy, Freeport

Carly Clark, Mars

Heather Cooper, Knoch

Shannon Dugan, Deer Lakes

Abby Hetrick, Highlands

Megan Kohan, Deer Lakes

Alexa Lee, Mars

Lindsey McKamish, Fox Chapel

Brandy Nickoloff, St. Joseph

Jess Udanis, Springdale

Maggie White, Hampton

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