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PSNK men's basketball team aims for turnaround under new coach

| Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, 12:31 a.m.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
PSNK men's basketball coach Art McCray calls a play during a game against Pitt-Johnstown on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, at PSNK Athletic Center.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
PSNK forward Shaquille Hager (left) goes to the hoop against Pitt-Johnstown's AJ Leahey in action Thursday, November 14, 2013 at PSNK Athletic Center.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Penn State New Kensington 5-foot-5 guard Jordan Williams (left) gets tangled up with Pitt Johnstown guard and Plum graduate Andrew Cressler on his way to the hoop, during action Thursday, November 14, 2013 at PSNK Athletic Center.
Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
PSNK guard Zack Ziemianski (left) drives past a Pitt-Johnstown defender on his way to the hoop, in action Thursday, November 14, 2013 at PSNK Athletic Center.

When Art McCray was the boys basketball coach at Summit Academy, he kept the playbook simple. Really simple.

He not only took the heavy-thinking aspect out of practices, but he also saved money on dry-erase markers.

“My first year there, we ran one play all season,” McCray said. “And that got us into the playoffs.”

McCray will bring a more involved approach to Penn State New Kensington, where the first-year coach has four returning starters and deep bench.

A former forward at PSNK, McCray is trying to turn around a program shadowed by five straight losing seasons.

“I expect for this team to compete on a higher level than in the past,” McCray said. “When I played here, basketball was huge. People packed the stands.

“We want to bring out both sides of bleachers because we have to.”

The local Lions haven't had a winning season since 2007-08, when they went 22-6 and reached the national tournament under coach Ryan Shank.

Last year's team finished 1-17 and lost by an average of 31 points per game. Then-22-year-old assistant Joe Mandak coached the team for the final seven games when Doug Schneider resigned after two-plus seasons.

And as if the losing isn't motivation enough, the Lions were picked to finish one spot from the bottom in the 14-team Penn State University Athletic Conference Coach's poll.

With experienced players, most of whom admit they're tired of losing, McCray has a motivated group, laced with a mix of guards and forwards. That means the Lions could run pass-and-cuts one minute and sprint the floor the next.

“We'll get up and down or slow it down. We'll find our identity,” he said. “There might be times when you see five guards out there. I want players who go two minutes hard versus someone being in all game and doing nothing.”

Top returning players are 6-foot-5 sophomore power forward Shaquille Hager, sophomore guard Rashon Boone, who played for McCray at Summit, and junior guards Daryl Harrington and Dom Strapac (Leechburg).

“Things are better now than in the past,” Hager said. “It comes down to having confidence and being comfortable.”

Harrington also is embracing the fresher environment.

“You can see a change with what coach McCray has brought in,” Harrington said. “We're like a brotherhood. Before, you had guys in different groups. Now we're all together.”

McCray expects sophomore guards Lou Payne and Zack Ziemianski, a 26-year-old Burrell graduate making his second go-around with the program, to be backcourt leaders. Ziemianski was the point guard on the 2008 team. But he hasn't played competitively since.

“As a guard, you already kind of take on that (leadership) role,” Ziemianski said. “And playing again is like riding a bike.”

Also look for contributions from freshman guards Van Lee and Jordan Williams and 6-foot-4 freshman forward Matt Sutton.

The team should benefit from the return of 6-5 freshman Gian Karlo-Molina, an Upper St. Clair graduate from Puerto Rico, who will play the second semester after recovering from a knee injury.

PSNK, which played an exhibition against Pitt-Johnstown on Thursday and fell 91-47, opens the season Thursday at home against CCAC-Boyce, which has basketball again after a 20-year hiatus.

Dave Devenzio, a Springdale native, coaches CCAC-Boyce.

An enhanced schedule includes an appearance in the Carnegie Mellon Invitational and nonconference games at Edinboro and Slippery Rock.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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