Cager Classic remains signature event for A-K Valley
Organizers of the Cager Classic briefly considered ending the annual basketball all-star game after it celebrated its 10th birthday in 2006.
Similar thoughts didn't materialize after the 20th anniversary last spring.
Thus the Cager Classic, which brings together the top senior basketball players from the Alle-Kiski Valley and surrounding areas, will return for its 21st iteration Saturday at Highlands, with 50 players participating.
“The nature of the event and the excitement of the kids, the enthusiasm of the kids and the appreciation of the kids really is what keeps us going and motivated,” Cager committee member and game announcer Bill Heasley said. “It's a lot of work ... but you can just see it in the kids' eyes. When it's all said and done, after all that work and all that effort, you end up thinking, ‘Man, this was nice.' ”
The Cager serves as the capper to the local basketball season, giving seniors a final send-off. For some, it represents their last high school basketball game. For others, it's a prelude to college basketball.
“The vast majority don't (play in college),” Heasley said. “This is their last hurrah, so to speak. And so I think that's why the kids like it so much and want to be a part of it so much, because they have one more chance to step on that floor.”
That includes Kim Mixon, the only senior from the Freeport girls team, who will play soccer at Pitt-Johnstown. Mixon helped lead the Yellowjackets to the PIAA playoffs for the first time since 2004.
“It's crazy to think that the state game was the last game I played in, but the fact that I'm getting the opportunity to play another game like this, even though it's just for fun, is going to be awesome,” Mixon said. “I'm really happy that I'm able to do that, and I think it's going to be a really cool opportunity.”
Mixon said she attended last season's Cager to support former teammate Zoe Soilis and expects some of the younger Yellowjackets will be in the stands Saturday.
Highlands senior Ryan Boda estimated he had gone to four or five Cagers before getting selected to the West boys team this season.
“I've always dreamed of it,” Boda said. “I thought my senior year I would get a chance to play in it with some of my teammates and just go at it with the best players in the A-K Valley.”
A pair of Boda's Highlands teammates, Mitch DeZort and Brayden Thimons, will join him on the West squad.
But the Cager also teams up rivals. Not often do you see Burrell partner with Valley, Riverview with Springdale or Highlands with Mars, but it happens in the Cager.
Many of the players also know each other from AAU basketball, where they played with and against each other.
“Austin Hannes from Knoch, me and him are pretty cool,” Boda said. “We played AAU together, and when we stayed in hotels, we stayed with each other. We became close. Other people, like Antonio Ionadi from Hampton, it's going to be cool to play with him and just be on the same team as him because you don't like to be on the other side of the ball as him.”
Added Mixon: “Obviously, I played against these girls in the regular season, and I just think it's cool to get a chance to actually play with them than against them.”
The Cager festivities begin Thursday when the teams practice together for the first time. Friday brings the skills contests — featuring individual and coed hot-shot competitions, as well as a 3-point shootout — and the games are Saturday.
The atmosphere is laid-back. Two seasons ago the boys game saw a record number of 3-pointers as the East beat the West, 110-109.
Last season, the East girls beat the West, 68-63, behind the MVP performance of Riverview's Sadie Buchser, and Mars' Christian Schmitt and John Castello starred as the West boys rolled to a 109-82 victory.
What's in store for this season? Boda teased the possibility of a half-court shot a la LaMelo Ball — the younger brother of UCLA star Lonzo Ball.
Heasley, the announcer, said he enjoys the pregame introductions: not for his own opportunity to speak but for the spotlight it puts on the players and their accomplishments.
“They're the center of attention when they come through that arch (at half court),” Heasley said. “All the attention's on them, and it's special. The games are fun. They have a good time.”