Scoring standouts dot girls, boys rosters for annual Cager Classic
Competition ramps up sometimes at Eliza Oswalt's AAU basketball practices — especially when recent graduates come to play against their younger counterparts.
“They're always ready to play, so when we would play, it would just be a crazy, competitive game and everybody would be playing like it's the WPIAL finals,” Oswalt said.
Given that experience, the Burrell senior expects no different when she plays in the 21st annual Cager Classic All-Star Basketball Game on Saturday at Highlands.
AAU basketball frequently brings together top players, and the Cager does likewise with players from the Alle-Kiski Valley and surrounding areas. This year's group looks especially deep, with nine players who surpassed 1,000 points in their high school careers.
“There's a lot of shooters, and with the contests and everything on Friday, I'm sure that'll be competitive,” said Oswalt, a Mercyhurst recruit who passed 1,000 points in Burrell's first-round playoff loss to South Park. “Everyone is going to be dishing it to each other, and hopefully everybody is going to be scoring.”
The list of 1,000-point scorers in the Cager includes Oswalt on the East girls; Highlands' Nicole Boda and Ashlyn Jonczak and St. Joseph's Lizzy Celko on the West girls; Burrell's Max Garda and Riverview's Nico Sero on the East boys; and Highlands' Mitch DeZort, Hampton's Antonio Ionadi and Cheswick Christian's Ben Pollock on the West boys.
Jonczak and Sero finished their careers as their schools' all-time leading scorers, Ionadi surpassed 1,500 — second all-time at Hampton behind current Pitt player Ryan Luther — and DeZort had close to 1,500.
“I think it'll be real interesting to see how things pan out,” DeZort said. “It'll be unique to see how everyone matches up with each other.”
Typically the Cager games become high-scoring, especially on the boys side. The boys broke the Cager record for 3-pointers with 33 in a 110-109 East victory in 2015. The year before that the boys teams combined for a record 221 points in a 112-109 West victory.
Teams have surpassed 100 points 17 times — with at least one team reaching the mark each of the past three seasons.
“It's going to be fast,” said the 6-foot-10 Pollock, who posted more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his Cheswick Christian career. “I'll see how I handle it. I'm not sure yet.”
With just one team practice before the game, the play becomes more free-flowing and fast-paced.
“When you just go to play pickup and stuff, instead of making these plays and working on defenses, I think it's going to be more of, OK, let's go out and play basketball — no thinking, just play,” Oswalt said. “Even if I'm not familiar with the girls I'm actually playing with, it won't really matter because everyone's here for the same purpose. We're here to have fun.”
Said Ionadi: “We have a lot of great scorers on our team, just from playing against them. It should be a high-scoring, fun game. I think both teams are going to enjoy it.”
Kiski Area coach Joey Tutchstone, coaching the East boys Saturday, led one of the top defenses in Class 5A this season. The Cavaliers gave up 47.5 points a game and held 10 opponents to 40 points or fewer.
But even Tutchstone has no plans for a grind-it-out contest Saturday.
“They all know how to play; they're all here for a reason,” Tutchstone said. “We're going to kind of roll the ball out and let them play a fun style. They don't want to play the way Kiski plays — we're switching it up. With guys who can put the ball in the hoop, we're going to open it up and put pressure on the defense and try to score quick.”
As competitive as the players expect the game to become, they don't think they'll run into any problems with someone shooting too much. Experience with AAU helps in that regard.
“We all are big-time scorers, but also all those people who are in the 1,000-point club or close to it I've played with before,” Jonczak said. “There's never been a problem before. I feel we'll all work together pretty well.”