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Highlands' DeZort, Leechburg's Lovelace named Valley News Dispatch Basketball Players of the Year

| Saturday, April 1, 2017, 11:15 p.m.
Barry Reeger | For The Tribune-Review
Highlands' Mitch Dezort shoots against Penn Hills defenders Chavar Williamson #21 and Davion Stephens during their game at “The Shootout at Seton Hill” in Greensburg on Saturday Jan. 21, 2017. Penn Hills defeated Highlands 67-59.
Barry Reeger | For The Tribune-Review
Highlands' Mitch Dezort reverses a layup as Penn Hills defenders Chavar Williamson #21 and Davion Stephens #4 and Julian Bennett look on during their game at “The Shootout at Seton Hill” in Greensburg on Saturday Jan. 21, 2017. Penn Hills defeated Highlands 67-59.
Steph Chambers | Tribune-Review
Highlands’ Mitch Dezort has his shot blocked by Laurel Highlands during a WPIAL playoff game at Norwin High School in North Huntingdon, Pa. on Tuesday Feb. 21, 2017. Laurel Highlands won 49-48.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Mikayla Lovelace shoots in a crowd of OLSH players during the PIAA Class 2A Playoffs at Canon-McMillian High School on Thursday, March 16, 2017. The Blue Devils loss the game, 51-36.
Barry Reeger | For The Tribune-Review
Chartiers-Houston's Jala Walker battles Leechburg's Mikayla Lovelace for a loose ball during their WPIAL Class 2-A Girl Basketball quarterfinal on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 at Northgate High School. Chartiers-Houston defeated Leechburg 60-44.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
Leechburg's Mikayla Lovelace dives after a loose ball during practice Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Freeport's Ben Beale grabs a rebound during the game against Valley on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Springdale's Sammy Carey keeps the ball away from Leechburg's Cory Nulph as he drives to the hoop during the WPIAL Boys Class 2A Section 1 game at Springdale Jr/Sr High School on Friday, Feb. 3, 2017.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Burrell's Max Garda scores past North Catholic's Isaiah Wilson during first round AAA boys WPIAL action Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017 at North Hills High School.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
Cheswick Christian Academy's Ben Pollock during the basketball game against Saint Joseph on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2016.
Jan Pakler | For the Tribune-Review
Riverview guard Nico Sero smacks the ball to a teammate during the fourth quarter against Springdale on Friday, Feb. 10, 2017.
Ken Reabe Jr. | For The Tribune-Review
St. Joseph's Lizzy Celko (22) drives into the lane around Berlin Brothersvalley's Zoie Smith (32) early in the fourth quarter in the first round of the PIAA Class A playoffs on Saturday, March 11, 2017, at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Berlin Brothersvalley won 55-46.
Michael Swensen | For the Tribune-Reivew
Highlands No. 20, Ashlyn Jonczak, drives for a layup in the first half of the game at Highlands High School. Monday, Dec. 19, 2016.
Ken Reabe Jr. | For The Tribune-Review
St. Joseph's Alex Jones (1) chases down a loose ball in front of Berlin Brothersvalley's Zoie Smith (32) during the third quarter in the first round of the PIAA Class A playoffs on Saturday, March 11, 2017, at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Berlin Brothersvalley won 55-46.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Blackhawk's Tailyn Silver fouls Freeport's Jenna Manke during 4-A girls first round action Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 at North Allegheny.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
Burrell’s Eliza Oswalt flies through the air as she scores past Freeport’s Ashley Sullivan (24) and Sidney Shemanski (22) during the fourth quarter of the basketball game at Burrell High School on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017.
Erica Dietz | For the Tribune-Review
Freeport’s Ben Beale attempts to score past Valley’s Nijal Rogers (23) and Justice Ray (10) during the second period of the basketball game at Valley High School on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Riverview's Nico Sero practices Dec. 1, 2016, at Riverview.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Burrell's Max Garda shoots free throws during a practice at the school on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Freeport's Jenna Manke shoots between Blackhawk defenders during 4-A girls first round action Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 at North Allegheny.
Ken Reabe Jr. | For The Tribune-Review
St. Joseph's Alex Jones takes a 3-point shot during the first quarter against Berlin Brothersvalley in the first round of the PIAA Class A playoffs on Saturday, March 11, 2017, at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Berlin Brothersvalley won 55-46.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Highlands Mitch DeZort scores in the paint against Franklin Regional's Nate Lepold during the game at Highlands High School on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017.The Rams lost the game, 84-81.
Ken Reabe Jr. | For The Tribune-Review
St. Joseph's Lizzy Celko (right) drives to the basket and scores over Berlin Brothersvalley's Zoie Smith during the third quarter in the first round of the PIAA Class A playoffs on Saturday, March 11, 2017, at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. Berlin Brothersvalley won 55-46.

Highlands' Mitch DeZort and Leechburg's Mikayla Lovelace have been selected as the Valley News Dispatch's Basketball Players of the Year.

Mitch DeZort

Highlands, 6-1, SR., Guard

Mitch DeZort counts among his hobbies the hidden talents of cooking and cutting hair.

The prospective business major probably wouldn't want to combine those should he decide to make one his profession after college. But DeZort's on-court mix worked much better.

A basketball and football star at Highlands — recruited by colleges for both sports — DeZort put his linebacker skills to great use on the hardwood, playing a hard-charging, tenacious style. He combined a strong outside stroke with the ability to drive to the hoop and get fouled.

After transferring to Highlands from Central Catholic as a sophomore, DeZort helped the Golden Rams reach the postseason in three consecutive years — including a WPIAL runner-up finish and PIAA quarterfinal run in 2016.

As a senior, DeZort averaged 21.5 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists before Highlands bowed out in the first round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs. He finished with nearly 1,500 career points.

DeZort, who plans to play basketball in college, is the choice for the Valley News Dispatch's Boys Basketball Player of the Year, with Freeport's Ben Beale and Cheswick Christian's Ben Pollock also drawing consideration.

Looking back, how do you view the season?

It definitely wasn't the season that we wanted. We didn't go as far as we wanted. But I had a bunch of fun playing with all my friends and all my teammates, and the great journey we've had since I got there in 10th grade. We really had a good time playing with each other and growing as friends and teammates. We made some runs that people didn't think we were going to make and some wins that people didn't think we were going to win.

What do you want to be remembered for at Highlands?

Just a guy who works real hard in the classroom along with working real hard on the court and the field. I kind of try to mold myself as a role model for the younger kids, not only being a jock or an athlete, but also achieve a lot of high honors in the classroom, as well. That's what I tell a lot of the younger kids.

What's one thing people don't know about you, outside of sports?

I've got a couple. I really like to go out and eat, and I actually really enjoy cutting hair. I have a bunch of clippers; I cut R.J. (Rieger's) and some of the guys on the team. I watched a ton of YouTube videos on it. My dad showed me the basics, but I got into it. I got some real expensive blades for Christmas. And I can cook well.

What's your specialty?

I'd probably say my rigatoni with blush sauce. It's like an Alfredo and a red pesto mix. Capri (Pizza) in Natrona Heights has a really good one. That's where I first had it, and I try to imitate it.

What was your best Highlands memory?

Probably beating New Castle (in the 2016 WPIAL semifinals). That was a big deal for us. Before that, before we went to the WPIAL championship that year, I don't think they went since (2009). Our 2017 class really kind of turning the program around, ever since that last year they went, they didn't have too many successful seasons. They'd make the playoffs, but nothing really too big until we were brought up in the program and got to the WPIAL championship game and got us to the furthest ever for school history in the state playoffs. That was a good memory for us, especially for us being the core guys, our 2017 class. Also one of my favorite memories is being MVP of the WPIAL championship game last year and taking my team to the state quarterfinals, finishing No. 7 in the state. Also, I'm very excited about this elite PA vs. Ohio All-Star Game (the Rising Stars Basketball Challenge) and the Roundball Classic. I am the only one from the Valley playing in the PA vs. Ohio game.

What was it like playing at the Pete (in the 2016 WPIAL championship game)?

It was really exciting. You could tell everyone's adrenaline was just going. It was a real big stage. We had never played on anything like that before, but it was a lot of fun. (It was) really cool and interesting looking up at the stands, looking to the side of us and seeing the whole school there supporting us and looking behind our bench and seeing everybody who's really been to a game of yours all there. I had some grandparents, obviously my parents, all my siblings, family, friends — people who train you, this, that an the other. And then there's people where you look up there and wouldn't expect being there, sitting up there and watching the game. I thought that was really cool.

What's your best attribute on the court?

Probably transition, meaning transition 3s, transition layups, just transition playmaking in general — looking one way and passing the other way.

How's the school search going?

It's going real good. I'm declining my football offers; I'm wanting to play basketball. I'm waiting to get accepted to Case Western, and I already got accepted to John Carroll.

Those are the two you're considering?

Yeah, specifically mainly for the reason that a lot of my football offers were Columbia — that's all the way in Manhattan — St. Anselm — that's all the way in New Hampshire — Wagner University — that's all the way in Manhattan, too. A lot of the offers were six, seven hours away. I have a younger sister (in sixth grade) that will be real competitive in basketball, and I didn't want to ever really miss any of those games. We're trying to stay within driving distance so we can make all those games.

How's your NCAA bracket doing?

It was doing good until the Elite Eight. I was in a bracket contest with a lot of players from the Cager. … I think I was No. 2 out of 50-plus people, but then the Elite Eight came around, and it got real messed up there.

Who did you have winning it?

I had UCLA winning it; I thought they were going to win it for sure, but they lost a couple weeks ago.

Now who do you think will win?

It's always a mess; I have no idea. I'd probably right now say UNC.

Who wins in a team-wide game of HORSE?

I'd probably say R.J. (Rieger). He's always doing some type of crazy shot. He's got the touch of the ball with crazy shots. He's always playing around at my house or whatever. I think I'd get up right around there. My favorite shot's from behind the hoop over the backboard. That hits a lot of people.

Favorite basketball team and player?

I'd probably say last year's Yale basketball team. Favorite college player forever was Jimmer Fredette.

Favorite basketball movie?

"Coach Carter."

What's your No. 1 restaurant?

I really like Ichiban down in Fox Chapel; I always get hibachi steak there. I'm actually in the process of trying to buy a hibachi grill for myself to try to imitate it.

Three words to describe you?

Intelligent, driven and passionate.

Boys all-stars

First team

Ben Beale


6-2, JR., Guard/Forward

First-year starter led playoff team with 16.1 ppg. He hit 62 3-pointers, none bigger than a buzzer-beater to defeat section champion Indiana.

Sammy Carey


6-4, SR, Guard/Forward

Dynamic wing player led Springdale with 18.4 points and nearly 10 rebounds per contest. He topped 20 points in a game 10 times and 30 points once.

Max Garda


5-10, SR., Guard

Four-year starter at point led Burrell with 16.4 points and 5 assists per game. He helped Bucs rally from a 1-10 start to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2014.

Ben Pollock

Cheswick Christian

6-10, SR., Center

The biggest man in the A-K Valley made double-doubles and triple-doubles routine, averaging 28.9 points, 18.2 rebounds and 6 blocks. He set numerous school records.



5-10, SR., Guard

Prolific scorer led inexperienced Raiders team with 24.2 ppg. In final week alone, he broke Ben Erdeljac's school career points record and the single-game mark, finishing with 1,413 in his career.

Second team

Jon Bracy

Kiski Area, 6-3, SR., F

He led playoff qualifiers with 12.5 ppg, shooting 60 percent from field.

J.B. Burtick

Leechburg, 5-7, SR., G

Strong outside shooter scored 13.7 ppg and was named team MVP.

Jack Farrell

St. Joseph, 5-9, Sr., G

Senior averaged 12.3 ppg and shot 40 percent from outside.

Evan Schaffhauser

Freeport, 6-2, SR., F

Tallest starter averaged over 13 ppg, 7 boards.

Brayden Thimons

Highlands, 6-4, SR., F

Physical post averaged 10.4 ppg, 9.4 rebounds.

girls second team

Nicole Boda

Highlands, 5-7, SR., G

She led team with 15 ppg and surpassed 1,000 career points.

Third team

Noah Darsie

Deer Lakes

5-10, Sr., G

Daniel Fábregas

St. Joseph

5-7, SO., G

Christian Hack


5-11, JR., G

Dru Stokes


5-10, SR., G

Mike Zolnierczyk


6-3, SR., G

Mikayla Lovelace

Leechburg, 5-10, JR., Guard/Forward

Mikayla Lovelace has a favorite spot in Leechburg — not a restaurant, not a store, not a park.

"The gym," she said, meaning Leechburg's high school gymnasium.

So it was little surprise Lovelace found herself there last week on a warm night in late March. That type of night is nothing new for Lovelace, who continually works with her father throughout the season and offseason, and the dedication to her craft is paying off.

Lovelace averaged a team-high 23 points and 7.5 rebounds, surpassing 1,000 career points with a school-record 43-point game in December.

She also led Leechburg to unprecedented team heights: the first WPIAL playoff victory in school history, the first PIAA playoff appearance and the first state playoff win.

For the individual and team success, Lovelace is the choice as the Valley News Dispatch's Girls Basketball Player of the Year. St. Joseph senior Lizzy Celko also was considered.

Still just a junior, Lovelace already has a scholarship offer from IUP and is receiving Division I interest from Columbia, Cornell, North Carolina A&T and Stony Brook.

Another year like this one as a senior — and Leechburg returns all of its starters — and Lovelace likely will make a college gym her new favorite place.

How would you describe the playoff run?

It was fun. We had a lot of praise and love from our community, who we really appreciated. It was just a good time. It was a very humbling experience. We were very excited for it.

How much would you say you've grown since your freshman year?

I think I'm growing a jump shot. I know my first year and a half, I stuck to only driving to the hoop and didn't have much of an outside game. My dad and I have been working on shooting it in a game. We would work on my shot but in the game I would never shoot it, so this year I worked a lot on my 3-point game or stepback jumpers.

How much basketball do you watch?

I'm more of a college (person). My favorite team is Duke, so I've watched every game this season. Unfortunately, I can't watch them in the national championship this season, but I just like to watch college basketball. I just like the way they play, and it's just really fun to watch. I watch some NBA, but not too much. I like to watch LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, and I used to like to watch Derrick Rose, but he doesn't play as much anymore.

You're No. 1 in your class. What's your favorite subject?

I think I'm more into science and math. I like chemistry, and I'm starting to like calculus this year. It was a little more difficult for me than usual, but I'm starting to like it now.

How do you look back on the season?

I think we played really well with the short numbers we had. We're bonding well together, so I'm really excited for the upcoming season.

What was the best moment?

Probably winning the first (WPIAL) playoff game. I know last year we came really close to winning, and just to finally get our first one was very exciting.

Any specific moment stick out?

When we played Coudersport our first state playoff game, Brittany Robilio made this amazing play behind her back, finishing left-handed toward the end of the game. That was really a momentum-changer because we didn't expect her to do that. It was an amazing move.

How much can you build on that run going into next year?

We're also getting Hannah Berry back (from injury), so at least we get one more player who has experience in a playoff run because she was in the playoffs with us last year. (Freshman) Maddie Ancosky is going to come back a lot more confident because last year was her first year. We're going to keep Cam (Davies) and Brittany (Robilio) as shooters, Makenzie (Fello) is going to be just as aggressive as she was, and Daesha (Knight) is going to be a very strong rebounder and the best defensive player we have. We're really excited for this year.

What's the best part of your game?

I would say my moves to the hoop. I just think that's basically worked since I was younger, so I'm getting more confident driving to the hoop.

What are the biggest things you still need to work on?

I think I need to work on my defense. I know off-the-ball defense, when I'm in help, I need to work on that, and I still need to work on my jump shot a lot.

What was it like getting to 1,000 points?

It was humbling. When I got my 1,000th point, we were losing that game, so it wasn't as fun as it could have been. But we ended up winning, so it ended up really good. It was just exciting to see all the hard work I've put in finally paid off.

Have you given any thought to playing in college?

I want to play in college, but I'm not entirely sure where. IUP gave me an offer, and a couple other Division I schools are looking at me but haven't offered me yet.

Who's your favorite player?

I'd either have to say Russell Westbrook or LeBron James. Just how much intensity they put into the game and how hard they play every night, just the way they attack the hoop. They just do everything.

So are you a Duke fan because they're the Blue Devils, or is there another reason?

I think I started watching them the year before they won the national championship in 2010. Ever since, I just watch them. I just really like the way they play. I really like Coach K's coaching.

How do you feel about Grayson Allen?

I personally like him. I know there's a little backlash over the past tripping accidents, but he's a very good player.

How does your March Madness bracket look, and who do you think will win the NCAA title now?

It's bad. I had Duke winning it all, and my other ones I had like Kentucky and UCLA. My final four was Duke, Arizona, UCLA and Kansas. And I think South Carolina will win since they beat Duke.

If Leechburg held a team-wide game of HORSE, who wins?

Probably Brittany (Robilio). She comes into practice and shoots shots you've never seen before, and they'll go in. She's really good at shooting trick shots.

Who's the toughest player you've gone up against?

Definitely (Vincentian graduate) Brenna Wise. She was at Pitt, so that shows how good she is. (Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic's) Sam Breen is an amazing player. She's the Gatorade Player of the Year for Pennsylvania, so that shows how good she is, too.

Player you'd most like to face one-on-one?

I don't know, there's too many players to even think about that.

What's something non-basketball related that people might not know?

I'm usually an open book.

What's your favorite TV show?

I like "One Tree Hill" a lot. I watch it on Netflix.

Your favorite place is the gym?

My dad has different workouts that me and him do together.

What three words best describe you?

Funny, shy and honest.

Girls all-stars

First team

Lizzy Celko

St. Joseph

5-8, SR., Guard

She led St. Joseph to the WPIAL semis for the first time and to the PIAA playoffs, averaging 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds. She finished with 1,247 career points.

AShlyn JoncZak


5-8, SR., Guard

Carlow recruit became Highlands' all-time leading scorer with 1,182 career points. She averaged 13.5 points and 6.8 rebounds for Highlands team that was plagued by injuries.

Alex Jones

St. Joseph

5-8, JR., Guard

Spartans' Swiss Army knife came off the bench but could play any position when she did. She averaged 11.4 points to help key St. Joseph's state playoff run.

Jenna Manke


5-9, JR., Forward

Facing double teams inside, she averaged 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds with nine double-doubles as Yellowjackets reached the state playoffs.

Eliza Oswalt


5-7, SR., Guard

Mercyhurst recruit and three-year starter kept injury-plagued Bucs' playoff run going, averaging 18 ppg and reaching 1,000 career points in her final game.

Second team

Nicole Boda

Highlands, 5-7, SR., G

She led team with 15 ppg and surpassed 1,000 career points.

Chloe Kurpakus

ST. Joseph, 5-8, JR., G

Lefty shooter scored 12.2 ppg and led team in 3-pointers.

Megan Ost Apollo-Ridge, 6-1, JR., F

Strong post player led young team with 15.8 ppg and 10.3 rebounds.

Brooke Smith

Burrell, 5-7, SR., G

Allegheny recruit averaged double figures and was top defender.

Kathleen Swartzwelder

Cheswick Christian, 5-8, SR., F

Chargers' leader averaged a double-double.

Third team

Cassidy Chmura

Deer Lakes

5-3, SR., G

Cam Davies


5-5, JR., G

Hannah Potter

Kiski Area

5-4, FR., G

Sidney Shemanski


5-8, FR., G

Nia Thomas


5-6, SR., F

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