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Graduation took heavy toll on St. Joseph boys team

| Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012, 11:35 p.m.
Saint Joseph High School's John Arcuri looks for an opening during boys basketball practice on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

Usually by this time of year, St. Joseph boys basketball coach Kelly Robinson has a good handle on which of his players will be starting or contributing off the bench.

However, Robinson entered his 15th season at the Catholic school in Natrona Heights in an unfamiliar situation.

After a large group of productive seniors graduated, St. Joseph was left with less overall varsity experience than any of Robinson's previous squads had welcomed back.

The Spartans will be guided by two returning starters — senior guard John Arcuri and junior guard Chris Gamble. After them, 10 or more players with little or no varsity minutes could be called upon.

And Robinson said because so many of his players are similar in skills and talent, he's considering regularly employing five-for-five substitutions.

“I think we'll go through some growing pains,” Robinson said. “That doesn't mean we can't have success. It will be based on how quickly the inexperienced players develop.”

Arcuri (16.0 points per game) finished as the second-leading scorer for a team that earned a WPIAL playoff berth and finished 11-11 overall and 6-4 in Section 4-A last season.

Arcuri will be used at point guard and shooting guard. He'll be counted on even more for leadership and scoring following the graduation of Mike Connelly, who averaged 22.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists. Connelly is a freshman at Division III Pitt-Greensburg.

“John is our mainstay,” Robinson said. “He's the one with the most varsity experience.”

Gamble and senior guard Nick Chepkevich also probably will slide between point guard and shooting guard in Robinson's “point-guard-by-committee” system this season.

Sam Predebon, a 6-foot-7 senior center, could make a big impact. However, he's a relative newcomer to varsity, and his progress during the offseason was slowed by an ankle injury.

Robinson declined to single out any other players and added, “We have a slew of underclassmen that could see quality minutes.”

St. Joseph's Section 4-A home also underwent a major facelift during the offseason.

Last season, St. Joseph took on Clairton, Elderton, Geibel, Leechburg and Serra Catholic in section play. Following the PIAA's biennial realignment, only St. Joseph and Leechburg remain in Section 4-A, while perennial powerhouses Clairton and Serra Catholic are among the teams that moved.

This season, St. Joseph and Leechburg have been joined by Imani Christian, Trinity Christian, Wilkinsburg and Winchester Thurston. Imani and Winchester Thurston are first-year WPIAL members.

Imani was placed on probation by the WPIAL for violating PIAA rules and isn't eligible to make the playoffs in its first two seasons. If Imani places among the top four teams in Section 4-A, the fifth-place squad will take its spot in the postseason.

“I really enjoyed the last few years in that section,” Robinson said. “I almost wished it had stayed the same. Imani probably will be head and shoulders above the other teams in our section, and Wilkinsburg looks to be next in line.”

Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at pkogut@tribweb.com or 724-224-2696.

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