Mustangs refocus for another playoff run
The Plum varsity boys basketball players found themselves in an interesting position in late February of last season, as they became Shaler supporters after the Titans defeated the Mustangs in the quarterfinals of the WPIAL Quad-A playoffs.
Plum held out hopes for the state playoffs, and it needed Shaler to win the WPIAL title under the follow-the-leader format to decide the fifth and final PIAA Quad-A spot.
When Shaler fell by two points to Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the semifinals, the Mustangs' season came to an end.
But the tough end didn't erase a strong 16-8 overall campaign and a second-place, 8-4 finish in Section 2-AAAA behind section champion Woodland Hills.
Three seniors — Nolan Cressler, Anthony Garofalo and Tarique Ellis — moved on because of graduation.
Cressler finished as the school's all-time leading scorer, and he now is making his mark as a true freshman at Cornell.
“(Replacing talent) is the nature of the beast with high school basketball,” Plum head coach Ron Richards said.
“We've had a lot of good kids come through the program, and each year, you find the next group of kids who can fill those shoes. Nolan, Anthony and Tarique were multiyear starters and did a lot for us. That's a huge chunk to replace.”
Despite the tough graduation losses, Richards said, he's excited to see how the returning players carve their mark in the history of the program.
“Kids' roles change from year to year, and now, we have kids who are getting more comfortable with their roles, whether it be from a scoring, defense or leadership standpoint. We like to think the guys who have come into the program before have set the example for how we play, how we work and the commitment that we have. This team is falling right in line with the teams we've had in the past.”
Seniors Matt Dombrowski and Griffin Myers will join juniors Nick Stotler and Austin Dedert as the core of this year's team. All four earned starting time during last season.
Richards said Dombrowski and Myers are expected to be strong senior leaders, and that duo will be joined in the rotation by fellow seniors Andrew Dawson, Tanner Yocca and Dylan Kondis.
“Guys like Andrew, Tanner and Dylan have worked hard and put the time in to play and contribute this season,” Richards said.
“Each of those guys have a chance to do some really good things for us. We will only be as good as our seniors are.”Richards said sophomore Austin Carney has done some good things in practices and scrimmages.
“He plays hard and has put himself in the mix for time in the varsity rotation.”
Austen Carney has had much to deal with off the court the past couple of weeks in the wake of the death of his mother, Sunny Carney, who lost her long and tough battle with cancer on Nov. 3.
“He's been forced to grow up a lot faster than most kids have to at his age,” Richards said.
“He's certainly a tough kid, and that's what we like most about him. He fights hard, and he's the type of kid we've had in this program when we've had the most success.”
Plum returns to Section 2-AAAA with Gateway and Woodland Hills, as well as Central Catholic, Fox Chapel, Franklin Regional, McKeesport and Penn Hills.
Richards said the section always is one of the toughest in Quad-A, and, he said, it should be the same way again this season.
Plum kicks off its season Friday and Saturday by hosting its annual tip-off tournament.
The Mustangs will open Friday at 8 p.m. against Highlands, a team moving on after the graduation of Micah Mason, a freshman at Drake University who led the WPIAL in scoring as a junior and a senior.
The first game will feature Shaler – with senior guard Geno Thorpe – against Deer Lakes at 6 p.m.
Thorpe moved to Florida over the summer and enrolled in a high school there, but he moved back to Shaler in September.
“The guys are excited, and it's their time,” Richards said.
“You work all spring, summer and fall for this opportunity. It's time to have fun and show what they can do. We still have to find out things about ourselves, and with Highlands and Shaler or Deer Lakes, it will be a good challenge.
“We jump right into section play next week, so this tournament will be very important as we get ready for that.”
The consolation and championship games will be Saturday at 6 and 8 p.m., respectively.
Plum will play a traditional nonsection game at Kiski Area on Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. before opening section play at Woodland Hills on Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m.
Michael Love is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5825 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.