Local hoops teams get more out of less
Stalling in wrestling can result in point deductions. Stalling in basketball has no official penalties. But if it did, Valley girls coach Jeff Cheatham might have been in trouble this season.
Cheatham admits he worked the officials a few times during games, not necessarily to get calls, but to give his small band of players a few extra seconds of rest.
Valley used only five players in just about every game.
“When we played Highlands away, I asked the ref if I could take a player out and play with four,” Cheatham said. “I wanted to give one of our girls a rest. I told him I was told I could do that. He said, “No, you can't do that.'
“I spent about 35 seconds talking to him and he goes, ‘Coach, you need to take a timeout.'”
Valley has company in the playing-with-less department.
You can't talk about short-handed teams without mentioning the Burrell girls. They have become a diminutive conundrum — a team with limited reserves that has dominated just about every opponent.
Sheetz has more subs to choose from than Burrell. But the Lady Bucs (15-2) could be a made-to-order WPIAL title contender this season — and the next few to come — with a skillful and young group.
“We have been extremely fortunate,” Burrell coach Meghan Ziemianski said. “Our girls are so close. They all want each other to do well. They aren't stingy with the ball. It's been fantastic.”
Kiski Area's boys also take the less-is-more approach. The Cavaliers (15-4) aren't fighting low roster numbers, they just play a half-dozen players every game — a rarity at the Quad-A level.
In an overtime game against Norwin, they used only five players, all of whom logged 36 minutes.
“In that game, no one was in foul trouble,” Kiski Area coach Harry Rideout said. “We got lucky. One guy had three fouls and we never had a substantial enough lead to give anyone a break.”
Burrell and Kiski Area are headed to the WPIAL playoffs.
Cheatham's team has dwindled due to an apparent lack of interest from girls, and other issues within the program. But the team has three talented players in senior Kristea Smith, junior Lashay Madison and sophomore Kaylyn Iacopino.
That trio, with limited help, led the team to four victories and just short of a WPIAL playoff spot. Valley finished 4-11 (4-7 Section 1-AAA).
“You really notice it when you play teams like Hampton, and they have a lot of people that run at you,” Cheatham said. “We don't have enough girls to press. If we had more girls, we could play man and maybe win those type of games.”
It's been impressive to see what undermanned teams have done in games, but practice is where low numbers cause issues. Valley practiced mostly with half-court drills, with Cheatham putting cones on the floor.
“We go three-on-three,” he said. “We've gotten into decent shape from games. We can't press and have to play zone all the time.”
Burrell has spiced up practice by scrimmaging the boys' eighth-grade team.
“Sometimes we play the ninth-grade (boys) team, too,” Ziemianski said. “We have a tri-scrimmage next week. We do this when we really want to practice running things. The boys know why they are there. It goes back and forth.
“We'll do one 10-minute session with a girls ball and one 10-minute session with a boys ball. It's more of a game-speed for us. The girls have to play up regardless.”
Burrell has a solid nucleus with junior Jaila Manga, sophomore Sydney Bordonaro and freshman Natalie Myers, and role players in junior Kelsey Oddis, sophomore Erika Finn and junior forward Jessica Cercone, who has missed some time with an injury.
Sophomore Abby Nitowski and junior Emma Brown come off the bench.
The team's lone senior, Jenna Ehrlich, is out for the season with an injury.
With most of Burrell's games resulting in lopsided wins, the team has come up with a unique way to decide who plays and who sits in blowouts.
“We rip off pieces of paper, put numbers on them and draw them out of a shoe at halftime,” Ziemianski said. “That's how we decide who starts the second half with Abby and Emma. Those two have worked religiously for us. Without them, we'd be in trouble.”
Rideout speaks matter-of-factly about his slight, but talented lineup. He used six players last year, too.
“It's not that big of a deal; We have veteran guys,” Rideout said. “A high school game is only 32 minutes and there are breaks, timeouts and halftime.
“Every team tries to run and press us because we're Kiski. They end up running two guys to the ball, so someone's open.”
Cavaliers' starters are seniors Nick Stone, Adam Robison and Mitch Murdock, junior Joe Brungo and sophomore Mike Simmons.
“Nobody is selfish on this team,” Robison said. “Like coach says, we pass up good shots to get better ones.”
Freshman Lincoln Clayton is the sixth man.
“We're in much better condition now than we were at the start of the season,” Rideout said. “All five of our (starters) can dribble, pass and shoot. And we play good defense.”
Simply, Rideout feels less is more.
“To me, when opponents go their bench, their backups are playing against my starters,” he said. “I think that gives us an advantage. Our guys have to have iron guts and iron will.”
One might think a team like Kiski Area would resort to street ball and call few plays. That couldn't be farther from the truth.
“Oh, we have a lot of plays; a lot we haven't used yet,” Rideout said. “Teams can analyze our last game and not see much of what we're going to do against them. You have to keep other teams honest so they don't cheat.”
Kiski Area is deliberate in half-court sets, which means less up-and-down tempo and more stops.
“I feel we've reached a level of detail and precision,” Rideout said. “This group is really good at understanding what we're doing.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the Local Sports Editor of the Valley News Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.