Beaver Falls again a contender after graduating WPIAL's top player
After graduating the league's best player, most WPIAL basketball programs would accept a letdown the following season.
Beaver Falls hasn't.
The Tigers are again title contenders in Class AA one season after graduating Sheldon Jeter, a 6-foot-7 talent who now starts as a freshman at Vanderbilt. They've moved on successfully without the Tribune-Review's Player of the Year.
The reason's simple, said coach Doug Biega. The program's success wasn't based around the need for extraordinary offensive talent, although it has had its share; defense was always the key.
“We didn't spend the last two or three years drawing up intricate offenses for Sheldon,” Biega said. “We taught our team how to defend. At Beaver Falls you're always going to have athletes and you're always going to have kids who can play defense. That's never going to go away.”
The reigning WPIAL champions are chasing their third title in 14 seasons under Biega. This team doesn't have a Jeter on the roster, “but we still have seven guys who can get after it defensively,” Biega said. “That's how we maintained our program.”
Beaver Falls (18-3, 13-0) can complete a perfect Section 2 schedule with a home victory Friday against Aliquippa. The Tigers, ranked first for much of the season, are among those likely to reach Palumbo Center. They're behind only Greensburg Central Catholic (19-1) in the Tribune-Review rankings. The Tigers are first in state rankings compiled by The (Harrisburg) Patriot-News, with GCC second.
“We knew we were going to be seen as underdogs because we lost (Jeter),” senior Elijah Cottrill said, “so we wanted to prove ourselves.”
Their three losses were against Class AAAA No. 1 New Castle, Class AAA No. 2 Montour and Class A No. 1 Lincoln Park.
They have solid nonsection victories over Blackhawk, Central Valley, West Middlesex and Fox Chapel despite having no starter taller than 6-foot-2.
A season ago, the team relied more on half-court defense. This year they use more pressure. Section opponents average just 43 points against them.
“Our defense is better than it was last year,” Biega said. “Last year we had bigger bodies, and it was really hard to score once you got to that basket. With this year's group, it's really hard to get to the basket. We make it pretty hard on opposing guards.”
They still had to replace the points Jeter provided. Sharing that burden are senior guards Elijah Cottrill and Drew Cook, who each average 16 points. Cottrill (6-2), a three-year starter, has been drawing “higher-level interest” from Seton Hall, West Virginia and Miami (Fla.), Biega said. Cook (6-2) is a four-year starter.
“In the back of your mind, as soon as Sheldon graduates, you're wondering who our go-to guy is going to be,” Biega said, “but you know that you had a couple options. Cottrill and Cook have really stepped into the role so quickly.”
Around them have been senior Cadee Akins (5-7), junior Dan Stratton (6-2) and sophomore Javon Turner (5-9). Stratton, who plays center, has averaged 11 points. With balanced scoring, the Tigers' offense might be less predictable.
“Sometimes you can become too dependent on a marquee player,” Biega said. “Now we're more of a team than we were last year. Last year there was a star and a supporting cast. This year there's all supporting cast.”
But his program faces another threat: numbers.
Biega has 10 players on the varsity roster and typically uses only seven. The small roster size concerns Biega, who said he believes his change in jobs played a factor. He was working in the middle school guidance office until budget cuts two years ago moved him into a third-grade classroom.
“Elementary teachers are not visible,” Biega said, “and it has really hurt our numbers trying out for the basketball team.”
In years past, the Tigers had roster cuts. Nowadays Biega sends assistants with free time to recruit kids inside the school. The program has a strong eighth-grade team (which includes Sheldon's younger brother) that Biega hopes sticks together.
“When I was in the middle school, I had 25 or 30 kids trying out every year,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. They don't see you every day, so it's easier for them to just say I'm going home.”
Losing one player hasn't doomed the program, but losing dozens of would-be players could.
“Our strength has always been our numbers,” Biega said. “To get after teams really good, you need them.”