Section 1-AA players ready to team up at Cager Classic
Burrell senior Pete Spagnolo believes Section 1-AA boys basketball players brought a specific mentality to the court when they faced each other this season — a gritty, sometimes surly style that wasn't always graceful or suitable for framing.
“Nobody's afraid; nobody steps down,” said Spagnolo, a key guard on Burrell's WPIAL runner-up team. “Everybody in the section knows they can hang with anybody. It's more than an offensive section. Teams are tough.”
Apollo-Ridge senior guard Josh Reynolds is in complete agreement.
“Against certain teams, like Burrell and West Shamokin, it would get a little chippy,” Reynolds said. “People would get physical and start talking. But that's part of what made the games interesting.”
Look for the hatchet to get buried this weekend when four players from Section 1 team up for the East in the 17th annual Cager Classic all-star game set to tip off about 8 p.m. Saturday at Highlands.
Spagnolo and Reynolds could be on the court at the same time with section adversaries Anthony Rocco of West Shamokin and Ford City's Dave Lattanzio.
Section 1 teams beat up on each other, which helped prepare some for the WPIAL playoffs. And Burrell and Apollo-Ridge did more than show up — much more.
Both made runs to the semifinals, with Burrell taking matters a step further with an appearance in the championship game for the first time since 1979.
“I hope we can play well together and win,” Spagnolo said. “I hope we can help show how good our section is even more.”
Burrell (19-8) and Apollo-Ridge (18-9) also made the state playoffs. Their thrilling WPIAL playoff runs included upset wins in the quarterfinals, both occurring in a matter of hours on a Saturday afternoon at Plum High School. It was later dubbed “Pandemonium at Plum.”
Apollo-Ridge clipped No. 4 seed Jeannette before Burrell downed No. 2 Greensburg Central Catholic.
“I think having us and Burrell in the Final Four made some people take a second look at the section,” Reynolds said.
Said Spagnolo: “I respect Apollo-Ridge a lot. We watched them play before us at Plum. That helped get us ready (to play GCC).
“When we played West Shamokin and Rocco scored 40 and they beat us, that was a huge wake-up call for us.”
Rocco will be the first boys player from West Shamokin to play in the Cager. Organizers extended invites to players from that school for the first time.
“We don't get any respect in the playoffs,” Rocco said of Section 1 teams. “But I think, this year, Burrell and Apollo-Ridge opened some eyes.”
West Shamokin (11-11) made the WPIAL playoffs, too, but lost to Riverside in the preliminary round.
“There are a lot of what-ifs,” Rocco said. “But I am glad for what we accomplished. We helped show that Section 1 isn't that big of a joke.”
Two other Section 1-AA players also will play in the Cager but remain on the opposing side. Deer Lakes' Tim Jaczesko and J.J. Kowalkowski are on the West roster and will be joined by their coach, Jon McKay.
The all-time series between the East and West at the Cager is even at 8-8.
Burrell and Deer Lakes (16-7) shared the section title. Apollo-Ridge not only was third in the section, but third in the WPIAL.
“There were some good rivalries, and we all have a mutual respect for one another,” Reynolds said. “This game is going to be fun. It's a great way to end the season. We'll all get along and have a good time.”
Spagnolo and Reynolds said they feel a need to prove their worth to A-K fans who did not see them play in person.
“It adds a little more pressure,” Reynolds said. “Hopefully, we all click and play well.
“This was one of those seasons you don't forget.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.