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South Allegheny believes playoffs within its grasp

| Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, 1:06 a.m.
Ronald Vezzani Jr.
South Allegheny's Kordell Thompson works out during practice Nov. 22, 2013.

Could this be the year the South Allegheny boys basketball team breaks its drought?

The Gladiators haven't been to the WPIAL playoffs since the 2002-03 season, but there's plenty of reason to think this could be a breakout year.

“We're excited,” said senior swingman Kordell Thompson, one of four returning starters and the team's leading scorer the past two seasons. “Everyone on our basketball team can come in and make an impact.”

South Allegheny coach Tony DiCenzo, in his second season, offered similar sentiments after witnessing the Gladiators' progress a year ago, when they rebounded from an 0-21 record to post an 8-14 overall mark, 4-8 in Section 3-AA.

“We missed the playoffs by one game in the standings,” DiCenzo said. “We were playing competitively in the end, but a lack of experience and familiarity with winning kind of hurt us.”

The 6-foot-1 Thompson averaged 16.5 points per game in 2012-13 to help South Allegheny improve dramatically over the previous season.

“We're working hard in practice. We seem to have a lot of good chemistry with this team,” Thompson said, adding that the addition of 6-1 senior Ty Cook, who hasn't played organized basketball since he attended ninth grade at McKeesport, likely would give South Allegheny a boost heading into its opener on Friday against Class AAA Elizabeth Forward at the Brownsville Tipoff Tournament.

Cook, a versatile two-way player for the South Allegheny football team, is expected to join Thompson, senior point guard Harry Matczak and 6-3 senior forwards Jeiron Lewis and Derek Vargo in the Gladiators opening-night lineup.

The bench is expected to be led by 5-10 junior Johnny Perkins and 5-11 junior Dylan Papson.

Cook, who threw four touchdown passes to Thompson during the football season, joins the basketball team much in the same way that another former South Allegheny football player, Brandon Murn, did in 2012-13. The 6-2 Murn, a freshman running back at Division II West Virginia Wesleyan, provided a defensive spark for the Gladiators a year ago.

“A very similar situation,” DeCenzo said. “Brandon was an incredible defensive player and rebounder who many times guarded the other team's inside player. We really don't have a dominant inside player. Ty is going to be very good at that spot this year, but I believe he has the ability to play anywhere and score a little bit more than Brandon did.”

Cook is adjusting to the hardwood with ease, saying that learning the team's offensive sets has come easy.

“I knew it instantly,” he said. “It just came naturally to me because, really, basketball actually was my first choice before I became serious about football when I came to South Allegheny (from McKeesport) my sophomore year.”

With Thompson again expected to lead the way on the offensive end, DiCenzo hopes Cook's presence will spark continued defensive awareness at South Allegheny.

“We're not going to sneak up on anyone this year,” DiCenzo said. “Coming into games last year, I doubt teams prepared much for us, so we were able to play competitively at times, with a lot of the upper echelon teams in our section. We're going to have to work a little bit harder to be better this year.

“We preach and preach and preach defense. We were among the top teams in points allowed (45.9 ppg.) in the WPIAL last year. If we could hold teams to low numbers, we had a chance to be in the game. We hope the kids buy into that again this year.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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