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Back-to-back WPIAL champion Beaver Falls still contending without star player

| Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014, 9:48 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Beaver Falls freshman Josh Creach grabs a rebound next to Donovan Jeter against Neshannock on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Beaver Falls.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Beaver Falls freshman Donovan Jeter grabs a rebound against Neshannock on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Beaver Falls.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Beaver Falls freshman Josh Creach drives to the basket against Neshannock on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Beaver Falls.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Beaver Falls freshman Donovan Jeter defends against Neshannock on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Beaver Falls.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Beaver Falls sophomore P.J. Solomon scores against Neshannock on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, in Beaver Falls.

Doug Biega laughs a little when folks wonder what's wrong with Beaver Falls' basketball program.

“It's asked as if we're having a bad year,” the coach said.

Despite losing talented senior Elijah Cottrill to injury, Beaver Falls is 16-5 and tied for first in Section 2-AA with Aliquippa. The team's success is more remarkable considering the lineup includes three freshmen.

Winning back-to-back WPIAL championships with a 28-3 record each time can inflate expectations. But by no means has this season been a disappointment.

“People say, ‘What's wrong with the program?' ” Biega said with a laugh.

“We graduated 11 lettermen the past two seasons and then we lost Elijah Cottrill. That's 12 guys. ... We're 16-5, we're playing for the section championship Friday and yet someone's saying, ‘How are you dealing with this being a down year?' Some schools hang (basketballs) in the trophy case for years like this.”

Beaver Falls (16-5, 11-2) is ranked No. 5 in WPIAL Class AA and sixth in the state. The team's two section losses were both to Neshannock, including 58-55 on Tuesday. The three nonsection losses were to New Castle (20-0), Central Valley (17-2) and Blackhawk (10-10).

The Tigers visit Aliquippa on Friday to decide the section. Both Beaver County rivals are 11-2. Beaver Falls won the first matchup 75-54 on Jan. 14.

“We aren't as good as we were with Elijah,” Biega said, “but we're still capable of beating anyone in Class AA.”

Cottrill had knee surgery last fall to repair his meniscus but reinjured it in that first matchup with Aliquippa. The 6-foot-3 guard, named to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Terrific 10, played a lead role in last season's state title run. He had committed to Akron for football but didn't sign with the Zips. Instead, he'll consider college basketball options, Biega said.

Without Cottrill, Beaver Falls has changed its lineup and its offensive approach. Among the moves, Danny Stratton, a 6-3 senior, made the unusual switch from center to point guard.

“We needed someone who had some experience under their belt,” Biega said of Stratton, who's a two-year starter and a Duquesne football recruit.

“He's really not a point guard, but he's doing whatever the team needs him to do.”

The revamped front court features two 6-foot-5 freshmen forwards, Donovan Jeter and Josh Creach. Jeter is the younger brother of incoming Pitt transfer Sheldon Jeter.

But unlike Sheldon or cousin Lance, who were perimeter players, Donovan works the paint. He has averaged around 20 points since Jan. 1, with a season-high 31 at Riverside.

“Donovan really has become our offense,” Biega said. “We haven't had a back-to-the-basket scorer since Christian Hauser in 2002. Now we do. We dump it in to Donovan, let him create and we feed off his inside presence.”

Junior guard Javon Turner (5-10) and senior guard Branden Thomas (5-11), a newcomer to the district, complete the starting lineup. First off the bench is freshman guard Neshaud Aikens (5-8).

Relying on three freshmen has drawbacks, but also perks.

“We make a lot of mistakes that we haven't made in the last three years,” Biega said, “and that's based on youth. They haven't seen everything yet. ... But when these kids are juniors and seniors, they're not going to be surprised by anything. In 2016 and '17, we're going to be pretty good.”

Not that they aren't already.

Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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