Cager Classic remains mainstay of Alle-Kiski basketball
Ken Elliott is retiring from teaching health and physical education at Knoch after 36-plus years. That will give him more time to help with the Cager Classic, which he has been doing with enthusiasm for more than a decade.
The long-time volunteer will have more time to hand out pens with the Cager logo. More time to scout potential players. More time to keep the A-K Valley's all-star weekend up and running.
Like the other volunteers, Elliott spends months preparing for the Cager Classic, which returns to Highlands on Friday and Saturday for its 18th installment.
Organizers say the previous 17 all have been sellouts. It doesn't look like the Cager will be retiring any time soon.
“I consider the Cager a Super Bowl-type event in the A-K Valley, and I want to be an active participant,” Elliott said. “The Cager is a wonderful event for the area, and it is a great social event for those of us who are volunteer workers. Gary Miller, Doug Scholl and Glenn Mills had the foresight and initiative to stage this all-star event. Along with Kerry (Kordes), Tracy (Edwards) and Bill (Heasley), I try my best to continue their dream.”
The final high school basketball game for some, a bonus for others who didn't make the playoffs, the Cager is a talent show for the area's top senior boys and girls players.
For three days — Thursday's practices, Friday's skills contests and Saturday's games — section rivals become teammates.
Plum 6-foot-6 forward Austin Dedert was trying to block Kiski Area guard Joey Brungo's shot when the pair faced off in the WPIAL playoffs. Now, Dedert might get an alley-oop pass from Brungo, his East teammate.
The Mars and Knoch boys also will have to share the basketball, not fight over it.
Many all-star selections have attended past Cagers to watch teammates. But the event will be an all-new experience for Leechburg guard Ben Ritchie, who never has seen the games in person.
Ritchie, who will play for the East boys, was the Valley's third-leading scorer this season at 18 points per game.
“It means a lot. Not everybody is given the opportunity,” Ritchie said. “It's going to be my last game, so I just want to play hard and have fun.”
Deer Lakes guard Christina Grzybek has attended past Cagers and has marveled at the assembled talent. Now she gets her shot to play.
“I kept saying to my dad, ‘Man, I hope I can get a chance to play in this,' ” she said. “It's such an honor, and I'm so excited to be a part of the experience.”
The Cager will feature six 1,000-point scorers, four from the girls' side in Mallory Heinle (St. Joseph), Erin Mathias (Fox Chapel), Krista Pietropola (Plum) and Emily Knepshield (Kittanning).
In a rare occurrence — it has been done only once before — the Knoch boys and Burrell girls each will have three participants, the most the committee has ever chosen from one school. For Knoch, it will be Austin Miller, Chris Kier and David Gallagher on the West team. Burrell players Jessica Cercone, Jaila Manga and Kelsey Oddis will play for the East.
Coincidentally, Knoch's Ron McNabb will coach the West boys, and Burrell's Meghan Ziemianski the East girls.
Fox Chapel will have a substantial presence with Zach Skrinjar (East boys) and Meghan Meabon (West girls) both coaching in the games and two more 1,000-point scorers playing.
Matt D'Amico and Brian Papich will play for the East.
D'Amico is Fox Chapel's all-time leading scorer. The 6-3 Mathias is a Duke recruit.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.