Knights return bulk of starting lineup
Tipoff time is this weekend for WPIAL boys basketball teams, and the squads at Norwin, Penn-Trafford and Franklin Regional each is starting the year by setting the bar higher than their finishes last year.
Penn-Trafford is the reigning co-champ, and Norwin was a playoff team out of Section 1-AAAA last season, while Franklin Regional will try to improve on its two wins last year in Section 2-AAAA after a season in which half of its section games were decided by 10 points or fewer.
Section 1 shrunk by one member with the drop of Laurel Highlands to Class AAA, but the Knights and Warriors again will face Albert Gallatin, Connellsville, Hempfield, Kiski Area and Latrobe in section play.
On the flip side, Section 2 increased by one notable member, Central Catholic. The Vikings moved into the section to make room for new Quad-A teams New Castle and Hampton in northern-based Section 3, and they join the Panthers and returning members Fox Chapel, Gateway, McKeesport, Penn Hills, Plum and Woodland Hills.
Below is a look at each team as they enter the season:
The Knights won five of their final seven section games last season to reach the playoffs and finish 11-12 overall, but with four starters returning, this season's Norwin team should be able to avoid another slow start.
Leading scorer Matt Stewart, a versatile 6-foot-5 senior, should again be the Knights' go-to guy, while 6-foot-4 junior forward Alex Haas and 6-foot-5 senior forward Nick Idele give Norwin three sizable veterans in the starting five to go with returning junior point guard Zach Bryan.
“I know where we're at this year at this time, compared to where we were last year, it's like night and day,” Norwin coach Lynn Washowich said. “This time last year, we were still more on the basics of what we want to do. Now, we're more familiar and working on the minute things on offense and defense to make us better.”
The Knights also have senior forward Nick Palo, another tall player who came off the bench last year, and with Stewart's ability to play the shooting guard spot, Norwin could potentially turn to a lineup with only one player under 6-foot-4 on the court.
“We're not monstrous, and we don't have a 6-8 or 6-9 kid, but we have nice overall size,” Washowich said. “They're all athletic and they can run, and we've really been working in our scheme on feeding the post and knowing what to do from there.”
Also back for the Knights is junior reserve guard Steve Socrates, while two sophomores, Logan Deri and Curtis Perz, also will be in the varsity rotation. Perz, a transfer into his home district after attending Greensburg Central Catholic last year, is a 6-foot-1 guard and an unexpected addition to the Knights' lineup.
“I didn't know (Perz) until he came to school here, but he has great qualities. He really defends and is physical,” Washowich said. “He's a heck of a player, and he's the kind of kid you tell him something once, and he learns it.”
The Knights will get an early measure of where they stand this weekend at Penn-Trafford's Tipoff Tournament. Norwin opens at 5:30 p.m. Friday against Class AAA Mt. Pleasant, and Saturday it will face Class AAAA No. 2 Hampton at 4:30 p.m.
The Warriors enter the season ranked ninth in Class AAAA, and as the only ranked team from Section 1, they are the presumptive favorite. But even though P-T has four starters returning from last year's team, there are no sure things in a section where every team lost at least two section games in 2011-12.
Senior forward Corey Stanford, a 6-foot-4 forward rated as the No. 4 WPIAL player in the Class of 2013 by Pittsburghbasketballreport.com, is the top returning scorer for the Warriors. Joined by senior forwards Andy Abreu and Brian McDonough and senior guards Dorian Stevens and Christian Rohaus, who was a starter in his sophomore season, Penn-Trafford has a wealth of experience in its starting lineup.
“It's always nice when you have experience,” Penn-Trafford coach Ryan Yarosik said. “I can remember a couple years ago, I talked to Brad (Wetzel) out at Latrobe when they had seven seniors, and he said having seniors makes all the difference.
“When you have those guys that have been around the block and been through the grind, they pick up on things pretty quick, and you can get through the things you want to in practice.”
Behind the veteran starting five are two other seniors that are expected to provide solid minutes — guards Darrin Mihm and Danny Owoc. The Warriors have size on the bench in 6-foot-7 junior Sam Kavel, though injury might limit the big man's ability to contribute in the early parts of the season.
Two younger players, freshman point guard Timmy Vecchio and sophomore Scott Koscho, both will see varsity minutes while also spending time in the junior varsity lineup, as Yarosik gets more of his players ready to fill in behind his deep senior group.
“We feel that we have a healthy starting five, and we're excited to open the new gym,” Yarosik said. “I can't think of a better way to start than playing Hampton.”
The battle between the ranked Warriors and Talbots will be Friday's nightcap at 8:30 p.m., while P-T will host Mt. Pleasant at 6 p.m. on Saturday. Both of those games are expected to help prepare P-T's players for the section schedule, which Yarosik anticipates will again be challenging.
“Last year, we got a shared section title under our belts, but I don't think this group of seniors wants to share with anybody this year,” Yarosik said. “Every team (in Section 1) lost a little bit, but I think most of the teams are going to be stronger than last year. We're going to be well-prepared for this season, and our kids think we can have a long run and hopefully get some state (playoff) games under our belt.”
The Panthers are coming off a season in which the team got three of its six wins against Quad-A playoff teams, but came up on the short end of a number of close contests both in- and out-of-section.
Though Franklin Regional will have a much younger lineup this season, the hope is that this year's Panthers can find a way to turn those close losses into close wins and make a push for their own playoff spot.
“We're inexperienced, as far as varsity team, but this is my fourth year,” Franklin Regional coach Brad Midgley said. “This is a group that's been with me since eighth and ninth grade, so they understand our philosophy and what we want to do on the defensive side of the ball.”
FR's most experienced players are junior guard Charan Singh, the team's lone returning starter, and senior Nate Hlozek, a regular contributor off the bench last year.
Junior guard Matt Renzi, junior forward Tyler Hamilton and sophomore guard Jake Roberge all are players that have worked to grab a spot in Midgley's rotation, while Joey Biondo, the team's only other senior, will add depth to the guard positions after battling through injuries over the last two seasons.
“It's a group that competitive, and I don't have to do a lot of motivating. That makes practice with these guys a lot of fun,” Midgley said.
“Going through preseason and our scrimmages, I kept telling them not to focus on the scoreboard, but to focus on each possession. I don't expect us to be consistent because we're so young, but I think we're going to be able to fight for a playoff spot if we handle what we're supposed to.”
Section 2 is more wide open than in previous years, as stars such as Gateway's Tyler Scott and Barnett Harris, Woodland Hills' Shakim Alonzo and Plum's Nolan Cressler have moved on. That leaves question marks around many of the league's teams, which could open the door for FR to move up.
“In the past, you know who Gateway had, you knew Plum had Cressler,” Midgley said. “This year, there's six or seven teams that can legitimately battle for four playoff spots.”
Franklin Regional opens its season against the hosts in the Upper St. Clair Tipoff Tournament on Friday at 7:30 p.m., and it will play a second game Saturday against either Monessen or Chartiers Valley, with the start time to be determined by Friday's result.
Matt Grubba is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5830 or firstname.lastname@example.org.