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Western Pennsylvania basketball coaches scour early tournaments for challenges

| Friday, Dec. 10, 2010

Every year, on the opening weekend of high school basketball season, a slew of Western Pennsylvania teams claim tipoff tournament championships and leave gyms with trophies to tuck away in storage cases.

But stocking trophy showcases is not the primary purpose of these tipoff events, coaches say. Teams seek tough competition at the start of the season. Any hardware earned over the weekend is a bonus, but local coaches agree no trophy outweighs the importance of a good test.

"I think, ideally, for most coaches, they'd like to come out of the weekend with a win, get some confidence," West Shamokin boys coach Mike Nagy said. "But you want to be challenged early and find out what you're working with."

Nagy, the only coach the Wolves have known in their 11-year existence, moved West Shamokin from tournament to tournament during the past decade in his search for better competition. They made three appearances each at the Union-Rimbersburg, Redbank Valley and Leechburg tournaments, and they won each of the tournaments two of out three times.

"It wasn't something we planned," Nagy said with a chuckle. "It just worked out that way."

Last season, West Shamokin, in the Indiana tournament for the first time, lost to the hosts by 35 points on opening night and dropped a close one the next night to District 6's Marion Center.

Nagy anticipates another tough time this season. Indiana's tournament includes the two opponents West Shamokin met a season ago as well as District 10's Grove City.

"Our program is in a place where we're building," Nagy said. "And we feel like this will help us in the long run."

Kittanning's boys and girls coaches, Bill Henry and Janelle Kotyk, said humbling tipoff-tournament losses are less tolerable for the Wildcats, who host their own opening-weekend event.

The girls team, which will host Hickory, Clarion and Moniteau this weekend, has won its past two tipoff tournaments.

The boys team will host Cambria Heights, Riverview and Purchase Line this weekend. It has lost to Cambria Heights the last two seasons.

Both Henry and Kotyk, though interested in winning as often as possible in front of the home crowd, want quality challengers to attend their tipoff events.

"I think it gets your season off on the right foot, and it's a good test for kids," Kotyk said. "You're playing games on back-to-back nights, and you see how the kids adjust from one team to another."

"(I like) the idea of getting into competition right away," Henry said. "We're playing for a title right off the bat."

On rare occasions, tipoff tournaments serve as precursors to playoff matchups or at least early indicators of the region's truly talented programs.

New Ford City boys coach Rob Greenleaf recalled witnessing one of the more memorable opening-night games in WPIAL history during his third year with Franklin Regional.

At the 1996 Upper St. Clair tipoff tournament, Greenleaf's Panthers met Chartiers Valley on the first night. Both teams sat in the top 5 of their respective preseason class rankings, and the game, won by Franklin Regional in overtime, featured two Division-I recruits — Franklin Regional's Aaron Lovelace, who went to Duquesne, and Chartiers Valley's Isaiah Stewart, who went to Siena — as well as a bevy of other future college players.

Chartiers Valley went on to win the WPIAL Class AAA title that season. Franklin Regional reached the PIAA finals.

"That was one heck of an opener," Greenleaf said. "There was just talent all over the floor."

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