who 2 watch
preseason player of the year
6-5, sr., G/F
players to watch
6-7, sr., F, 15.0 ppg
6-4, sr., G/F, 20.4 ppg
6-5, jr., F, 16.8 ppg
6-5, so., F, 10.0 ppg
6-6, sr., F, 14.8 ppg
1. Beaver Falls (20-8)
The Tigers join Class AAA with a lineup that starts two sophomores, one freshman.
2. Indiana (20-3)
Stapleton brothers Riley and Dylan are among the starters back from last year's lineup.
3. Uniontown (22-3)
Three starters return from a lineup that made the WPIAL semifinals a season ago.
4. Mars (15-10)
The Planets had 18 juniors and sophomores on a roster that made the quarterfinals.
5. Ambridge (17-7)
The Bridgers lost PG Stephon McGinnis to Aliquippa; believe Daylon Carter can carry them.
6. New Castle (31-0)
Malik Hooker graduated, but brothers Marquel (junior) and Marcus (freshman) step in.
7. Hampton (24-5)
The Luther brothers are gone, but Joey Lafko, David Huber return for the AAAA finalists.
8. Steel Valley (15-5)
New coach Drew Schifino has big frontcourt with 6-7 Dom Keyes and 6-10 Tyler Lewis.
9. Central Valley (25-4)
Senior G Johnny George, QB for the football team, among four lettermen who are back.
10. South Fayette (13-10)
With football season not over, the Lions might wait a while until they reach full strength.
The Planets were young last season, and for the most part that won't change. With Owen Nearhoof (19.0 ppg) graduated, Mars features a junior-heavy lineup. John Castello, a 6-5 junior, averaged 16.8 points and 15.6 rebounds last season. He was the team's first sophomore with 400 points. Around him are juniors Christian Schmitt (5-10), Alex Gruber (6-3) and Ryan Giallonardo (5-10).
The Tigers reached the WPIAL Class AA final in six of the last 13 seasons, but decided to join Class AAA in search of better competition and some stronger rivalries (Ambridge, Beaver, Blackhawk, Central Valley).
The Indians bring back six of the top eight players from last season. The lineup features Riley Stapelton, a former IUP basketball recruit who switched his commitment this fall to a James Madison football offer. Also back are Dylan Stapleton (6-4), Kevin Jack (6-3), Blake Shields (6-4), Jacob Zilinskas (6-3) and Chris McConnell (6-0), whose father coaches the IUP women's team.
The Red Raiders could feature a lineup with two 6-4 forwards and another at 6-7. The tallest, senior Joe Campbell, won't be limited to the paint, coach Rob Kezmarsky said. A good shooter and three-year starter, Campbell could play on the perimeter at times. Also back are three-year starter Jeremy Perkins (6-4), Deandre Winfrey (5-9) and Lyric Ellis (6-0).
With coaching changes at Keystone Oaks (Dan Elzer), Montour (Will Saunders), South Park (Dan DeRose) and West Allegheny (Dan Marshall), South Fayette's Rich Bonnaure is the only coach in the section with a tenure longer than one season. The Lions return double-figure scorers Nick McKee (11.4 ppg) and Jack Relihan (10.6 ppg).
Don’t misunderstand Beaver Falls’ motivation to move.
“We don’t think we’re too good for Double-A,” said coach Doug Biega, who voluntarily took his team to Class AAA this season. “We just think it was a change the program needed.”
With a track record that includes two WPIAL titles in the past three years, and with a young, talented lineup in place, Beaver Falls is positioned well for a switch to the larger classification.
Still, Biega expects the decision to be polarizing.
“There are people who want the little guy to do well in the bigger setting,” he said. “But there’s also going to be a lot of people who want us to fail, thinking it was a move of arrogance, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
The main motivation was shorter travel times and better rivalries, Biega said. Either way, it’s Class AAA that must deal with them now. With Class AAAA finalists New Castle and Hampton also joining this year, Class AAA has some new playoff contenders.
“Our expectations are always to win the WPIAL and state championship,” Biega said. “We want to be the last team standing no matter what classification we’re in. … You don’t make this move if you think your cupboard is bare.”
Beaver Falls has three starters back from last season’s lineup that went 20-8 and reached the WPIAL semifinals. Two of the three are only sophomores: Donovan Jeter (6-foot-5) and Josh Creach (6-6) start in the frontcourt. The guards are senior Javon Turner, freshman Torian Leak and senior Zach Duffy, a transfer from Blackhawk.
“Very rarely are you extremely young with experience,” Biega said, “but we are.”
Beaver Falls left a Class AA section heavy with Lawrence County teams for a schedule filled mostly with Beaver County schools. With Ambridge, Beaver, Blackhawk, Central Valley, Ellwood City, Hopewell and New Castle on the team’s section schedule, Biega expects more community excitement for his program.
“The irony of (recent seasons) was we would fill everyone’s gym except ours,” Biega said. “Our fans weren’t interested in who we were playing, quite honestly.
“If it wasn’t Aliquippa or New Brighton, they weren’t interested in the game.”
Beaver Falls joins the most accomplished section in Class AAA. With the Tigers included, the group has won six WPIAL titles in the past three seasons. New Castle owns three straight. Central Valley won last season.
“I really think we’ll have a lot of big crowds this year,” Biega said. “There’s just so much local interest and rivalries and history. I couldn’t be more excited.”
Chris Harlan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.