Defending champion Pine-Richland boys up for challenge in 6A |

Defending champion Pine-Richland boys up for challenge in 6A

Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Pine-Richland's Phil Jurkovec practices Nov. 22, 2016, at Pine-Richland.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Pine-Richland's Grant Carrigan practices Nov. 22, 2016, at Pine-Richland.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Pine-Richland's Andrew Petcash practices Nov. 22, 2016, at Pine-Richland.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Pine-Richland coach Jeff Ackerman leads practice Nov. 22, 2016, at Pine-Richland.
Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Pine-Richland's Nolan Rausch (left) and Phil Jurkovec practice Nov. 22, 2016, at Pine-Richland.

It was a tale of two seasons for the Pine-Richland boys basketball last year.

In the team’s first three weeks, it struggled to break .500 with a 3-4 record. Then, the Rams went through a metamorphosis, winning 11 straight, 18 of 21 and eventually, their first WPIAL Class AAAA championship.

While coach Jeff Ackermann wouldn’t mind sticking to that same script, he is aware another slow start could spell an early doom for his team in a competitive Class 6A this season.

So, the defending WPIAL champs are putting themselves through the wringer with their nonsection schedule, Pine-Richland will take on three teams that won section championships last season: Latrobe, Steel Valley and Penn Hills. Combined, the seven nonsection foes the Rams will face accrued a 112-62 record last year.

“I think this is a really challenging schedule that we’re playing in. With the 3-4 start last year, I didn’t really think that we were playing at the level we were capable of playing,” Ackermann said.

“Our goal this year is to start faster. For us, we’re better off being challenged than not being challenged.

“This group, we have guys that have won championships. These guys are better off playing against better teams.”

One Pine-Richland player who proved to be up for a challenge over and over through the past few seasons is senior captain Andrew Petcash. The team’s point guard averaged 22 points on 67 percent shooting from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range.

So what could the Rams primary ball-handler do to improve his game? Well, growing another inch couldn’t hurt.

“He’s gotten bigger. He’s grown taller and he’s gotten stronger. He’s filled out now, and he’s more explosive. Andrew’s about 6-4 now, he can dunk the ball and there’s just a lot more physically that he can do now that he couldn’t last year,” Ackermann said.

“Even last year, he had a great year, but he’s definitely a better player then he was last year.”

Petcash is weighing a handful of opportunities to play Division I basketball next year.

At one of the forward positions, Phil Jurkovec is sure to see a substantial amount of playing time after scoring 15 points per game and grabbing 12 rebounds per contest last year.

The junior has recovered from the thumb injury that ended his football season and has already been hitting the hardwood.

Another starter for Pine-Richland figures to be sophomore Andrew Kristofic. Kristofic, who started on the offensive line this year, has shot up from 6-5 to 6-6½ and will provide the Rams with size down low.

The rest of Ackermann’s lineup will be filled by a rotation of players led by team co-captain Evan Luellen.

The Rams coach calls the senior guard one of the best defenders on his team. After Luellen, Nolan Rausch, Sean Colosimo, Dan Petcash and soccer standout Greg Shulkosky will provide the team with depth and outside shooting. Pitt football recruit Grant Carrigan, who stands 6-7, also will get a shot to contribute once healthy.

Kevin Lohman is a freelance writer.

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