This has not been an easy season for the Cornell High School boys basketball team.
A season after competing in the WPIAL Class A championship game, the Raiders, who graduated all five starters from that team, have struggled with a less experienced group of youngsters. Cornell has a 3-14 overall record and sat in the basement of WPIAL Class A Section 1 at 0-7.
"It's been a rough season," sophomore guard Dane Jackson said. "We're trying to hang in there, but it hasn't been easy. We knew coming into this season we wouldn't have the experience we had last year, but I believe we can be a better team."
Jackson has been a bright spot. As Cornell's leading scorer with 318 points in 15 games (he didn't play in two games), Jackson ranks among the area's top scorers with an average of 21.2 points a game.
"Dane always keeps his level of play up," said Bill Sacco, in his 11th season as Cornell's coach. "He's been a leader. He's handled the ball well while scoring. He's done a remarkable job as a sophomore.
"He does more than score, too. He gets about five assists a game and he goes after rebounds well."
Last season as a freshman, Jackson, a 6-foot-1 guard, came off the bench and averaged 9.7 points as Cornell posted a 7-3 section record and finished 19-7. The Raiders lost to section-rival Lincoln Park in the WPIAL title game and then lost to Kennedy Catholic during the first round of the PIAA Class A playoffs.
Despite losing its past eight games, Cornell has received some impressive performances from Jackson. He scored 21 points in a loss against neighboring rival Our Lady of the Sacred Heart on Jan. 18 and led all scorers with a game-high 34 during a 62-56 loss to Rochester on Jan. 15.
"I'm taking the ball to the hole a lot more," Jackson said. "Last year, I was more of a guy who would stand there and shoot the ball. This year, I'm driving to he hoop. I'm a lot more aggressive."
His coach also has noticed the improvement.
"Dane has quickness and he gets to the basket," Sacco said. "He's patient. He's playing on a team with a lot of inexperienced players, and he's learning how to go about handling himself on the court."
Besides Jackson, Sacco has relied on 6-2 senior forward Dan Weryha, 6-6 junior center Kevin Korzen, 6-5 sophomore forward Devin Hines and 6-0 senior forward Pete Bartolomucci. Junior Dietrich Lee, a 5-8 point guard, also saw time as a starter earlier this year but has missed most of the season after sustaining a concussion.
"Dane is our catalyst," Sacco said. "He helps get the other guys involved and motivated. He has been an inspirational leader.
"He can get better and he will. He's a good kid; a good player and a hard worker in the classroom. I'm proud to coach him."
Jackson, who lives in Coraopolis, also plays football. Because Cornell disbanded its football program after the 2011 season, Jackson was able to play for Quaker Valley this past fall through a cooperative agreement between the two schools. A running back, Jackson led the Quakers with 534 yards and eight touchdowns. He also caught 20 passes for another 233 yards.
With four games remaining on their schedule, including three section games, the Raiders have been eliminated from playoff contention. But Jackson looks at this season as a learning experience.
"We're getting the experience we need," Jackson said. "The guys are getting better, and that's going to help toward next season. I think we'll definitely have a chance to compete next year."