Elijah Minnie's potential teammates at Lincoln Park were confident the 6-foot-8 junior standout would be joining their basketball team. They were also confident in their own ability without Minnie.
It took Minnie, a transfer from Summit Academy who attended and played at Monessen High School as a freshman, his fourth appeal but he finally was granted eligibility by the PIAA last month.
Playing without Minnie, one of the top players in the WPIAL, for 11 games Lincoln Park went 7-4 with non-section wins against Class AA Sto-Rox and Class AAA Central Valley along with section wins against Cornell, Rochester and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
When the PIAA voted 3-2 to grant Minnie eligibility, it was a case of the "rich" getting richer.
Lincoln Park, the Post-Gazette's No. 1-ranked team in WPIAL Class A, is 15-5 overall and has clinched the Section 1 title with a 9-0 record.
"They all believed to a man that Elijah was coming back because he came to school for the right reasons," Lincoln Park assistant coach Mike Bariski said. "Kids tell the other kids the truth. If he came here for other reasons, he would have told the kids. They knew he came here to get away from his situation, they pretty much were anticipating him coming back even though he lost his first, second and third [hearings]."
Lincoln Park, the defending WPIAL champion and PIAA runner-up, was returning three starters from last season -- 6-6 junior guard Ryan Skovranko, 6-1 sophomore point guard Antonio Kellum and 6-5 senior forward Jaylin Cottrill. In addition, 6-5 freshman guard Maverick Rowan joined the team.
"Maverick has an unbelievable basketball IQ," Bariski said. "He just understands basketball."
Off the bench coach Mark Javens calls on 5-11 senior guard John Tomassetti and 6-0 junior guard Nate Loedding.
Lincoln Park, a charter school located in Midland, has players from all over the Greater Pittsburgh area. Minnie is from Monessen, Skovranko hails from Duquesne, Kellum from Freedom, Cottrill from Midland, Rowan from Center Township, Loedding from Blackhawk and Tomassetti from Bethel Park.
Even though they are all from different school districts, they have one thing in common -- talent.
Lincoln Park has played in the past two PIAA championship games and past three WPIAL championship games. The Leopards have gone a combined 68-21 over the past three seasons while playing a grueling non-section schedule.
This year was no different. Since the return of Minnie, Lincoln Park hung with Class AAAA Seneca Valley before losing, 66-65, they knocked off Class AA Beaver Falls, 69-56, and won, 70-62, against Kennedy Catholic along with winning five section games.
"They were ready to play without [Minnie]," Bariski said. "We weren't a bad team without him, we were a different team."
Few teams in Class A can matchup with Lincoln Park's height. Even one of their smallest starters, Tomassetti, hauled in 15 rebounds last Friday night against Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
Lincoln Park generally plays with four guards and one forward. They push the ball and have their most success in transition. On defense they had to replace Devontae Watson, a 6-10 center who is now playing at Temple University. Watson finished his career with more than 1,000 blocked shots, believed to be only the second high school player of all time to block more than 1,000 shots.
"There is no Devontae Watson protecting the rim this year," Bariski said. "Last year when a player got behind you, you knew Devontae would be back there but now we are better defensively because we have five guys playing defense."
Offensively, Rowan and Minnie are the Leopards' top scorers. Rowan leads the team, averaging 22.8 points per game. In his first 10 games Minnie is averaging 19.6 points per game.
Rowan scored 35 against Rochester and 34 against Cornell this season. Minnie is also the top rebounder on Lincoln Park averaging more than 10 rebounds per game.
The Leopards are the clear favorite to repeat as WPIAL champions, although Class A is top-heavy this year with teams capable of pulling off an upset of the Leopards.
"You can't discount George Yokitis at Vincentian, he is a great coach," Bariski said. "They are the Loyola Marymount of high school basketball. They try to score 138 and let you score 135. They do play defense but they like to get it up and down and shoot it.
"Union and OLSH are very good teams, too, and you have Clairton, North Catholic and Monessen. The top level of Class A is pretty good. A lot of people say 'Why don't you play up?' but there are a lot of quality teams in Class A."
First Published February 7, 2013 5:00 AM