Varsity Xtra: Step up by AAA powers ups the ante


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Look who has moved into the WPIAL Class AAAA neighborhood -- and is living in the two penthouses at the top of the hill.

The New Castle and Hampton boys basketball teams are movin' on up this season, going from Class AAA to AAAA. Since Class AAAA was formed in the 1983-84 season, there has never been such a significant move of two teams from Class AAA.

New Castle beat Hampton in last year's WPIAL Class AAA championship game. With a total of eight starters returning between the two teams and with both having plenty of talent, their move up in class is the talk of WPIAL basketball this season.

In the Class AAAA 'hood this season, New Castle and Hampton reside in the two swankiest places. New Castle is the Post-Gazette's preseason No. 1 team and Hampton No. 2. And get this: Both will play in Section 3.

"No doubt they should be 1-2. They're that good," said Seneca Valley coach Victor Giannotta, whose team also competes in Section 3.

Classifications are based on school enrollments and the PIAA reclassifies schools statewide every two years.

The other significant move in WPIAL basketball was Chartiers Valley moving down from AAAA to AAA.

"Based on what New Castle and Hampton bring to the mix, I think they have to be at the top of the heap in the preseason," said Shaler coach Paul Holzshu, whose team also plays in Section 3.

Expectations are definitely high at both New Castle and Hampton. Apparently the fans have caught basketball fever at New Castle. Judging by ticket sales, New Castle's gym might be packed for every home game.

New Castle won the WPIAL Class AAA championship a year ago with an undefeated record. The Red Hurricane lost in the PIAA playoffs to Montour.

"Playing in Class AAAA is going to be very different, but I do think it's exactly what our kids needed," New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. "Not that we would've walked through Triple-A. That's not what I'm saying. But I think the challenge of playing in Quad-A will serve our kids well."

The situation at Hampton is similar.

"I talked to some of our booster people and I think people here are excited," Hampton coach Joe Lafko said. "They're excited to see good basketball. I think, in particular, the section is going to be very competitive. Arguably, it's the most competitive section I've ever been involved in."

New Castle isn't very big (the tallest starter is 6 feet 3), but the Red Hurricane is terrific with its full-court pressure, shoots the ball well and plays at a fast pace offensively.

Shawn Anderson, a 6-foot-3 guard-forward who averaged 18 points last season, recently committed to the Naval Academy, although he will attend the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island for a year before playing at Annapolis.

Brandon Domenick, a 5-9 senior, is a Gannon University recruit. Malik Hooker, a 6-2 guard-forward, is one of the WPIAL's top juniors and 5-9 junior Anthony Richards is a tough defensive player and also a good 3-point shooter.

The fifth starter will be Antonio Rudolph, who saw considerable playing time last year.

Hampton will be led by the Luther twins. Ryan is a 6-foot-7 junior forward who already has a scholarship offer from Dayton. Other Division I colleges also are interested. Colin is a 6-6 guard-forward. Both were chosen for the all-section team last year, but Colin is still recovering from a concussion sustained in football season and has not practiced yet.

The other two returning starters are 6-foot junior guard Jon Floss and 6-1 sophomore forward David Huber. The fifth starter will be 5-10 sophomore guard Joe Lafko, son of the coach.

"New Castle and Hampton are both good, but bring different qualities," Holzshu said. "New Castle is like a tsunami, just coming at you in waves. They just drown you with their pressure, their athleticism and their ability to go up and down the floor. Hampton is long, and their length and size present a whole different problem for you."

But playing in Section 3 of Class AAAA presents some problems to New Castle and Hampton -- and their coaches know it. Section 3 has a strong reputation. A year ago, Section 3 became the first section in WPIAL history to have five teams in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.

Central Catholic moved out of Section 3 this year, but coaches are saying Section 3 is sill "loaded."

"I don't mean any disrespect to anyone, but there could be a team in our section that doesn't make the playoffs and they could conceivably be a section champ or near a section champ in the other three sections," Giannotta said.

Blundo is familiar with Section 3 because he played at New Castle and was an assistant there when the team was in Section 3.

"It's just a nightly grind in Section 3," Blundo said. "I'm aware of how difficult the league is. It's definitely going to be different for us. If you look back to last year, until we lost to Montour 10 points was the closest any team came to us.

"Our guys aren't used to being in maybe a two- or three-point game on a Tuesday and doing it again on a Friday, but that's the way it could be now. We have to get used to playing against teams that can really compete and that are bigger, stronger and really well-coached."

Lakko also acknowledeged the step up in competition.

"The biggest difference in Quad-A is just the overall physicality of the game, and the overall athleticism," he said. "We've played Quad-A teams in non-section games over the years and they're always such physical games."

There are some coaches who feel the WPIAL could have made things more equal if it would have put Hampton in Section 2 along with Central Catholic, Fox Chapel, Gateway, Penn Hills, McKeesport, Plum and Woodland Hills, and moved Franklin Regional to Section 1. Hampton is in the northern suburbs, but by using the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the trip to some of those eastern area schools would not be long.

As it stands now, Section 1 has only seven teams, the fewest of any Class AAAA section. Section 1 is considered the weakest of the Class AAAA sections, but with only seven teams, making the playoffs is a little easier for teams in that section.

"We understand New Castle has to be in our section," Giannotta said. "But why Hampton as well? If you're really trying to strike a competitive balance, Hampton could have been in [Section 2].

"But you can't cry over it. You have to move forward and play whoever you get."

mobilehome - hsbasketball

For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1975. Twitter @mwhiteburgh First Published December 7, 2012 5:00 AM


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