East Xtra: East Allegheny ends a 17-year basketball drought

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If high school basketball success is defined by postseason appearances, then success was a maddeningly elusive ideal at East Allegheny, where on-court futility was closer to the norm. It was a reality that went from year to year, from one class of players to another, from coach to coach and even from one generation to the next.

Though the past cannot be corrected, for this season, the losses declined and after so many lost years, the Wildcats were able to celebrate.

Thanks in large part to a late run in which it won five of its last six regular-season games, East Allegheny qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs for the first time since 1996.

Considering that the Wildcats' previous trip to the playoffs covered 17 years and three presidential administrations, it's been a remarkable season for coach Vernon Benson and his team.

"It's meant a lot," Benson said. "For these guys who are seniors, they've never been to the playoffs. Some of these guys weren't even born when [the school] was last in the playoffs."

As the program's history clearly indicates, playing basketball into mid-February is far from an annual rite of passage at East Allegheny. Just seven years ago, it finished 1-22, losing its final 17 games, 11 of those defeats were by 20 or more points. That season was sandwiched between separate four-win campaigns that gave the Wildcats a three-year record of 9-62.

When Benson arrived as coach in 2011, inheriting a team that finished 6-14 by losing nine of its last 10 games, it was a program in need of wholesale change, especially with regard to morale. After helping improve the program during his tenure at Valley High School, Benson realized the steps he would need to take.

"Once I accepted the job, I pretty much knew what needed to be changed was the attitude, the culture and the belief," he said.

Though he acknowledged that some of his changes were "a little tough" on the players at first, Benson said the players accepted the adjustments. After struggling through a 5-16 record last season with a young roster, East Allegheny showed signs of improvement early this season, but was still only 4-7 in early January. But from that point forward, the Wildcats (12-10, 6-6 in Class AAA Section 4) won eight of their next 10 games, with seven of those victories coming in section games.

The Wildcats will play Ambridge (13-8, 7-5), the fourth-place team from Section 2, at 8 p.m. Friday at North Hills.

A big reason for EA's turnaround came from a simple position switch, with Benson moving the team's leading scorer, Jordan Williams, from point guard to the wing and putting Shawn Adair at the point. The change has helped Williams flourish, as he finished the season averaging 17.6 points per game.

The reasons for the team's success are not limited to its stars, either. Benson lauded the contributions made by players such as guards Josh Jenkins, Josh Strawins, Martell Cosby and Malik Pope, as well as forwards Gerald O'Keefe and Joel Randolph.

"They've all accepted their roles," Benson said. "Obviously, everybody wants to start, everybody wants to shoot. They're the guys who have taken the back seat and done whatever it takes to be a winning team."

Another turnaround

Though it didn't face a 17-year playoff drought as East Allegheny did, the boys basketball team at Mount Pleasant has also shown significant signs of improvement. One year after finishing 4-18, the Vikings won five of their last six games to go 13-9 and finish in third place in Class AAA Section 3.

They play Knoch (11-11, 6-6) at 8 p.m. Friday at Highlands.

Some strong finishes

Her Kiski Area team lost six of its final eight games to just miss out on a Class AAAA Section 1 playoff spot, but senior guard/forward Maddie Antone finished off her high school career in a big way. She averaged 18.2 points per game this season, putting her among the top 25 girls players in the WPIAL.

Like Kiski, the Woodland Hills girls basketball team just missed out on the WPIAL playoffs, but the Wolverines didn't see their season end without a notable benchmark.

In the final game of her high school career, guard/forward Delrika Jones-Carey scored 21 points to give her 1,010 for her career. Jones-Carey averaged 18.1 points per game for the season.

hsbasketball

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com; Twitter: @craig_a_meyer


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