Varsity Xtra: E-merging as a winner -- Here's latest Central Valley title threat

Center-Monaca


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The Beaver County areas of Center Township and the town of Monaca both lost a little of their identities when two high schools closed a few years ago.

But the new school that formed from the merger of Center and Monaca is starting to take on a special identity.

Central Valley High School -- sports power.

Central Valley is now in its fourth school year and it is hard not to notice the success that the school is having in athletics. Conference and section titles, WPIAL titles and even PIAA championships have all been part of this school year for Central Valley.

Now the Central Valley boys basketball team's motto might be: "We got next."

High school basketball season starts tonight around Pennsylvania, and the Central Valley boys enter the season as the Post-Gazette's No. 1-ranked team in Class AAA of the WPIAL. Central Valley has five senior starters back from a team that finished 16-7 and tied Beaver for the WPIAL Class AAA Section 2 title.

It's clear that this merger thing has worked out pretty well for athletics at Central Valley.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, it has been a 15," said Tony Mendicino, co-principal at Central Valley.

Mendicino was the principal at Center and is now Central Valley's co-principal along with Shawn McCreary, who was the principal at Monaca.

"Obviously, some of the fall sports teams have set the bar and standard pretty high," said Sam Cercone, Central Valley's athletic director. "Now, the other teams don't want to be outdone."

Consider what has transpired already this fall at Central Valley:

* The football team, under coach Mark Lyons, made it to the WPIAL Class AAA championship game for the second time in four years, only to lose to West Allegheny.

* The girls soccer team won WPIAL and PIAA Class AA championships and finished with a perfect 23-0 record.

* The girls golf team won WPIAL and PIAA Class AA team championships. Mackey Fouse also won the WPIAL Class AA individual championship and the top three finishers at the WPIAL tournament were all from Central Valley (Marissa Sudar and Maddy McDaniel were the other two). Fouse, by the way, will play NCAA Division I golf at Seton Hall.

* The Central Valley girls volleyball team won a section title and made it to the WPIAL Class AA semifinals.

What makes Central Valley's athletics situation unusual is that the school is doing well in some sports that didn't have a great deal of success at Center or Monaca.

In football, Monaca won three WPIAL titles in its history, but all in Class A. Center had a very respectable program, but played in Class AA and made it to a championship game only once (1988). Central Valley's football team plays in Class AAA.

In girls soccer, Center won only one WPIAL title in its history and Monaca didn't even have a girls soccer program.

The girls volleyball programs at Monaca and Center struggled. In the final two seasons of Center and Monaca, the teams had a combined section record of 7-42.

Although Center's golf programs were solid, there were never WPIAL titles.

Central Valley basketball coach Brandon Ambrose can offer a unique perspective on the athletics success and why the merger has gone so well. He attended Center High School but grew up in Monaca until the fifth grade.

"I think it comes down to having players," Ambrose said. "Things like this go in cycles, but I really think football, basketball, girls soccer and the other sports, just have a really nice run of players right now. And I don't know about all of the other sports, but I know in basketball, it doesn't seem like the players will run out any time in the near future.

"The merger was a big deal to some people, especially the adults. But kids are totally resilient. They got over it really quick. I just think it's a good mix of kids and communities. The two communities aren't as different as people think.

"I know people probably think of that movie 'Remember The Titans' when they think of this school, but we never really went through anything like that. The only issue I think we ever had was playing time and I think you would have that whether there was still a Monaca or Center or not."

Mendicino said, "I remember playing Thomas Jefferson in [a playoff game] our first year at North Allegheny and when you looked in our stands, you saw nothing but Central Valley colors. That was hard to believe in our first year of existence but something I will never, ever forget."

Mendicino and McCreary said strong administrative leadership has been big in making the merger work -- in and out of athletics. But both will also tell you that the first graduating class of 2011 was key.

Students were involved in everything from picking a school name, to school colors and a mascot. Central Valley's football team won a WPIAL title in its first year of existence and the students, no matter where they were from, had a seamless transition.

"We never had a problem in the school ever because of a Monaca or Center thing. Not once," McCreary said "The only things we had were typical school [discipline] stuff.

"I will always remember the first year we had picture day for the football team. Kids were getting their pictures taken on fire trucks. Some trucks said Monaca and some said Center. There were adults there saying put certain kids on a Center truck and certain ones on a Monaca truck. I remember the kids didn't care. They just jumped on either truck.

"That may be small, but I think it showed it didn't matter. They were from Central Valley now."

Now the Warriors boys basketball team will try to win some hardware for the "Central Valley" trophy case. The five senior returning starters are guards Brian Kolich, Mike Sims and Jake St. George, and forwards Matt Kline and Tony Gates. Kolich averaged 13 points and Sims 11 last season.

"We've been able to get kids to play defense here, but this group is a little special in the sense that they can score," Ambrose said. "We've obviously never won a championship or never made a playoff run, so I can't really say what it takes to get there. But this is the best team we've had."


For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh

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