South Xtra: Bethel starts strong, but in a different style

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Bethel Park coach Ben O'Connor had one of the tallest frontcourts in the WPIAL last season, but 6-foot-11 Wyatt Hagerty and 6-7 Kennedy Gilmore graduated.

Today, the Black Hawks don't have a player in their rotation taller than 6-4.

According to O'Connor, however, this year's team is more physical than its predecessor.

Tough, aggressive play by a smaller lineup could help the Black Hawks experience success similar to that of last season, even if they look a little different doing it.

Bethel Park is coming off its best season since winning a WPIAL championship in 2007. The Black Hawks finished 17-6 and placed second in Class AAAA Section 4. They lost to McKeesport in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs.

Much like last season when they began 8-0 and 14-1, the Black Hawks have gotten off to a hot start. Despite a 58-51 loss at Upper St. Clair Tuesday, the Black Hawks find themselves at 4-1 overall and 1-1 in section play. They defeated Canon-McMillan, 60-49 last Friday for their first section victory.

Bethel Park plays host to Moon Area Friday and will participate in next week's Shady Side Academy tournament. The Black Hawks open the eight-team tournament against Penn-Trafford on Dec. 26. The Warriors handed the Black Hawks their first loss last season.

A big reason for the early success has been the strength, toughness and determined nature of a group of guards who aren't huge in stature, but are hard-nosed and a load to deal with.

"Those guys are tough," said O'Connor, who is in his fifth season at Bethel Park. "We have some big, strong kids. They can shoot the 3, but they can also rebound. In the end, our guard play is our biggest positive, but the fact that we're big and physical is our biggest asset. We're a lot smaller than last year, but more physical than last year."

Bethel Park had to replace its top three scorers -- Cody Gilchrist, Hagerty and Rohan Young -- and four starters overall.

Joey Mascaro, a 5-9 junior point guard, and Sam Volpatti, a 5-8 junior guard, both started at times last season. They're among the starting five this season, as are 6-0 senior guard Jake Murphy, 6-3 senior guard-forward Josh Krafczynski and 6-4 junior center Dan Breit.

Krafczynski is equally difficult to defend as his name is to spell. He scored in double figures in three of the first four games, highlighted by a 23-point effort against Carrick that included six 3-pointers. Krafczynski is thriving after battling injuries the past few years, including a knee injury that forced him to miss his sophomore season.

"This is the first time he's experienced a pain-free season," O'Connor said. "He really worked hard in the offseason. He can shoot coming off the dribble. His overall game has really improved. He's one of the few kids with experience, and you can't put a price tag on that."

In terms of experience, Mascaro has more than any other player on the team. He might also be the player the Black Hawks can least afford to lose. O'Connor said Mascaro has a calming effect on his teammates when he's in the game, adding that he can heavily influence the action through being a true point guard or a scorer.

"We ask him to be more of a point guard and help others get shots," O'Connor said. "That's not always easy for a kid who can score, but he's made a conscious effort to get others involved. He makes other players better."

Bethel Park has a deep bench that is led by 6-1 senior guard R.J. Pfeuffer (a transfer from Peters Township) and 6-1 sophomore forward Jake Dixon. Also seeing minutes are 6-2 senior guard Cass Wisniewski, 6-1 sophomore guard Levi Metheny and 5-11 junior guard Anthony Bomar.

The Black Hawks added a big inside presence when senior forward Ryan Sosnak elected to return after not playing last season. Sosnak, who is 6-3, 290 pounds, was an all-conference defensive lineman for the Bethel Park football team this fall.

O'Connor said he is encouraged by his team's early play, but knows it has a long way to go.

"We have to make a lot of improvement," he said.

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