West Xtra: Gritty Cornell keeps battling

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Most teams would rather forget about a losing season, but that's not the case for the Cornell High School boys basketball team.

Instead of completely erasing the fact that the Raiders won just three games in 2012-13 while going winless in Section 1-A, they are using it as motivation this season.

"Winning and making the playoffs has pretty much been part of the existence at Cornell," Raiders coach Bill Sacco said. "There haven't been too many years that this team didn't qualify for the playoffs. We're usually there. We're usually up there with the top four teams [in the section], but not last year."

Despite a bumpy start in section play, losing three games to some strong opposition, including Lincoln Park, the Post-Gazette's No. 1-ranked Class A team, and No. 3 Western Beaver, Cornell still has a respectable 8-5 overall record.

The Raiders have to make up some ground to get back into WPIAL playoff contention. They are tied with Union for fourth place at 1-3. The top four teams in the six-team section qualify for the postseason.

"Somehow we've been able to win some games, but I'm not sure how," Sacco said. "Maybe we're grittier than we've been in the past. Defense has definitely been a factor.

"Most of our games we were trailing but came back to win. It's that grittiness and it's been fun to watch."

Dane Jackson and Kevin Korzen are two reasons for the Raiders' modest success.

Jackson, a 6-foot-1 junior guard who led Cornell in scoring last season with 21.3 points a game, is averaging 26.8 points through 12 games.

Jackson was a standout quarterback for Quaker Valley during football season and led the Quakers in passing and rushing. Because Cornell does not have a football team, Jackson played football for QV through a cooperative agreement between the two schools.

Jackson scored a team-high 19 points in the Raiders' 84-44 loss to Lincoln Park on Jan. 3.

"Dane is a super athlete and has been our leader," Sacco said. "We look to him and he's able to do what most other players can't do because of his athleticism and agilities."

Korzen, on the other hand, is a 6-foot-7 senior center and playing his first full season of basketball this year. In 12 games, Korzen averaged 15 points and 14 rebounds a game.

"Before last season Kevin never touched a basketball," Sacco said. "He picked up a ball for the first time last season and has worked a lot since then, playing summer ball and working to get better.

"He's progressed, but he's still learning as he's going. He's taking his lumps but he's also giving some lumps."

Guards Clint Zelkovic, a 5-6 senior, and Dietrich Lee as well as 6-2 senior forward Brian Ubrey make up the rest of Sacco's starting lineup. Lee, a 5-9 senior, missed most of the past two seasons because of injuries, while Ubrey is making his debut as a first-year player.

Junior forward Shawn Puskar, 6-1, and 5-11 sophomore forward John Yaworski both have added depth off the bench.

"The play of Dane and Kevin has been our catalyst, but the rest of the guys are feeding off that and learning to be role players," Sacco said. "We have four seniors and one junior, but we don't have a lot of experience. We have age but very little experience.

"When you look at how much experience this group has together, it's surprising how well they have done so far."

Cornell continues Section 1-A play tomorrow in a key game against neighboring rival Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (9-4, 3-1).

"Our section is tough again," Sacco said. "Not only do we have Lincoln Park to play again, but we have [Our Lady of the Sacred Heart] and Western Beaver, who are both playing very well right now. Union lost everyone from last year, but they're also playing well. Then you have Rochester, which is also tough to beat.

"It's hard to find any cream puffs in this section because there isn't one. We have to be ready to play each and every one."

Sacco also knows his team can't look past its next opponent and must remain focused through the regular season.

"We have to go with the idea of being patient," he said. "We can only do what we do. We can't worry about other teams. We can only worry about Cornell and what we're doing. If it works out for a win, then it works for a win.

"We're playing to win. If we keep playing gritty like we've been, teams won't push us around."

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