The Canon-McMillan boys basketball program was dealt a devastating blow just a few days before the start of the season, and its ramifications extended far beyond the court.
Luke Blanock, a junior forward and projected starter, was diagnosed with a form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, which is a rare malignant bone tumor. Blanock had surgery to remove the tumor and then began chemotherapy treatments which are expected to continue well into this year.
“So far, knock on wood, all of the tests have come back negative. [The doctors] think they got it all,” Canon-McMillan coach Rick Bell said.
The Twitter hashtag #LukeStrong has become popular throughout the Pittsburgh area, as Blanock has gained support from a countless number of people, some that he knows and many others he has never met.
On the basketball court, Canon-McMillan has used Blanock’s fight as a rallying cry. And it’s paid dividends. After a 3-4 start, a young Big Macs team with just one senior has won 6 of 7.
The Big Macs (10-5 overall) are 6-2 in Class AAAA Section 4 and have a shot of winning their first section title since 1973. They’re currently tied with Upper St. Clair (10-5, 6-2) for the section lead and Bethel Park (11-4, 6-3) is a half-game back.
“[Blanock] comes to a lot of practices and the kids see him sitting there. It’s kind of hard to get selfish when you see what this kid is going through,” Bell said. “Luke would do anything to be able to play. It’s a pretty inspirational story. It’s been a rallying cry, not only for the team, but for the whole community.”
The Big Macs have certainly shown a lot of maturity. Costa Karanikos, a 6-foot guard, is the team’s only senior. Karanikos missed a few games earlier this month with an Achilles injury, so the team went through a stretch with a lineup consisting of all underclassmen.
It’s been a freshman who has been coming on strong of late. Britton Beachy, a 6-0 guard, scored a career-high 27 points in a huge, 66-63 win against Bethel Park last Friday. Bethel Park entered the game in a tie for the section lead and had defeated Canon-McMillan, 60-49, in the section opener. Beachy came into this week having averaged 20 points in his previous three games.
“My son [R.J.] and Britton have played together coming up through our program,” Bell said. “A lot of people are surprised by what [Britton is] doing. I’m not. If I was, I wouldn’t have moved him up. I’ve had a chance to watch him play since third grade.
“He’s a freshman in grade only. And I tell him that. I don’t coach him like a freshman and I don’t expect him to play like one. He does things on the court that normal freshmen can’t do.”
R.J. Bell, a 6-2 freshman, has seen some playing time, too. His classmate, 6-2 guard-forward Carson Miller, is one of the team’s top reserves.
Seven players have earned most of the starting minutes. Sam Bohn, a 5-10 junior point guard, and 5-10 junior guard Alex Hammers are the team’s leading scorers. In addition to Beachy and Karanikos, the other regulars are 6-4 sophomore forward Jordan Smith, 6-0 junior forward Connor Helinski and 6-4 junior forward Jake Papi. Malik Brown, a 6-4 sophomore forward, is typically one of the first players off the bench.
A schedule change has Canon-McMillan playing two games against Upper St. Clair in the next four days. The Big Macs travel to Upper St. Clair Friday and then play host to the Panthers Monday. The latter game was moved from December because Upper St. Clair was in Las Vegas for a tournament on the originally scheduled date.
A pair of wins there and a Big Macs team whose most valuable player has not played a minute this season could be partying like its 1973.
Blanock tweeted this a few weeks back: “Not much else makes me as happy as a Big Mac basketball win.”
Here are some top boys games to keep an eye on this week:
Elizabeth Forward at Thomas Jefferson, Friday, 7:30 p.m. — Sole possession of first place in Class AAA Section 4 will be on the line in this one. This is also a big revenge game for Thomas Jefferson (13-2, 5-1), which lost a 57-56 heartbreaker to the Warriors (14-2, 7-1) on Dec. 30. Since then, the Jaguars have won six games in a row.
Chartiers Valley at Montour, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. — Montour (9-4, 6-1) will try to do something no Class AAA Section 5 team has done — beat Chartiers Valley (13-1, 7-0). The Colts downed Montour, 74-59, on Jan. 3 behind 32 points from Matty McConnell. Doing it again would inch the Colts closer to their third consecutive section title.