As the Vincentian Academy boys basketball team attempts to defend its WPIAL Class A title, a familiar name stands in its way.
In Friday's WPIAL Class A quarterfinal, Vincentian (21-2) will play Clairton (10-6) at 6:15 p.m. at West Allegheny in a rematch of last season's district final. But there won't be much to be gained from looking back at last season's meeting, because most of the high-profile players on the Bears' side in that game are long gone.
Clairton lost all five starters and a few key reserves from last season's WPIAL runner-up. With a new group of starters, the Bears started just 5-4 before winning five of their past six games, including a 55-51 overtime win Friday against Sewickley Academy in the first round of the WPIAL tournament.
"The report I got on them is that they are very athletic," Vincentian coach George Yokitis said. "The Matthews kid, who is their quarterback in football, is very adept at playing basketball, too. He dominates the boards."
Aaron Matthews, a sophomore, stands at 6 feet 5 and averages in double figures in rebounds. He, along with Clairton's leading scorer, Isaiah Hollis, are the tallest starters on the team, but all five starters are at least 6 feet tall.
Meanwhile, Yokitis noted that his undersized team, which leads the WPIAL in scoring at 91 points per game, has had trouble on the glass against the taller, more athletic teams it has faced this season.
"Our kids understand they need to box out," Yokitis said. "We're not very tall. I'm not sure if we have anyone taller than 6-1. So we're trying to emphasize rebounding."
Yokitis wanted to prepare his team for athletic teams it would face in the WPIAL postseason, such as Clairton, so he put together some challenging games in the non-conference schedule against teams such as City League No. 1 Obama Academy and Class AA Section 1 champion Summit Academy, the two teams that beat the Royals this season.
"Obama and Summit were very athletic," Yokitis said. "Wilkinsburg had some good athletes, too, and so did Butler. Frankly I wanted to schedule a lot of athletic teams because I figured we would see teams like Clairton, Lincoln Park and Monessen in the playoffs and wanted our guys to be prepared."
The key player for Vincentian will be junior guard Ryan Wolf, who has been excellent all season, but especially in the aforementioned non-conference games. He scored 71 points in the team's first two wins of the season against Wilkinsburg and Butler, and then went for 40 in the loss to Obama Academy.
But Wolf missed the last three games of the regular season, including the finale against Summit Academy, due to a back injury.
He returned Friday in the first-round playoff win against Trinity Christian, playing half the game and scoring 15 points.
Yokitis said Wolf was "about 90 percent" against the Falcons, but hopes the week off in between games will give him time to get back to full strength against the Bears.
In Wolf's absence, Jay Cortese picked up the slack. A junior forward, he has scored at least 18 points in four of the team's past five games.
"He's really come on," Yokitis said. "He's probably our best athlete, our best jumper. He usually works around the hoop but he can also step out and hit a 3.
"It's great when you see a kid put it all together."
Cortese is also the team's leading rebounder and will have his hands full against the taller Bears. Even if Cortese and his teammates are able to carryover their rebounding work in practice to the game, Yokitis said a big key for the Royals is not making rebounding necessary on the offensive end.
"We have to hit our 3-point shots," Yokitis said. "We're probably not going to get too many second chances, so we have to hit our shots.
"It should be a good game."