South Xtra: At last, South Allegheny finds winning formula

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The South Allegheny boys basketball team has entered uncharted territory this year and it is all thanks to one contagious act -- winning.

Rewinding to two years ago, the Gladiators hit their lowest point, finishing the season with an 0-21 record. Worst than that, it extended their record to 10 years without a winning record. A change in the system was essential.

Enter Tony DiCenzo.

DiCenzo, the Gladiators head coach, came onto the scene last year and immediately transformed their fortunes. The Gladiators raised their record to 8-14 in his first year. They came out of the gates running this season and have not looked back.

"I'm not so much surprised," DiCenzo said. "What helped us is that we have four out of five starters back from last year. We missed the playoffs by a game in the standings. If a couple things went our way we would've made it. The success and experience we had last year is helping us with the success this year."

The Gladiators (12-6, 6-3 before Wednesday night's scheduled non-section game at Steel Valley) are in third place in Class AA Section 3 behind Greensburg Central Catholic (14-2, 8-0) and second place Jeannette (11-7, 7-3).

Thanks to Jeannete's victory against Serra Catholic Tuesday, the Gladiators have already clinched a WPIAL playoff berth.

The four returning starters -- Harry Matczack, Derek Vargo, Jeiron Lewis and Kordell Thompson -- were all apart of the team that went 0-21 and couldn't be more satisfied with the way they are ending their high school careers.

"A lot of the guys were part of the team that was 0-21," DiCenzo said. "As the season has progressed for us, we have handled our success better. We still have stuff to work on. If we want to accomplish what we [hope for], we need to get better at closing out games."

Thompson was the team's leading scorer last year and is at the top again this year, but has some help from the fifth starter who is in his first year on the team.

When DiCenzo took the job last year one of his goals was to get the quarterback of the football team, Ty Cook, to play basketball.

"I met with him to try and convince him to play last year," DiCenzo said. "I couldn't get him but last year's success changed his mind this year. He is why we are where we are."

Cook is leading the team with 17 points per game. But it isn't the offense that is the Gladiators strong point.

"We predicate ourselves on defense," DiCenzo said. "If we are in the low 50s or 40s [score of the game], we have a chance to win. It gives us a chance to be in the game whether we are efficient on offense or not. If we can stop you and you can't score, we are going to be in every game."

That was the case in their big section win against Jeannette on Jan. 17. The Gladiators pulled out a 41-34 win against the Jayhawks to solidify their hopes to qualify for the playoffs.

The defense has been an instrumental part to the Gladiators' improved play.

"The kids are gaining confidence and are going into games thinking we are going to win and expecting to win and our record is what it is because of it," DiCenzo said.

The Gladiators only remaining section games are against the three teams at the bottom of the section standings -- Friday at Riverview (4-12, 1-8), Tuesday at Springdale (2-13, 0-7) and Feb. 7 at Serra Catholic (7-9, 3-4). Given that, they are in position to move up in the section standings and possibly get a nice seeding in the playoffs.

"With the position we are in, we are right there," DiCenzo said.

South Allegheny's only section losses have been against first-place Greensburg Central Catholic twice and once to Shady Side Academy.

"I think we need to continue to keep playing," DiCenzo said. "They thrive off of playing, especially with how they are playing right now."

South Allegheny is solely focused on the outcome of this year, but it is hard not to have in the back of their minds the lack of success this program has had in the past decade.

"We mention it a little bit but we aren't concerned about it," DiCenzo said. "They understand it. We are starting to get more and more people coming to the games. We are focused on our goals for this year and what is in front of us."

The Gladiators have already clinched their first winning season in more than a decade but have more lofty goals they are looking to accomplish this season.

"Goals at the beginning of the season to win section [title] and qualify for the playoffs and make a run at the WPIAL championship," DiCenzo said. "[Except for winning the section title,] we are in good shape. All that experience last year is paying off for this year.

"The players are a lot more confident and we are seeing the benefit of that this year. Moreso we want to be playing our best basketball of the season at the end of January and into February.

"We don't want to peak right now. We want to continue to get better."

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