West Xtra: After memorable run last season, Cornell will try to reload in a hurry
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Starting all over has been the norm for Cornell High School boys basketball coach Bill Sacco.
He's been coaching for 44 years, so he's used to bringing out the playboard and breaking down strategy to some basic concepts.
"We have three players with some experience," said Sacco, who led his team to the WPIAL Class A championship game last March in which the Raiders dropped a 74-57 decision to Section 1-A rival Lincoln Park. Cornell's season abruptly concluded at 19-7 with a first-round loss to Kennedy Catholic in the PIAA Class A playoffs.
"We are starting from scratch, and it is a challenge," the Raiders coach said. "But I do like what we're trying to do."
He'll find out just how effective team practices have been at 5:45 p.m. Friday when the Raiders cross the Ohio River to play Quaker Valley in the Quakers' tip-off tournament.
In this game, some players who were teammates less than two months ago will line up against each other as some Cornell athletes played football for Quaker Valley in the first year of a cooperative arrangement between the two schools. Cornell suspended its football program after the 2011 season.
Sacco said he's comfortable with eight players expected to see a lot of playing time while he tries to mold a lineup that lost six seniors, including Corey Mackey, who averaged 17.3 points a game on a team that averaged 61.7 points.
"Our team didn't have a lot of physical specimens," he said. "We had skinny kids, and I told them they were the train, and I was the caboose."
With a lot of relatively inexperienced players, Sacco said, he has spent a lot of time working on fundamentals.
"The guys we had last year had been together since they were in ninth grade," he said. "There were times when I could talk about a play we hadn't run in two years, and they'd know what to do. What we're doing right now is different, and it's hard. But that's OK. They're going to get there."
Cornell's most experienced player is Dane Jackson, a 6-foot-1, 160-pound sophomore guard from Coraopolis.
"Dane averaged about 8 or 9 points off the bench last year," Sacco said. "So not all of our points were scored by one player."
Senior forward Daniel Weryha gained some valuable experience of his own in the Raiders' 57-49 victory against North Catholic in the WPIAL Class A semifinals.
"One of our players was suspended, so Daniel had to come in there and guard their 6-11 kid [Jon LeGrande]," Sacco said of his 6-2, 190-pound forward from Coraopolis. "He averaged about 5 points a game last year, and he did a good job against [LeGrande]."
Sacco expects big contributions from three other Coraopolis residents, Devin Hines, a 6-4, 165-pound sophomore forward, Dietrich Lee, a 5-8, 140-pound junior guard, and Kevin Korzen, a 6-6, 260-pound junior center.
"We have some high expectations of Devin, and we hope he can grow into those shoes," Sacco said. "He has limited experience, so we'll have to see how it works out."
Although Lee has had little court time, Sacco is pleased with his attitude.
"I like the fact that he's understanding the game better," Sacco said. "He's a work in progress, and he's one of those kids who has some ability but not a lot of experience. But I think he's capable of doing a good job."
Korzen presents a wonderful dilemma for Sacco.
"You can't teach height, and he gives something we haven't had before," he said. "He has good hands, and he shoots the ball well for a big man. He's only been in our program for about a month and a half.
"When he started, he couldn't get up and down the floor. He's trimmed down, and he can move now. We're hoping he'll be able to get some valuable experience this year."
Three more Coraopolis residents will see some playing time off the bench, and possibly more action.
Pete Bartolomucci, a 6-1, 155-pound senior forward, sustained a back injury as a wide receiver while playing for Quaker Valley's football team.
"When he's in there, that gives us a presence on the perimeter," Sacco said. "I like his strength, and his shooting ability gives us another option."
Clint Zelkovic, a 5-8, 150-pound guard, and Germal Bell, a 6-3, 165-pound senior center, are the other two players expected to aid the Raiders' efforts.
"This is the first time Clint has been playing for a while, and he gives us some quickness and strength," Sacco said. "Germal works hard around the glass and jumps well. He has a lot of energy, and he'll get after the ball. He's not afraid to do that."
Sacco has been coaching for a long time, and he joked about some of his former players coming up to him and introducing themselves.
"Some of them I didn't recognize at first because they've changed [physically]," he said.
One former player needed no introduction. University of Kentucky coach John Calipari, who played for Sacco at Moon Area in the 1970s, watched Sacco's Raiders play Lincoln Park in the WPIAL championship game last March at the A.J. Palumbo Center.
"John was more than just a player; he's a friend," Sacco said. "I was very appreciative of what he was able to do. He joked a little that [Lincoln Park] looked a little like [Kentucky]."
Sacco can't guess what's in store for this season.
"All I want is for these kids to work hard and play hard," he said. "As long as they play to the best of their abilities, that will be fine with me."
First Published December 6, 2012 12:00 am