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Belle Vernon boys prepare for PIAA 1st-round matchup with Hickory

March 25, 2018 GMT

It’s no surprise it took the Belle Vernon boys basketball team a few days to shake off a WPIAL semifinal loss to eventual champion New Castle.

But now, the Leopards (18-6) turn their focus to a run for PIAA gold as they travel to Sharon to face District 10 runner-up Hickory at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

“It was the normal reaction for our guys,” BVA coach Kyle DeGregorio said. “It took a couple days to get our focus on the state tournament. But we’ve had a week and a half since the New Castle game, so we’re ready to go.”

DeGregorio said he’s had a good look at Hickory under the guidance of first-year coach Chris Mele.

“They’re very talented and well-coached,” DeGregorio said. ”(Donald) Whitehead is a real talented sophomore, and they have a 1,000-point scorer down in the post. They’ve got a bunch of good athletes, and their personnel will present a challenge for us.

“This is pretty much a home game for them. We have to deal with two and a half hours of travel, but we’re going to break that up.”

The Hornets (20-5) are led by Whitehead’s 17 points per game. Brandon Beader is averaging nearly 15 points. Other players to watch include Jon Walsh, Jaylen Jarvie and sharpshooting Michael Filardi. Freshman Peyton Mele scored 12 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter of the Hornets’ district championship loss to Sharon.

“We’re going to have to be really good when it comes to our communication,” DeGregorio said. “We constantly have to solve problems and adjust our defense, so we need to be able to communicate. And it’s going to help a lot of we hit our shots.”

The Leopards are led by 6-5 forward Joe Sabolek, who is averaging just over 12 points. Derek Thomas is averaging 10. Sophomore Cam Nusser has emerged as a go-to shooter from distance and holds the ability to penetrate if necessary, and senior Bryce Washington is the defensive stopper and led the team with 13 points against the Red Hurricanes in the WPIAL semis.

“The biggest disappointment for us wasn’t the loss,” DeGregorio said. “We know we didn’t play as well as we can. When you play your best and lose, that’s a different kind of feeling. I do know that we’ll play better (Friday) night.”

The Leopards will leave Rostraver Township at 2 p.m. and stop for a team meal before heading to a gym to get in a quick shootaround.

“The school district has done a great job for us. We’re taking a coach bus, so that will help make a comfortable and a bit shorter ride,” DeGregorio said. “We’ll stop for a team meal, then we have a gym about 30 minutes away that we’re going to stop at and get our legs under us, get some shots up. Then we’ll head to Sharon.”

The Leopards are hoping their 11-man rotation will bother the Hornets and they can get balanced scoring, which can give them an advantage.

“It really makes us tough to prepare for,” DeGregorio said. “It gives us great flexibility. If you only have five guys, you can get into trouble with foul trouble or some not performing well.

“With our system, we can usually absorb that because we have five guys and six more on the bench that can contribute in a number of ways. I think that’s an advantage for us.”

Overall, DeGregorio’s confidence remains high with his players and their resolve.

“We didn’t like the feeling after the New Castle game. We played them many times in the fall and summer. We know we’re better than we were in the semifinal,” he said. “I’m sure we’re going to come out and play better basketball.”

Jeremy Sellew is the sports editor of the Mon Valley Independent.