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O'Connor resigns as Bethel Park coach

Written by Mike White on .

The Big Ben of WPIAL coaching is going to small ball.

Ben O'Connor, who at 6 feet 7 or so has to be one of the biggest coaches in the WPIAL, resigned today as Bethel Park's boys basketball coach.

O'Connor loves coaching. He loves Bethel Park. So why walk away from something he loves? His family.

O'Connor and his wife have three young children ages 4, 5 and 7. He wants to be involved with their sports teams as they get older. He also wants to be around more for his father, who has been battling some health issues.

"I plan on coaching T-ball, softball, flag football, whatever," O'Connor said with a laugh.

O'Connor's resignation is definitely a loss for Bethel Park, and for district in basketball in general. He has done a an excellent job every place he has been - Keystone Oaks, Fox Chapel and Bethel Park. He has put a spark in every program he took over.

On top of that, O'Connor is highly respected and known as one of the good guys in high school basketball coaching. Big Ben will certainly be missed.

At Bethel Park, the Black Hawks had two seasons below .500 before O'Connor took over in 2010. He was 4-17 and 8-14 his first two years. In the next four years, he was 15-8, 17-6, 18-7 and 16-10.

He started his head coaching career in 2000 at his alma mater, Keystone Oaks. The Eagles were 0-22 the year before. But O'Connor got KO to 11-13 in his first year and to the WPIAL playoffs. Over the next three seasons, he was 14-9, 14-13 and 17-11 and made the playoffs two more times before leaving to become coach at Westminster College. After two years at Westminster, he became Fox Chapel's coach in 2006 and stayed four seasons, going 61-40 and making the WPIAL playoffs three times. His 2007 team was 20-8 and made the WPIAL semifinals. 

And remember, Fox Chapel hadn't made the playoffs for three seasons before O'Connor took over (Photo is of O'Connor during his Fox Chapel days)

O'Connor will continue to be a guidance counselor at Fox Chapel. He acknowledged he might get back into high school coaching again someday.

"When I was at Keystone Oaks, I thought I would be there forever. Things happen," said O'Connor.

It will be interesting to see who takes over for O'Connor. Maybe one of his assistant coaches want the job. Bethel Park has a new, sparkling gymnasium, one of the best facilities in the state. It is a Class AAAA school. O'Connor didn't leave the cupboard bare, either. There are talented players coming back.

Considering all that, Bethel Park is a job that should draw a good deal of of interest from coaches.

Showtime

If you want to hear some talk about the state quarterfinals and predictions watch Varsity Xtra's "This Week In High School Sports" with yours truly and colleague Terry Shields.

 

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Watch Seton-LaSalle's Walsh half-court winner ..... Other notes

Written by Mike White on .

The best finish so far in the PIAA playoffs? It would be hard to beat last night's Seton-LaSalle vs. Greensburg Central Catholic girls second-round game.

Seton-LaSalle is the defending PIAA Class AA champion, but the Rebels were cooked. Greensburg Central Catholic's Brittany Stawovy made a shot with 2.5 seconds left to put the Centurions ahead, 52-51. Seton-LaSalle took the ball out of bounds and got it to senior guard Cassidy Walsh. A Pitt recruit, Walsh had to work to get open, but got the ball and ...

Well, just watch.

Walsh's short near half court let the Rebels live for another day. They will now play Bellwood-Antis.

It was a great finish to a fine game for Walsh, who had 25 points. The memories of that shot will last forever. That video was sent to us by Seton-LaSalle boys coach Mark "Knobby" Walsh, who also happens to be Cass' uncle.

I'm just sayin'

**** Don't be surprised if only one WPIAL boys team makes it to a title game next week. I think WPIAL teams are underdogs in every classification besides Class AA. Aliquippa has the best chance to get to the finals of any WPIAL team, but the Quips' path won't be easy, either.

**** Monessen coach Joe Salvino has been very outspoken about playing charter, private or parochial schools. He believes those schools have a big advantage because they don't have geographical boundaries, like public schools. Wonder what Salvino will have to say after his team's next game?

Monessen plays Kennedy Catholic Friday in the quarterfinals. Kennedy has 6-8 junior Sagaba Konate, who came to the school from the African country of Mali. His brother, Mohammed, is a 6-4 guard on the team. Another starter is Andrew Magestro, who transferred from Sharon.

**** New Castle's fourth-quarter run last night gave the Red Hurricanes a victory against Indiana. But what was the deciding factor? New Castle's hustle.

In big games, it's hard to say one out-hustled the other, but how do you explain New Castle constantly getting offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter against a much bigger team? How do you explain New Castle coming up with nearly ever one of those 50-50 balls? At one point, New Castle got an offensive rebound on three consecutive free throw misses. Another time in the fourth quarter, New Castle got three offensive rebounds on one possession.

I know New Castle's perfect team last year had some talented players. This year's team has talent also. But the Red Hurricanes don't have a starter this year taller than 6-2. Is there a coach who gets more out of his team than Ralph Blundo?

Blundo (pictured) had a few interesting comments after the game.

"I'm proud to say that I think my guys have an amazing will about them," said Blundo. "To me, that means more than anything.

"We turn teams over 20 times a game and we turn it over 10 times. We get a lot of extra possessions that way and we have to because we're small.

"We make it important to go and get [offensive rebounds]. We don't just forego rebounds, saying 'they have the inside position' on free throws. Plus, I think our kids have great hands."

"We call them 50-50 balls. We put them on the board every game. Whether it's in the air or on the floor, we're going to increase our number of possession by getting most, if not all of those 50-50 balls."Derrick Jones

But no matter the desire or hustle, New Castle will have trouble winning this Class AAA quarterfinal Friday night. Archbishop Carroll is a perennially strong team from Philadelphia. Carroll features Derrick Jones, a 6-7 senior who is ranked the No. 43 player in the country by Rivals.com. Jones (pictured, courtesy of philly.com) is a UNLV recruit. He has a reputation of a tremendous dunker.

**** Indiana's run this season was one of the neatest stories in WPIAL basketball the past few years. What was a great sight also was after the Little Indians lost to New Castle. After going to the locker room, Indiana's team came back upstairs on the court. A half hour after the game, the players and many of its fans were still milling around the court. The players were still in their uniforms, talking with fans and hugging them.

It was almost as if the players didn't want to take those uniforms off for the last time. You can't blame them.

**** Looking ahead, Class AAA in the WPIAL was pretty good this year, but it should be extremely good next year.

Mars is in the PIAA quarterfinals and has every starter back. New Castle has a number of its top players back. Beaver Falls has the strong inside tandem of Donovan Jeter and Josh Creach, who are only sophomores. Plus, Beaver Falls started a freshman at point guard.

 

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State basketball playoff notes ..... Big crowd expected for New Castle-Indiana

Written by Mike White on .

The sites for the second round of the state basketball playoffs were released by the PIAA this afternoon. One has to wonder if there could be a sellout for one of the games?

Indiana plays New Castle in a PIAA Class AAA boys game Tuesday at 7 p.m. at North Allegheny High School. You might need a shoehorn to get all the fans in the place.

The town of Indiana is going nuts over this team, which won a WPIAL title for the first time in school history. For Friday's first-round game at Plum, Indiana sold 600 presale tickets. That's a lot for a WPIAL school in a first-round game. That doesn't count the fans who bought tickets at the gate the night of the game.

New Castle's fan following is legendary in the WPIAL (Pictured is New Castle coach Ralph Blundo addressing the crowd at a parade to honor last year's team). It would not be surprising to see New Castle sell around 1,000 tickets for the game. For a WPIAL Class AAA semifinal two weeks ago against Beaver Falls, the crowd was close to 3,000 at Geneva College. Only a limited number of tickets were sold at the gate that night. Capacity at North Allegheny is 2,400, according to North Allegheny athletic director Bob Bozzuto. NA has one of the biggest high school gyms in the WPIAL. It is at least as big, if not bigger, than a lot of gyms at small colleges.

Ticket information is not yet available for Tuesday's game. We'll put it on the blog tomorrow.

But I must say it's a shame this game couldn't be played at a bigger place, like Duquesne's Palumbo Center, or Pitt's Petersen Center. I'm not sure if either was available. I'm not sure the PIAA even checked. And the cost might have been too high for the PIAA at either place.

But this is an unusual matchup between two teams from two small towns that have become big backers of their teams. This doesn't happen all that often in Western Pa., where two teams meet in a state playoff game with big followings from towns. I wish the PIAA could take advantage of it and showcase the game at a college venue. Heck, second-round and quarterfinal games were played at Palumbo for years, just not the past few. And I remember the Fitzgerald Field House being used for years for early-round PIAA games.

What about a doubleheader at Duquesne with Indiana vs. New Castle, and Mars vs. Beaver Falls? Again, I don't know the particulars with Palumbo's availability or price, but you might have filled the place with those two games.

Some also might question the selection of North Allegheny because it is definitely closer to New Castle than Indiana, and Indiana is the WPIAL champ. Some said play it at IUP, but that would be like a home game for Indiana. So, if it must be at a high school gym, North Allegheny seems like a logical choice, although it will take Indiana fans much longer to get there than New Castle's.

But it still would've been nice to have the game at a bigger venue.

Hometown heroes

This gives you an idea of what the town of Indiana now thinks of its team: Indiana coach Greg Lezanic said the Dunkin Donuts in Indiana was selling Indiana Basketball Donuts this past Friday.

Also, the town has an annual St. Patrick's Day parade. The Indiana team has been asked to lead this year's parade down Main St. in town.

That's good stuff.

McConnell era ends

When Mt. Lebanon defeated Chartiers Valley, 50-48, in the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs Saturday, it marked the end of the McConnell player era at Chartiers Valley.

There was a McConnell playing for Chartiers Valley eight of the past nine seasons. First came T.J. from 2006-10, and then brother, Matty, from 2011-15. Tim and Shelly McConnell have a younger daughter, but no more sons.

The McConnells - T.J. and Matt - had a walloping 4,424 career points between them. T.J. had 2,406 and Matty 2,018. No brothers in the history of WPIAL basketball scored that much.

The Chartiers Valley locker room was quiet after the game, but coach Tim McConnell was philosophical about his sons.

"I'm not sad," said Tim McConnell. "I'm excited for the careers they had at Chartiers Valley and what they accomplished. I think they both had pretty good careers in their own way."

Will the 'Dice roll?

One of the other top second-round boys games in the district is Allderdice vs. Mt. Lebanon. That game will be the third game of a tripleheader Wednesday at North Allegheny at 8 p.m.

Allderdice is the City League champion while Mt. Lebanon is fresh off the defeat of Chartiers Valley. Allderdice hasn't made it past the second round and into the quarterfinals since 1988 when the Dragons lost to Central Catholic, 38-28, in the quarterfinals. Now how about this factoid? That Central Catholic-Allderdice game had two players who went on to play for John Calipari at the University of Massachusetts. It was Jim McCoy of Central Catholic and William Herndon of Allderdice.

Herndon, I will always remember, was called "Man" by everyone at Allderdice. I remember back then asking then Allderdice coach Howard Bullard why Herndon was called "Man." Bullard said, "If you saw a kid in ninth grade with a full beard what else would you call him?"

Facing top players

The North Allegheny boys will play Harrisburg in a Class AAAA second-round game. Harrisburg has 6-3 guard Jahaad Proctor, who was all-state last year and has signed with Holy Cross. Procter had 36 points and 10 rebounds in Harrisburg's first-round victory against State College.

Watch out for West Middlesex in the Class AA boys tournament. One of the main reasons is Trey Staunch, a 6-5, 240-pound senior who has signed with Edinboro to play football. Staunch also is excellent in basketball. He scored his 2,000th career point in the District 10 semifinals a few weeks ago. Playing alongside Staunch is 6-6, 240-pound Josh Porterfield.

West Middlesex plays Seton-LaSalle in a second-round game Wednesday.

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PIAA denies Chartiers Valley request to move game for McConnells ..... WPIAL championship notes

Written by Mike White on .

A look back at the WPIAL basketball championships, and a look ahead to the state playoffs

Chartiers Valley boys basketball coach Tim McConnell will have to miss his son's Senior Day with the University of Arizona team. There is a PIAA playoff game to be played.

Chartiers Valley is scheduled to play Mt. Lebanon in a PIAA Class AAAA first-round game Saturday at 2:30 at Canon-McMillan. Saturday is the day that all Class AAAA boys first-round games are played around the state. Chartiers Valley had asked the PIAA if the game could instead be played Friday, so that McConnell could travel to Arizona Saturday morning and attend Senior Day at Arizona. McConnell's son, T.J. (pictured), is the starting point guard for Arizona and the Wildcats play their final home game at 5 p.m. (eastern time).

Besides Chartiers Valley request, representatives of the WPIAL acted on Chartiers Valley's behalf and also asked the PIAA if the game could be moved up a day. This is not the WPIAL's call because it is the PIAA's tournament. But WPIAL executive director Tim O'Malley said Mt. Lebanon also was fine with the change.

But the PIAA decided to keep the game on Saturday. The schedule for the PIAA tournament is set a year ahead of time. PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi said today there were two reasons the PIAA didn't move the game. First, it would set a precedent for other teams wanting schedule changes for whatever reason. Secondly, Lombardi said some might see it as a competitive advantage for the Char Valley-Mt. Lebanon winner in that they would get four days to prepare for their second-round game, while their opponent would get only three.

Lombardi said the PIAA gets requests every year to adjust the schedule. He said one team wanted a change this year because of a senior trip to Florida.

Maybe you have an opinion on the PIAA's decision. I hate to be a "fence sitter," but I can see both sides. I can understand Chartiers Valley asking for the schedule change and, as a father myself, I can certainly sympathize with Tim McConnell's feelings about wanting to be present for his son's senior night. That's a special thing. 

But yet I can also see why the PIAA would say no.

WPIAL MVPs, all-tourney

The WPIAL doesn't give out MVPs or name an all-tournament team for the championship games. So, I will. There are the Emmys. So may we present the Whiteys ...

MVPs

This is easy for the boys and girls. For the boys, it's Chartiers Valley's Matty McConnell (pictured celebrating with his father, Tim). He scores 34 points, Matty McConnellpulls down 10 rebounds, goes over 2,000 points for his career, makes a half-court shot and leads Chartiers Valley to a win in the Class AAAA title game. The more people see the way he has played this year, the more I keep hearing this comment: "Robert Morris is getting a steal."

For the girls, the MVP is Vincentian's Brenna Wise. She is the do-everything player for Vincentian and was terrific in the Class A final, scoring 35 points and pulling down 15 rebounds while playing on her future home court. Wise is a Pitt recruit.

What's funny is how Wise's and McConnell's statistics were almost identical. McConnell was 14 of 20 from the field. Wise was 15 of 20. Wise was 3 of 4 from the free-throw line and McConnell 3 of 5. McConnell made three 3-pointers and Wise two.

ALL-TOURNAMENT BOYS 

Eddie Flohr, Chartiers Valley - Was terrific in the second half of the Class AAAA final. He hurt NA with his quickness and penetrating ability, scoring 20 of his 24 points in the second half.

Cole Constantino, North Allegheny - Constantino showed again why he is one of the best guards in Class AAAA, scoring 27 points for the Tigers

Josh Creach, Beaver Falls - Only a sophomore, the 6-5 Creach had 24 points and 14 rebounds. I'd say his future is pretty bright. 

Dylan Stapleton and Blake Shields, Indiana - It's tough to pick one player from Indiana because the Little Indians were so well-balanced. But Stapleton (pictured going against Creach) had 15 points and made the pass to his brother, Riley, for the winning basket. Shields had 14 points.

Stephon McGinnis, Aliquippa - 22 points in the Quips' Class AA win.

Kazeon Pugh, Aliquippa - Only scored 11 points, but his physical play was a major factor, especially in the second half. Had 12 rebounds.

Ryan Norkus, Seton-LaSalle - Had 25 points, including 16 in the first quarter.

Justice Rice, Monessen and Noah Rullo, Monessen - It was a little R&R for the Hounds. Rice scored 22 and Rullo 22 for the Class A champs.

Julian Batts, Jeannette - Point guard had 15 points despite being "Hounded" by defenders. 

ALL-TOURNAMENT GIRLS

Alayna Gribble, Norwin - Has been gigantic all year for Norwin and was big in title game with 21 points, including three 3-pointers.

Desiree Oliver, Penn Hills - It was a rough night for Penn Hills against Norwin, but Oliver had 17 points.

Emily Anderson, South Fayette - Anderson is 6 feet 3 and she's not just a tall drink of water with no talent. Colleges should be interested in her. Despite playing on an injured knee, she still had 17 points and 12 rebounds.

Chassidy Omogrosso and Courtney Vannoy, Blackhawk - There can't be many better inside-outside punches in WPIAL. Omogrosso scored 26 points to finish off a great tournament. She averaged 31.5 points in four playoff games. Vannoy (pictured to the left) also was a big factor with 19 points and eight rebounds.

Nicolette Newman, Seton-LaSalle - This sharpshooting guard had four 3-pointers and 16 points as the Rebels rolled past Bishop Canevin.

Maia Joiner, Vincentian - Vincentian isn't all Wise. Joiner had 13 points for the Royals.

Sam Breen, Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic - There wasn't much to cheer about for the North Catholic faithful against Vincentian. But Breen still had a double double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Notes and anecdotes

***** The Aliquippa boys team would have been good this season without Stephon McGinnis, who transferred from Ambridge to Aliquippa in the middle of football season. Not to take anything from the Quips and the job coach Nick Lackovich did as a second-year coach. But I seriously doubt whether Aliquippa would be undefeated if McGinnis would have stayed at Ambridge.

**** And what if McGinnis would have stayed at Ambridge, a team that made it to the semifinals? Would we be talking about the Bridgers' first title since 1967 and not Indiana as the WPIAL AAA champs?

**** I thought it about it late Friday after the game. Considering the way the game was played, considering the talent, considering the way it ended and the storylines, the Indiana-Beaver Falls game should go down as one of the best in WPIAL history. It most certainly is one of the best I have seen in more than 30 years of covering WPIAL title games.

**** Isn't it about time Joe Salvino gets recognized as an outstanding coach? I think he is under-appreciated, but the guy has more than 500 wins and five WPIAL titles. 

**** Indiana and its championship is one of the "neatest" stories in WPIAL basketball in a while.

**** Vincentian's 74-35 victory against North Catholic was the biggest blowout ever in a WPIAL Class A girls final.

**** It was interesting to hear Chassidy Omogrosso and Bridgette Shaffer talk to the media after winning a second consecutive WPIAL title and hear them say that winning the state title feels so much bigger. But that's all in your experiences. If they hadn't won the WPIAL before, it would've been gigantic for Blackhawk.

**** No knock against Omogrosso, a wonderful player. But it amazes me how she is so right-hand dominant and yet no one can stop her from scoring tons of points. 

**** Best first-round game involving WPIAL teams is Chartiers Valley boys against Mt. Lebanon. The Blue Devils beat Chartiers Valley in triple overtime earlier this year.

Chartiers Valley has a tough road. If the Colts would get by Mt. Lebanon, which won't be easy, it's likely they would play City League champion Allderdice, which plays Fox Chapel in a first-round game. Believe me when I tell you Allderdice has enough to beat Chartiers Valley.

**** I would say of the WPIAL four boys champions, Aliquippa has the best chance of winning a state championship in Class AA.

**** In the eight classifications (boys and girls), the WPIAL has three teams ranked No. 1 in the state in the Pennlive.com rankings - the Aliquippa boys (AA), and and the Blackhawk (AAA) and Vincentian (A) girls.

 

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WPIAL championship predictions

Written by Mike White on .

The winners of the WPIAL basketball championships will be ...

Sorry. You will have to look below for predictions of the championship games, which will be played tonight and tomorrow at the Petersen Events Center.

Many have wondered why the WPIAL switched to the Petersen Center. Well, basically Petersen's bid for the games was cheaper than that from the Palumbo Center.

There will be no live television for the championships. But all eight can seen on Comcast Xfinity's "On Demand," starting the day after the game. Go to the "Get Local" folder and then "Sports." This is the 10th year that Comcast has the games "On Demand."

Here are the predictions:

GIRLS

Vincentian vs. North Catholic, Saturday at 11 a.m. - The two section rivals meet in the title game for the fourth time in nine years. North Catholic struggling to beat Riverview in the semifinals was a little surprising. Things will be tougher in the final. Vincentian's Brenna Wise (Pitt recruit) is playing on her future home court. Will she rule the place already? It shouldn't be a blowout, which means Wise will get to play a full game for one of the few times this year. Winner: Vincentian.

Bishop Canevin vs. Seton-LaSalle, today at 5 p.m. - Are these two tired of each other? This is the 17th meeting in five years and the third championship meeting in five years. Bishop Canevin lost to Seton-LaSalle by two points a few weeks ago. Will this one be that close? Winner: Seton-LaSalle. 

Blackhawk vs. South Fayette, Saturday at 3 p.m. - Kudos to South Fayette for getting to the title game for the first time in school history. It will take a Lion-hearted effort to knock off Blackhawk. Chassidy Omogrosso (pictured) is having one of the best tournaments in WPIAL history, averaging 33 points a game. Blackhawk has other talented players, but Omogrosso is the engine and will carry the Cougars to another title. Winner: Blackhawk.

Norwin vs. Penn Hills, Saturday at 7 p.m. - Who could've predicted this matchup? Norwin is in the finals for the first time. Penn Hills hasn't made it since 1994. Penn Hills has excellent guards, but the Indians don't have a starter taller than 5-9. Norwin starts 5-8, 5-10, 6-0 and 6-2. I took Penn Hills on Varsity Xtra video. Can I change? Winner: Penn Hills.

BOYS

Monessen vs. Jeannette, today at 7 p.m. - This is the first time since 2007 that two public schools have met in the Class A final. Monessen can't let Jeannette's Julian Batts have a big game, but Batts will need some help if the Jayhawks are to win their second WPIAL title. I say it's time Monessen coach Joe Salvino gets a big shoutout. Underrated in the WPIAL, Salvino will get his fifth WPIAL title. Impressive. Winner: Monessen.

 Aliquippa vs. Seton-LaSalle, Saturday at 1 p.m. - The Quips could become only the 14th team in the past 52 years to win a WPIAL title with an undefeated record. But to do it, Aliquippa will have to beat the defending champion. A key to the game is how Seton-LaSalle's young guards handle Aliquippa's pressure. Seton-LaSalle starts sophomores Cletus Helton and Paris Ford. Winner: Aliquippa.

Indiana vs. Beaver Falls, today at 9 p.m. - I'm not surprised Indiana is in the title game for the first time. This is a team with good size and good talent and the best Indiana team in ages. The Little Indians don't have one big Indian, but good overall size with four starters 6-3 or taller. I saw the Little Indians lose to Allderdice in January and Indiana did not play well. But you could still tell they would be a formidable team in the Class AAA playoffs. But can Indiana control a Beaver Falls team that has the two-headed "Creach-er" - Josh Creach and Donovan Jeter (Creach, left, is pictured with Jeter). They are two sophomores who average a double-double. But I think a key to the game could be Beaver Falls' outside shooting. Speaking of coaches who deserve a shoutout, how about Beaver Falls' Doug Biega? He's going for title No. 4. Winner: Beaver Falls.

North Allegheny vs. Chartiers Valley, Saturday at 9 p.m. - It's the No. 1 seed (NA) against the No. 2 seed (CV). P-G story this morning says how these two are mirror images of each other. True. This could be an extremely fun game to watch. It should be fast-paced. Two of the WPIAL's top guards meet - Chartiers Valley's Matty McConnell and North Allegheny's Cole Constantino. But the play of their supporting casts will be the difference.

The way these two teams shoot, it's natural to say 3-point shooting will be the key. But North Allegheny has a little bit of size that Chartiers Valley doesn't have. Will that be a difference? I think a key might be defense and who can do a better job of stopping penetration off the dribble. Something else to think about: Chartiers Valley lost in the WPIAL AAA championship the past two years. Both times, the Colts did not execute well down the stretch in a close game. Both times, they turned the ball over too much. Do they remember that and do they want to change the trend?

And before we give a prediction, a few more coaching shoutouts. First, to North Hills' Buzz Gabos and Fox Chapel's Zach Skrinjar. Masterful jobs in getting third-place teams to the semifinals. And also to North Allegheny's Dave DeDegregorio. He hasn't won a WPIAL title, but heck, all the guy does is win 20 games almost every year (six of the past eight). He might give North Allegheny its first WPIAL basketball championship.

But Chartiers Valley coach Tim McConnell might become only the fifth WPIAL coach to win six titles. I took Chartiers Valley at the start of the playoffs. Winner: Chartiers Valley.

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