HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL: Indiana wins Optimist title
March 30, 2014 1:39 AM
by ELI NELLIS
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Indiana and Blairsville were two of the best high school boys’ basketball teams in the area in the 2013-14 season, and they arguably have the top two rosters setting up for 2014-15.

That’s a good sign for Indiana, especially, as it rolled past the Bobcats, 94-52, in the Indiana Optimist Club Open Basketball Tournament underclass championship game Saturday afternoon at Fifth Street Gymnasium. The host Indians claimed their fourth straight title and their seventh in the past eight years.

“It was a fun week just to get back with the guys,” Indiana coach Greg Lezanic said. “It was fun to get them out on the floor and see the new combinations we’re going to have next year, the new players, and we’re excited for next year because we’re going to have some scorers on the floor.”

Riley Stapleton poured in a game-high 28 points and, for the second straight year, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. Blake Shields scored 15 points, and Jacob Zilinskas and Dylan Stapleton added 14 apiece.

The Indians outscored Blairsville, 54-24, in the second half.

“Early on we were in there,” said Blairsville coach Mark DeMarines. “Ten points, something like that. I had 17 guys to try to get in. I had to see what we’ve got coming up.

“Trying to split up the playing time and stay competitive, it gets tough, but I liked what I saw early on.”

With senior-class all-star games set for later in the day, the tournament championship unfolded as a sort of underclass all-star game. As expected, the Bobcats were led by some of their top scorers, too. Troy Williams had 13 points, and Rahdezz Henderson and Jaylin Rydbom had 10 each.

“I love competition,” Henderson said. “Riley and all those guys, I love playing against them. I hope they’re in our summer league so we can play some more with them. It will help us both out, because we’re two of the better teams in this area.”

Indiana’s starting five included three full-season starters — Shields, Riley Stapleton and Kevin Jack — Zilinskas, who was plugged into the starting lineup when senior Derek Stapleton was injured down the stretch, and the sophomore Dylan Stapleton, who came off the bench all season.

“What this does is start to formulate our opinions,” Lezanic said, “because you don’t have those two big guys underneath, Derek Stapleton and Darrious Carter. You see Riley playing a lot down low with Jake. You see Dylan playing down low with Jake. It’s just a time that we’re experimenting, so now the coaches will sit around for the next six, seven weeks and think, boy, that night against Blairsville, do you remember how Riley did this well or Dylan did that well? It starts to get you thinking about next year. It’s fun.”

One player looking to crack the starting lineup is Chris McConnell, a junior guard who transferred into the district last year. He scored seven points. McConnell came off the bench as a distributor last season.

“It was cool to see where we’re going to be at next year, what we can build on from this tournament,” McConnell said. “Last year I was kind of getting to know these kids. It’s fun playing with them. No matter who’s on the floor, I can dish it to anybody. I have confidence in them that they can score the ball fast. That’s always fun, and I’ll take it (to the hoop) if I need to. … I’m always working hard to get more playing time, but I’m just going to do what my coaches need me to do. If that’s starting, then I’m going to start, but I’m here to do what I need to do and what they want me to do.”

Blairsville went 17-4 and advanced to the District 6-AA quarterfinals in 2013-14, its first season under DeMarines. He’s digging in for his first offseason with the Bobcats.

“It was a good year,” he said. “There are some things we need to do in the offseason that last year we didn’t get the chance to do — a lot more playing. We’re going to have a league down in Blairsville this (summer). We’re also in a league (at Indiana) this year. We’ll be playing six, eight games a week this summer, so we’re going to be busy. That’s something last year I wish we could’ve done, but it’s an improvement we’ll make.”

The tournament was the first time Indiana played together since a disappointing 47-41 loss to Montour in the first round of the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs. The Indians finished 20-3 and shared the section 1-AAA championship — their first section title since 1998.

“Let’s face it, we didn’t play well in the fourth quarter against Montour,” Lezanic said. “We felt we pushed them around for three quarters, and we didn’t finish it. We haven’t talked about it as a team, but you can already start to see it as a battle cry. This year was, we wanted that (section championship) banner so bad. Now we have to finish what we’ve started. We started it, now let’s work harder and let’s try to finish what we started.”

Zilinskas, Williams and Rydbom were also named to the all-tournament team. The rest of the team was made up of Homer-Center’s Aaron Berezansky, Ligonier Valley’s Collin Smith and West Shamokin’s Zac Horner.

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