With high school basketball season set to tip off Friday, the Heritage Conference is once again brimming with confidence with all eyes again aimed toward a title at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex.
Players and coaches from each of the league’s 20 teams took to the KCAC on Tuesday for media day, a young tradition that 65 days from now will culminate in a pair of Heritage Conference championships.
And if one narrative was made constant among those who hope to hoist the trophy at the same venue come Feb. 7, it was that the “Road to the KCAC” will be anything but clearly paved.
“Just like last year, we have a lot of good teams in the conference,” said Jason Miloser, coach of reigning girls’ champion Penns Manor. “I really believe that if you don’t come ready to play, you’re going to be in trouble. And that’s one of the things we focus with on our team, is just being ready to practice every single day and get better every single day, so when we get into games, we will be ready for every single team.”
Last season, Penns Manor exacted revenge on Blairsville after the Comets lost to the Bobcats in the girls’ title game the year prior, and the Ligonier Valley boys claimed their second straight championship with a victory over West Shamokin under first-year coach John Berger.
Of course, those who haven’t consistently appeared in the first three installments of the annual conference final believe their chances will be as strong as they ever have been in 2019-20.
And with an influx of youth to go with a new crop of upperclassmen, the conference standings could begin to level off after the league lost several of its top performers to graduation, including Ligonier Valley’s Marrek Paola, the 6-foot-8 reigning All-Gazette boys’ player of the year.
“It seems to be one of the themes every year, but more than ever, it’s parity,” said West Shamokin boys’ coach Judd McCullough. “Ligonier Valley, until someone knocks them off, they’re the reigning champions, but losing a 6-8 Paola inside obviously leaves a little bit of the door open for some of the teams to see if we can knock off the former champions. There’s a lot of worthy competitors out there that are vying for that, and we hope to be one of them.”
Continuity could be key for teams that are still looking to take the next step. One year after the Heritage Conference welcomed six new coaches, the league cut the turnover in half with only three teams entering new leadership.
Marion Center will undergo a complete revamp in its basketball programs as Amy (Fairman) Trimble takes over the girls’ team from coach Julie Horner after five years, and T.J. Kravits will take over the Marion Center boys.
Chuck Kassick will aim to bring stability to a Northern Cambria girls’ team that made its second coaching change in as many seasons.
The process will be ongoing through February for longtime and fresh coaches alike, but it should only add to the excitement that has made basketball a staple of area athletics.
“It’s going to be a building year for everybody,” said Trimble, a Marion Center graduate, “me included, obviously. But I’m excited, because since everybody is getting into roles that they haven’t played in the past and positions that they’re going to be new to, together we can all sort of make it our own and hopefully keep girls’ basketball a big thing at Marion Center. That’s a big part of our goal.”
The Blairsville (Richard Brown), Purchase Line (Kelley Goss) and Saltsburg (Tiara Stossel) girls’ teams along with the Penns Manor boys (Andrew Lansberry) each enter Year 2 after leading their teams on successful runs during their first season at the helm.
For the coaches who have long set the tone in a league loaded with strong competition, the Heritage Conference appears poised for another unpredictable finish.
“This conference is really strong,” said 14th-year Homer-Center boys’ coach Bob Rado. “There’s nobody you can take lightly in this conference. The season is going to go quick, and at times you don’t have as much preparation time to get ready for each game, but you have to make the best of it. So it should be an interesting year, and you never know which way the ball can bounce.”