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Building Basketball From The Ground Up
Cornell Grade Schoolers Lay The Foundation

Cornell High School Girls Basketball is struggling. The team is in the WPIAL's toughest section and is not doing well. And the reason why is no secret. Cornell has never had a comprehensive elementary school program. It does not bring girls up to the high school with game experience or years of work on fundamentals.

This year they're trying to change that. Cornell hired Aaron Melius to coach a 4th grade and under, and a 6th grade and under team. He has third graders acting as reserves on the 4th grade team, and 5th graders acting as reserves on the 6th grade team.

On the sixth grade team, he starts Zoey Kaczmarek (#62 in photo at right), Bethany Shugis, Alivia Walsh, McKenna Griffith and Courtney Gutt. Reserves are Kylie Arnot, Areanna Camardese, Ramsey Shaw, Peyton Thomas and Gianna Gracyk

On the fourth grade he starts Caitlyn Gibson, Maleah Turner, Samantha Melius, Clara Joranger and Reese Roebels.

Their basic routine is to practice two days a week and play one game a week. However, the gym isn't always available, so sometimes they have to adapt. They might play two games one week and none the next.

"This gym is a problem," he admits. "We only have this one gym. But we have both girls and boys high school teams, middle school teams, and grade school teams all needing to use it. One problem that causes is if the high school teams use it right after school, and the middle school teams use it next, then by the time we get our turn it's too late in the evening to ask 10-12 year old girls to be staying out every night.

Another problem is the schedule. "We want to play a 10 game schedule. But none of the other schools our size bother with grade school girls. The only schools which do are the big 5A schools like Canon McMillan, Montour, Chartiers Valley and West Allegheny. If we play them, with so many more girls to draw from, they have girls much taller and more athletic. So we have a hard time winning. Now, we could find schools our size with teams, but they're a long ways away. We'd be driving up on the other side of Pittsburgh or down below Washington or up by Newcastle every week. Parent might do that for high school girls, but not for grade school girls."

He's hoping to find a few Class A Tournaments for late February. He'd organize one and host it at Cornell, but the gym;'s not available.

So, temporarily Cornell is a Class A school playing in a 5A conference.

It's tough to persuade grade school girls to invest the time in basketball. Cheerleading, Girl Scouts, piano lessons and homework take precedene.

"But if we don't get them involved now, we never will. Right now, we have really good athletes in high school on the cheerleding team. But not playing basketball. So we have to get them now."

Melius played high school basketball at Portage, in the center of the state. After serving in the military, he played college basketball in his mid 20s.

"For years I resisted the temptation to coach because it's so time consuming. But here they had no one else, so it came down to either I did it or there was no team for my daughter to play on."

Samantha Melius is the coach's daughter. She already has a reputation as a fine youth baseball player, as does McKenna Griffith. Samantha has played on Coach Pitch teams, McKenna on Minor League teams.

Melius would like to work with the girls during the off season if he can persuade them to put in the time and if he can get the gym.

"We have a lot of fundamentals work to do," he pointed out. "If we have to compete with these bigger schools, we have to become better shots, better ballhandlers, better defenders and better rebounders. Plus, the girls have to spend a lot of time in the gym if they're going to develop the kind of instincts you need to play in midle school or high school."

But in the first year of the program he has 29 girls on the roster. "If we can keep them, we'll be OK in a few years."

Nazareth Dims Lights On Cornell, 65-48

The Lawrenceville Boys & Girls Club, where for some unexplained reason Nazareth Prep plays its home games, has a fine full length floor. But on a good evening it has only eight lights overhead. Friday night, three of those were burned out. So playing there was rather like playing on an outdoor court under a streetlight. There were shadows. (These photos have been artificially brightened through Photoshop.)

And the darkness went beyond lighting. Cornell played its worst game of the season, losing 65-48 to a poor shooting team it had beaten 76-54 just a month ago.

The difference was that this time Coach Nehemiah Brazil told his Saints to shoot NOTHING outside the lane. All Nazareth shots were layups, dunks, follows, lobs and free throws.

For the first quarter and half of rhe second, it looked like Cornell would overcome this strategy. Isaiah Langston hit two layups and a foul line jump shot, Kaden DiVito made a corner three, a tip in, and a layup, and Giavante Kingwalden added a layup for a slim 17-16 lead. But it was a costly quarter. Zaire Harrison (shooting in bottom photo) was already in foul trouble with two.

In the second Drew Lopez (with ball in bottom photo) opened with a layup, Langston followed with a corner three and a dunk, DiVito hit a layup and a free throw, and Harrison added a top three. That made it 29-16 with 4:54 til halftime. And that was when Cornell's game fell apart.

"We're up 13," Coach Bill Sacco told his team.

"We're in control. From here on, run your weave and keep working the ball until you get either a layup or short jump shot or a wide open three. Do not hurry your shots and do not take anything but your best shots."

No one listened. The Raiders kept firing too quickly and did not wait for their favorite shots. The much taller Saints got every rebound, came down, and fed the ball to the big men inside. Nazareth scored on three layups, a jump shot (from in the lane just below the foul circle), a follow and two free throws to cut the halftime lead to 31-28. Meanwhile, Cornell was accumulatimg fouls. Harrison had gone back in and promptly picked up his third. Other Raiders had two. And relations with the officials were becoming testy. The larger, beefier Saints were making it a physical game and Cornell was being called for fouls. Nazareth made more free throws (17) than Cornell shot (14), and Cornell only hit five of 14. Nazareth players hit 17 of 31. So the Saints shot twice as many as Cornell.

The third quarter was a disaster for Cornell. The only points they could produce were a Harrison layup and free throw and a Lopez layup. Meanwhile, taking it inside on every possession, Nazareth scored 18 on four layups, three follows and four free throws. The Saints shot poorly. They took three or four shots to finally make a simple layup. But they kept grabbing rebound after rebound over the much shorter Raiders.

And the fouls kept mounting. Sacco played reserves Drew Lopez, Caleb Dunn (#12 in photo above) and MJ Smith to spell his foul plagued starters, but only Lopez scored and he got the only rebound of the reserves.

The atmosphere grew more hostile as the Saint lead rose. Ranked 4th to Cornell's 2nd, they taunted Cornell after each made basket, clapping in their faces and chanting "over rated." When Raiders took the bait and responded, they were whistled for warnings or Technical fouls. Blaine Sams (#15 at right) was called for two technicals and will have to sit out a game next week.

Cornell launched its final rally to start the fourth. Down 46-36, Harrison hit a corner three and layup, Sams a side three and Langston a layup to cut it to two with 5:44 left. But those were the last field goals Cornell scored. The Saints ran off four follows, two layups, a five foot jumper and five free throws for 19 points while the Raiders were limited to one free throw each by Harrison and DiVito.

For the second game this week Cornell was outrebounded badly, 50-29. Much of that disparity was due to Nazareth shooting so badly. Each possession, they would rebound three or four times trying to score on layups, tipins or follows. Langston led Cornell with 11, followed by DiVito with seven, Kingwalden with four, Harrison and Sams with three each, and Lopez with one.

Langston and Harrison led scoring with 14 each. DiVito added 10, Lopez four, and Kingwalden and Sams three each.

The game was especially worrisome because it revealed a Cornell inflexibility that could prove fatal in the playoffs. This late in the season, everybody has everybody scouted and has plenty of game film. Coach Brazil had clearly drilled his defenses on Cornell's offensive movements and their favorite shooting spots. Every time a Cornell player moved to one of their spots, a defender was there waiting. Brazil used a matchup zone out of a 1-3-1 alignment to reach Cornell's perimeter shooters, while collapsing on anyone trying to drive. Notice in the photo at left, and the two above, how any Cornell player moving toward the basket is immediately surrounded by three defenders. It's an effective defense, but it opens up other players IF the players are patient and willing to keep reversing the floor and finding the open man, or driving and kicking out.

For example, in rhe photo above (taken from the catwalk high above the floor) Harrison has three taller defenders collapsed on him, but Kingwalden (#4) is wide open at the free throw line for an easy jump shot. The secret is to keep moving the ball and not forcing shots.

That rebounding problem can also be addressed by aggressive boxing out, even if it comes down to face blocking by some players while teammates go for the rebound. Against timber tall teams like Vincentian and Nazareth, it must be addressed.

But Cornell's seniors, who have been playing together since the 4th grade, seem reluctant to run any new offensive movements or bother with boxing out. They have compiled the most successful four year run in school history and believe in their system. Unfortunately the game is changing. They face coaches who have recruited all star teams and are using sophisticated strategies against them. Sacco and his staff have been around for 40 years and know the game, but the players have to listen.

Cornell will face Vincentian once more in the regular season and will almost certainly face both Nazareth and Vincentian in the postseason, in the WPIAL and the PIAA. Last year Nazareth defeated Cornell in the semifinals to keep them from the Petersen Events Center, then Vincentian knocked Cornell out of the PIAA. Two years ago, Vincentian stopped them in the semifinals.

The loss left Cornell and Nazareth tied for second in the Section with 6-2 records, behind 8-0 Vincentian. Cornell will lose its #2 ranking in the WPIAL, probably to be replaced by Bishop Canevin.

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Vincentian Size, Marksmanship Too Much

Cornell's #2 ranked Raiders gave it all they had, but there's a reason Vincentian is ranked #1 in the WPIAL and the entire state.

A 6-6 player playing hard is just too much for a 6-0 player playing hard. Cornell could create no advantage Tuesday night in Vincentian's rat's nest gym with its three rows of metal bleachers and fans sitting with their feet on the playing surface. The Royals won in a rout, 92-61, although the score was only 84-55 when Cornell Coach Bill Sacco called time out and sent in the reserves with 3:16 remaining.

Cornell opened up in its usual aggressive in your face defense and made a game of it for a while. Kaden DiVito (#2 in photo below) put a rebound back in and scored two free throws, Zaire Harrison (#1 in photo at right and below)) scored on a top three, two layups and a free throw, and Isaiah Langston (bottom photo) scored on a layup. That put Cornell up 14-11 with 3:28 left in the first quarter and Vincentian Coach Shelton Carney called time.

He changed his lineup, replacing a few of his taller players with 5-10 and 5-11 players to match Cornell's quickness. And he ordered his players to open fire from the perimeter. The result was stunning. The Royals hit three straight side threes and buried SIX threes in all, two from on top and four from the sides, en route to a 27-21 first quarter lead. Harrison's layup and top three and Giavante Kingwalden's jump shot could not keep up with this barrage.

The problem Cornell faced was that they had 6-6 players shooting over their outstretched arms and draining threes. There was nothing they could do.

But they kept fighting. Vincentian's long distance shooting cooled to begin the second, and with those shooters out on the perimeter Cornell was able to grab a few rebounds and fire them downcourt. Harrison, Langston and DiVito scored three straight layups to cut that gap. Again, Carney called time and changed strategy. This time, he told his team to take it inside. Again, Cornell with its height disadvantage was unable to stop the Royals.

Layups, a dunk and a foul line jump shot pushed the lead back out to 41-29 at 2:43, as all Cornell could produce was a DiVito layup.

Then things got worse. Harrison and Langston picked up their second fouls and Kingwalden his third, so Sacco had to ease off his aggressive defense. Blaine Sams grabbed a rebound and put it back and Harrison hit a layup at the buzzer to keep Cornell's flickering hopes alive, 45-33 at the half.

But Vincentian and the officials quickly extinguished those hopes in the third. The Royals scored the first nine points to go up 54-33. While this was happening, Langston picked up his third foul only 40 seconds in, and Kingwalden got his fourth at 6:32 and fouled out at 6:11.

Cornell fans weren't happy with the officials, but whenever two or more 6-6 players are wrestling with 5-10 and 5-11 players for the ball, either under the boards or out on the floor, and every player is physically fit and strong, inevitably the smaller players end up on the floor, against the wall or in the first rows of the stands, just like a bear shaking off a dog. That was how the game progressed, with DiVito, Harrison and Sams taking the brunt of it, but Langston getting knocked around under the basket (see photo below). In one almost comical sequence, Vincentian double teamed Harrison on their full court press. They wrestled the ball away and flung Harrison into the stands. He was still freeing himself from being half under the bleachers and half tangled up in two spectators while down at the other end of the floor Cornell was playing 4-on-5 defense until he got there. There was no call by the official standing three feet away.

Cornell couldn't get its shots off. Vincentian defenders swatted shots away, blocked them, or simply grabbed them out of the air and went the other way. Even when Raiders did get a shot off, it was hurried and had to be altered, usually with a higher arc to get over those taller defenders. So the usual high Cornell shooting percentages were way down.

Somehow, DiVito managed to get off three layups, Harrison soared high for a spectacular runner (photo, left), Langston sank three free throws, and Drew Lopez added a layup. But it was too little too late, as the third quarter score ballooned to 69-47.

Those 24 points came on nine layups, all over top of Cornell defenders who had position, plus a side three and three free throws.

The fourth opened with a Vincentian dunk and three layups and Harrison picking up his fourth foul. That made it 77-47 with 5:17.

With 3:16 to go and the score 84-55 Sacco pulled his starters to avoid injuries.

DiVito led Cornell with 21 points. Harrison added 20, Langston nine, MJ Smith three, and Sams, Lopez and Kingwalden two.

It was the worst Cornell rebounding in three seasons. The Raiders were outrebounded 44-17. Langston had nine, Harrison four, DiVito three and Sams one.

DiVito had five steals. Langston had four assists and three blocks.

The win left Vincentian alone in first place in Section 1A with a 7-0 record. Cornell is second at 6-1. Nazareth, which defeated Eden 75-54 Tuesday, is third at 5-2. Eden is fourth at 4-3.

Vincentian remains #1 in the WPIAL and #1 in Pennsylvania. The computer considers them the odds on favorite to win the state championship.

Cornell gets the Royals at home the last Friday of the regular season. Presumably, Vincentian will not shoot quite as well, especially from the three point line. But the Twin Towers of Ethan Embleton and Angelo Reeves are still 6-6 and Cornell will still have to figure a way to handle them on the boards and keep them from just scoring over top of defenders,

First, however, Cornell has another challenge. It has a game Friday night against Nazareth. The Nazareth game is a classic example of how bizarre competition in WPIAL Class A has become. The WPIAL has ruled that Nazareth's home court is so bad as to be unusable. So the Saints have to find another site for their home games. They've played some at Robert Morris, then moved to the Hill District YMCA. That arrangement ended. Nazareth has now scheduled Friday's game at the Lawrenceville Boys & Girls Club along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh. So Cornell and Nazareth, located three miles apart across a bridge from each other, are both travelling 18 miles into the city to play. Parking is not a problem at the Lawrenceville site, there being two large lots adjacent. This new facility was built in 2000 to replace the old 1920 building. The problem will be in seating. The gym was not built with the idea of hosting games. There is room for 100 spectators. The JV game begins at 5:30. Cornell fans are urged to arrive early in order to get one of those 100 seats, or indeed to get in at all. Although Cornell defeated Nazareth earlier this year at Cornell, the Saints are defending WPIAL champions and only lost to Vincentian by three two weeks ago. The Saints badly outrebounded Cornell in their earlier matchup.

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Raiders Destroy Quigley, 86-35

Cornell's Raiders warmed up for their showdown with Vincentian with an 86-35 Friday night home rout of Quigley.

Quigley stayed with Cornell for a quarter, 23-17. Then Cornell shifted into gear and outscored the visitors 24-9 in the second for a 47-26 lead at halftime. It gor worse for Quigley, as Cornell rolled 20-3 in the third and 19-6 in the fourth.

Zaire Harrison and Kaden DiVito led all scorers with 22 points each. Isaiah Langston added 15.

The win kept Cornell ranked second in the WPIAL and tied for first in Section 1A with Vincentian with a 6-0 record.

Vincentian defeated Eden Christian 82-62 Friday night, as Nazareth beat Union 73-53 and Western Beaver rolled over winless Rochester 86-48.

So now it's on to the Tuesday night civil war with Vincentian at the Royals' McKnight Road crackerbox gym.

Vincentian starts the tallest lineup in Pennsylvania and is ranked #1 in the state, as well as the WPIAL. The shortest Royal starter is 6-5. Its Twin Towers, Angelo Reeves and Ethan Embleton, both 6-6, both average 20+ points and 10+ rebounds.

Ironically, Cornell now finds itself hating to go into Vincentian with its cramped floor and playing conditions, officially recognized as the worst remaining gym in the WPIAL. For years, the old Coraopolis High School had the worst gym in the WPIAL and opponents always hated coming in. Now Cornell has a fine gym and has to go play in a bad one.

Because of the home floor advantage, Vincentian will be favored. But Cornell gets the Royals back home in February.