2021-22 Basketball Season Preview: Belle Vernon Leopards

Leopards boys have eyes set on WPIAL title; BVA girls will rely on array of returners

Thu Dec 16, 2021 - 7:33PM

Sean Meyers Sean Meyers
Devin Whitlock averaged 21.9 points per game last season for Belle Vernon. (Photo by www.westernpasports.com)Devin Whitlock averaged 21.9 points per game last season for Belle Vernon. (Photo by www.westernpasports.com)

Last Updated: Thu Dec 16, 2021 - 7:42PM

Belle Vernon Area Leopards Boys Basketball

Head Coach: Joe Salvino – 4th season

Conference: Class 4A Section 3

Last Season: 13-2 overall record – Lost to North Catholic in WPIAL Class 4A semifinals

Key Losses: Jake Haney

Key Returners: Devin Whitlock, Daniel Gordon, Quinton Martin, Tyler Kovatch, Joe Klanchar, Logan Cunningham

Promising Newcomers: Braden Laux, Alonzo Wade

The Belle Vernon Area boys basketball team has plenty of reasons to play with a chip on its shoulder this season. Last campaign, the Leopards went 9-0 in the section, while every other team sustained at least two losses. However, the WPIAL did not recognize the Leopards as the section champs because of an insufficient number of games played. Additionally, BVA appeared destined to return to the WPIAL Class 4A Championship game for the second year in a row, but the Leopards were stunned in the semifinals when North Catholic hit a shot at the buzzer to prevail 77-76. Most recently, several members of the basketball team came up shy of a football title, as the Leopards fell to Aliquippa in the championship at Heinz Field.

Motivated, talented, and experienced, the Leopards have the potential to be among the best teams in the WPIAL in 2021-22.

Leading the way is senior guard Devin Whitlock, who has proven to be one of the most electric athletes in the district. Whitlock, who was instrumental in the run to the championship game in 2020, has the same special traits on the hardwood as the ones he displayed on the gridiron in the fall.

“He puts his whole heart and soul out on the floor. He does things that you don’t coach,” said Belle Vernon Area head coach Joe Salvino.

The Leopards have a bevy of other significant returners, including senior guards Daniel Gordon, Tyler Kovatch and Logan Cunningham, senior forward Joe Klanchar, and sophomore guard/forward Quinton Martin. Gordon, who is garnering college interest, enjoyed a breakout campaign last season.

“He became not only a shooter, but a rebounder and a good defensive ballplayer,” Salvino said of the 6-foot-1 Gordon.

While Klanchar is expected to battle inside, he should get some help from a pair of promising underclassmen. Sophomore Braden Laux stands 6-foot-5, while freshman Alonzo Wade is 6-foot-2.

Their potential emergence should provide the Leopards with an improved bench from 2020-21, but ultimately, the play of the veterans could be the biggest factor.

“When you have that group of kids that have played for you last year and know what to expect and have been close to a championship and played under the pressure, I think that’s a plus,” Salvino detailed.

Competing in Class 4A Section 3, the Leopards are projected as the favorites once again, while second-place Elizbeth Forward returns a strong core, Uniontown Area boasts an athletic group, and South Park represents an unknown with new coach Chad Pappasergi. Three other Westmoreland County teams – Mount Pleasant Area, Yough, and Southmoreland – round out the section.

“Our first goal is to win the section,” Salvino stated. “The kids, simply because they didn’t give it to us last year, are looking forward to that.”

Belle Vernon Area has won its first three games of this season, defeating McKeesport Area, Thomas Jefferson, and Washington.

Belle Vernon Area Leopards Girls Basketball

Head Coach: Kaitlyn Slagus – 2nd season

Conference: Class 4A Section 3

Last Season: 9-8 overall record – Lost to Montour in the WPIAL Class 4A first round

Key Losses: Taylor Rodriguez, Grace Henderson

Key Returners: Tessa Rodriguez, Kaci Bitonti, Tara Callaway, Presleigh Colditz, Viva Kreis, Jenna Dawson

When Kaitlyn Slagus returned to Belle Vernon Area to guide her alma mater, she aimed to maintain the success of the program. After the Leopards won 16 games a couple of years ago, Belle Vernon Area went 9-8 in Slagus’ debut season.

The Leopards accomplished that mark while playing several underclassmen, though, and although a pair of graduations loom large, BVA could be equipped to take a step forward in 2021-22.

“I believe that we have an extremely talented group of players who want to compete and get better together,” said Slagus, a 2015 grad who enjoyed an incredible career at Bucknell University. “Making the playoffs and then making a deep run will be the goal.”

To do so, the Leopards must replace Taylor Rodriguez, a point guard who averaged more than 3 assists and 3 steals per game, as well as forward Grace Henderson, who contributed 10 rebounds and nearly 2 blocks per contest.

An array of returners should help offset those losses, though, with sophomore Tessa Rodriguez leading the way. Assuming the role of point guard this season, Rodriguez has dished out an average of 7 assists per game through the early stages of 2021-22. She’s joined by a pair of senior guards, Kaci Bitonti and Tara Callaway, as well as junior guards Presleigh Colditz, Viva Kreis, and Jenna Dawson, who missed last year with injury. Additionally, junior forward Farrah Reader and junior guard/forward Kenzi Seliga have each scored in double figures this season.

A year ago, the Leopards went 6-4 in Class 4A Section 3 play, finishing behind Southmoreland and West Mifflin, and in front of Elizabeth Forward, Mount Pleasant, Yough, and Ligonier Valley. The Leopards then suffered a one-point loss to Montour in the first round of the playoffs.

Belle Vernon Area opened this season winning two of its first three games, including triumphs against Sharon and Laurel Highlands.