The news of Luke Blanock’s cancer diagnosis shocked the Canon-McMillan boys basketball team.
The Big Macs not only saw a close friend laying in a hospital bed with Ewing’s sarcoma, but lost their starting power forward for the season, a blow to their chances in Section 4-AAAA.
Along with Blanock’s illness, the Big Macs had injuries to other key starters. The result was head coach Rick Bell using a seven-man rotation with a freshman slotted into the starting lineup. The concern was whether Canon-McMillan could compete for a playoff spot with a small, untested lineup.
Freshman guard Britton Beachy, along with a group of strong-willed teammates, showed those concerns were unfounded. With back-to-back wins over Bethel Park and Baldwin last week, Canon-McMillan (6-2, 10-5) has moved into a tie for first place in the section. They will try to hold that spot tonight when they travel to rival Upper St. Clair (6-2, 10-5) at 7:30 p.m.
Beachy is averaging 16.3 points per game, while junior Alex Hammers, Blanock’s best friend, has transformed a heavy heart into a season to remember. Hammers is averaging 17.4 points per game with clutch perimeter shooting while displaying veteran savvy on the court.
While Blanock undergoes chemotherapy and the phrase #LukeStrong continues to motivate the Big Macs, Bell has noticed a drastic change in a team that features only one senior. Bell, a 26-year veteran of coaching high school basketball, has led countless talented rosters, but this Big Macs squad has been memorable.
“When you have a situation like that occur, it’s hard for people to get selfish,” Bell said. “In a way, I am surprised because I knew how valuable Luke was going to be to us tangibly. When you lose someone like that, it’s a little surprising, but I’ve also seen how this group of guys has really come together. They are a true team. This group is, without a doubt, as good of a team as any group that I have coached.”
The team-first mentality the Big Macs have adopted has led Canon-McMillan past unprecedented adversity and into the WPIAL playoff race. The Big Macs were defeated by Bethel Park, 60-49, Dec. 13. With the Black Hawks arguably fielding the best roster in the section, the game was a measuring stick of where Canon-McMillan stood.
The Big Macs answered by winning six out of seven games in the section. Canon-McMillan’s lone loss came Jan. 10 at Mt. Lebanon. When the Big Macs upset Bethel Park Jan. 17, Beachy led Canon-McMillan with 27 points and Hammers added 20.
Bell is not surprised Beachy has stepped in and succeeded as a freshman. He coached Beachy over the summer on an AAU team, where the incoming freshman excelled against some of the nation’s top talent.
“Britton more than held his own,” Bell said. “That was when I kind of thought, this kid is pretty good. I don’t really look at him as a normal freshman, and he doesn’t play like one. He’d be playing freshman basketball if he did. I don’t coach him like a freshman or treat him like a freshman. I treat like varsity player.”
The victory that saw the Big Macs move into a tie for first place in the section came Tuesday at Baldwin. This time, it was junior Sam Bohn who led Canon-McMillan. Bohn had a team-high 16 points and Beachy added 11 to sink the Highlanders. As the Big Macs prepared for Baldwin, Bell noticed everyone talking of the upcoming matchups against Upper St. Clair. His message to his team was simple about the back-to-back games against the Panthers.
“I told the team that if we lose to Baldwin, those games aren’t going to be nearly as meaningful,” Bell said. “We can’t lose our focus. Now that we’re winning some games and getting some attention, we can’t change what we have done at this point in time.
PIHL All-Star game
Peters Township’s fast start to the high school hockey season has led to multiple Indians being named to the PIHL’s Class AAA All-Star Game, which will be held Sun., Feb. 9 at Robert Morris Island Sports Center on Neville Island. The Open Class game will begin at 11 a.m., with Class A, AA and AAA games to follow at 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively.
The Indians (10-2) will be represented on the Southwest Conference team by senior forwards Evan Opeka and Jon Dagnal, senior defenseman Joe Kittleberger and senior goalie Brian Baker. Peters Township head coach Rick Tingle will lead the group, which features players from the Indians’ biggest rival, Canon-McMillan.
Senior forward J.D. Oddi, junior forward Austin Tonkovich, and senior defenseman Garrett Woznichak will represent the Big Macs (6-7).
The Class A Southwest Conference all-star team will feature two South Fayette players. Freshman forward Jordan Timmons and senior defenseman Anthony Vallenlunga will represent the Lions (3-10) with head coach Frank Certo serving as an assistant on the bench.
Peters Township opted to field a second varsity team this year, which holds an 11-2 record competing in the Open Class of the PIHL. Peters Township senior Kelson Pizzuti and sophomore goalie Caden Shell were selected to the team with junior defenseman Jake Raymore serving as an alternate.