Monessen head coach Joe Salvino has always instilled in his players the idea that being a Class A school should not limit their expectations. He has pushed them to greatness, thanks in part to the strength of schedule Salvino ensures the Greyhounds play.
Monessen, a former steel town with a shrinking population, has developed athletes for decades, despite low enrollment numbers. Salvino does not have the luxury of picking starters from a large roster, but it has not mattered what classification the high school plays. Year after year, the Greyhounds are perennial contenders.
When the Greyhounds competed in Class AA prior to the 2012-13 season, Salvino demanded his players fulfill his expectations. The kids listened. That tends to be the case when you have a oach that has reached the playoffs in all 30 seasons he has been at the school.
A Class A-sized school competing in Double-A, Monessen won the WPIAL boys basketball title in 2011 with a victory over Greensburg Central Catholic, a much larger private school.
“When we won a Double-A championship in basketball and we were only a Class A school, that was one of my most cherished moments, simply because my players pushed themselves to the limit (of what) I thought they could be,” Salvino said. “They did everything I asked and reached their goal.”
The Greyhounds won that title as the No. 3 seed in the tournament. This year, they are aiming to replicate the achievement with the same playoff seeding. The 18-5 Greyhounds will try to reach the WPIAL Class A quarterfinals tonight when they face No. 6 Wilkinsburg (13-7) at Baldwin High School. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m.
The two teams are familiar with one another. Monessen defeated Wilkinsburg, 73-51, in a non-section game Dec. 21.
Despite the victory, Salvino is erring on the side of caution. When watching tape on the Tigers’ recent games, he saw improved play from guards D’Shawn Adair and Isaiah Pete – Wilkinsburg’s top offensive threats.
Facing tough competition is something Monessen has never shied away from. The Greyhounds did not lose to a Class A opponent during the regular season. It was the team’s non-section schedule that prepared them for this moment.
Monessen opened the season with back-to-back losses against two Quad-A opponents – Upper St. Clair and Franklin Regional. The defeats came when the majority of Monessen’s roster was making the transition from the football field to the basketball court.
Senior guard Clintell Gillaspie was a running back for the Greyhounds’ football team, senior forward Justice Rawlins was a two-way standout and senior Javon Brown was a wide receiver.
Having football players transitioning to basketball is nothing new to Salvino. In 30 years at Monessen, he has handled his share of two-sport athletes, but it is the type of kids he has coached that have worked to overcome the uncomfortable switch from cleats to sneakers.
“It’s two different sports,” Salvino said. “Basketball is more of a continuous sport, and that takes a little bit of time. From running on grass to getting on the hardwood is totally different. One of the good things is that we have always had good athletes in Monessen.”
The early losses did not discourage the Greyhounds. Even when they walked into a packed gym at Uniontown High School Jan. 4 for a non-section battle with the then-unbeaten Red Raiders, they were not intimidated by the Class AAA powerhouse. It remains Uniontown’s lone loss this season.
Gillaspie scored 28 points to lead Monessen to victory, which according to Salvino, was critical to the team’s confidence. Again, his advice to the Greyhounds was heeded. Just because you attend a Class A school, does not mean you have to play like a Class A team.
Monessen will not have to compete against a bigger school in a higher classification in the WPIAL playoffs, but they are hoping the confidence that resulted from those games will make a difference as the school pursues its second WPIAL title in four years.
“I think it was tremendous,” Salvino said. “It showed us we can play with the big boys. We don’t have to be a Class A school. We can compete with the bigger schools.”