Monessen senior guard Clintell Gillaspie exited the Greyhounds’ locker room at the A.J. Palumbo Center last Friday. Minutes earlier, Gillaspie, a 6-1 senior, was forced to watch Lincoln Park hoist the WPIAL Class A championship trophy after the Greyhounds lost to the Leopards, 85-41.
Waiting for Gillaspie was Monessen head coach Joe Salvino, who pulled his leading scorer aside. Salvino knew how devastating the loss was and told Gillaspie to not hang his head. Out of the 24 teams in WPIAL Class A boys basketball, the Greyhounds finished second. There wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. There was more work to be done.
That did not shake the disappointment of a 44-point championship loss in which Gillaspie and Monessen struggled offensively.
“Lincoln Park is a good team,” Gillaspie said. “We lost and we just have to get over it. The game is over. We have to move on to the state playoffs. It has made us push harder to do something big.”
The Greyhounds (20-6) will play Erie First Christian Academy (15-9), the District 10 runner-up, tonight at Chartiers Valley in the first round of the Class A PIAA playoffs.
Tip-off is 7:30 p.m., and taking the opening tip for the Eagles will be a 6-11 force in the lane: 270-pound senior center Olusola Sangoyami, who leads EFCA with 12.8 points and 12 rebounds per game. Like Monessen’s opponent in the WPIAL title game, the Eagles have a tall frontcourt, but unlike Lincoln Park, EFCA lacks pure athleticism.
Sangoyami and EFCA’s size does not have Salvino concerned. Lincoln Park’s 6-7 sophomore Maverick Rowan and 6-7 senior Ryan Skovrenko forced Monessen into turnovers with their length and had the ability to avoid the Greyhounds’ backcourt pressure, using their height advantage to find the open man.
“I don’t think (EFCA) is as good or as athletic as Lincoln Park,” Salvino said. “We have to do the things we are capable of doing. That’s playing hard defensively and trying to get the ball up and down the floor. They’ve got some kids who can play, so we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
In its first year of PIAA play, EFCA has made history. After its varsity boys basketball competed as a club sport since the school’s opening in 1993, the Eagles joined District 10 last year and made an immediate impact. With a physically imposing lineup, EFCA has succeeded with strong defensive play, but other than informing his team of the Eagles’ tendencies, Salvino is not going to adjust Monessen’s gameplan to cater to an opponent.
The focus in practice for the Greyhounds this week has been part mental and part physical. Salvino stressed the need for his players to use their athleticism, and his main concern has been getting the Greyhounds to believe in themselves.
“How competitive are we going to be?,” Salvino said. “Are we going to be competitive enough to bounce back from a loss in a championship game or are we going to play satisfied and let the loss bother us? The first game in the states is like the first game in the WPIAL playoffs. You are a little bit shaky after that week off and you do relax. Hopefully, we’re ready.”
Salvino is no stranger to guiding his teams to success in the state playoffs after losing in the WPIAL postseason. In both 1988 and 1989, Salvino coached Monessen to state championships after losses similar to the one against Lincoln Park. For the Greyhounds, the focus has been to ignore the outside talk of how tall the other team is or what it has accomplished. After watching the Leopards celebrate the WPIAL championship win, Gillaspie echoed the sentiment.
“We have to go in and do what we have done all year,” Gillaspie said. “We’ll need to run the floor and play good defense. We don’t care if they are tall or not. We’re going to play our game.”