SEASON PREVIEW: FARRELL
Seven banners, suspended from the ceiling of E.J. McCluskey Gymnasium, sway softly back and forth, as players sprint up and down the hallowed hardwood on a recent November afternoon.
On each is midnight-blue banner is printed the inscription, Boys Basketball, PIAA State Champions, followed by the respective season: 1952, 1954, 1956, 1959, 1960, 1969, 1972. It can be an intimidating venue for opponents, and the fact legendary Eddie McCluskey coached seven Steelers' state championship cage contingents is not lost on the program's current caretaker, Mike DeCello.
"He knows what the banners hanging in McCluskey Gym are all about,'' athletic director Chuck Branca said on the occasion of DeCello's hiring this past summer.
"Those banners mean everything," DeCello said. "When I came back, I knew what I was getting into. When we huddle up, we always huddle up under the banners. Our goal is to win No. 8. It's been 28 years, and it can be done. But it has to be done through hard work.''
DeCello, who has Shenango Valley roots (his father, Anthony, played for the '52 Farrell state champion cagers), has enjoyed considerable scholastic success, most recently at Erie County League-member North East (59-42 in four seasons), and he inherits a tradition-rich program that won 50 games the past two seasons under Bill Michaels, who left for the Quad-A Norristown post.
DeCello will have a solid foundation upon which to build, starting with the trio of junior point guard Myron Lowe, junior wing Torlando "Petey'' Craig and senior swingman Marcellino Manilla.
Lowe bucketed 205 points last season, reaching double digits on eight occasions, including a high of 18 points in a PIAA playoffs win over Kane, then concluding the campaign with a 16-point performance in a season-ending setback to Aliquippa. Manilla, who missed four games, scored in double-figures a handful of times and registered 161 points, while Craig, who appeared in 27 tilts, tallied 173 points, highlighted by a 16-point spree in that finale against Aliquippa. But DeCello will need to rely on depth to accomodate his up-tempo approach.
Newcomer Tiemeyer Thomas, a 6-7 senior transfer from Florida, should provide rebounding, a defensive presence and scoring off the block, while 5-11 junior O'Bryan Lampkins will lend depth to the backcourt.
The sophomore class is led by Chez Phillips, a 6-5 post; Jason Marshall, a 6-0 frontliner, and 5-9 guard Alan Claiborne.
"Greg Smith's another sophomore who can step in,'' DeCello noted. "(5-9 guard) Brian Dungee, who's a freshman, is playing really well; (5-10 guard) Lionel Stinson is playing really well as a sophomore. So we're loaded for a while. It's been a great opportunity, I'm glad I'm here, and I hope they can conform to my system of running and scoring a lot of points.
"I think we're playing in a lot of rhythm right now; they're just thinking about what they have to do. And after a long period of time, they're just going to react to what we're having to do. It just takes time (and) you have to do it against other people. We've been practicing for two weeks against each other and it'll be fun to have some fresh faces in here; then we'll see where we are at that time.''
Transition will be the key, as evidenced by a recent practice in which a myriad of defensive traps was emphasized.
"Defense is gonna help us a lot; we have to be able to cause turnovers and outscore people,'' DeCello said. "If people are used to scoring in the 40s and you get 'em up in the 70s, a lot of people aren't used to scoring that many points. That's the way I coach. I'm very into scoring a lot of points, but the only way you score points is by playing pressure basketball.''
Whereas in the ECL, North East's annual foil typically was General McLane, DeCello is aware of the vaunted WPIAL and Section 2-AA.
"It's a section where we've done quite well for the last ... lot of years, and when you get out of the section, it's wanting to play the Aliquippas, it's wanting to play Shady Side, that's what it's all about here," he said. "We have to play every game to win, but my ultimate goal is to beat Aliquippa way down the line.''
DeCello will be assisted by a pair of former Farrell standouts in Frank Sincek, who carved a 210-89 record from 1979-90 during his stint as Steelers' head coach, and Roland Shannonhouse, who will direct the junior varsity.
DeCello, who graduated from Mount Lebanon in 1981, related, regarding his roots, "I was born at Sharon General; my dad played back in '52; my grandma lived in Sharon; my mom's from Sharon. I have a ton of relatives here. ... My grandfather was the custodian here at one time, so my dad would get us in here and we would shoot around.'' -- By Herald assistant sports editor Ed Farrell.
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