SEASON PREVIEW: GEORGE JUNIOR REPUBLIC
In area high school basketball, there probably hasn't ever been a schedule like it.
During the 2002-03 season the George Junior Republic Tigers will play national powers Akron-St. Vincent/St. Mary's, Chester, Philadelphia-Simon Gratz, Oak Hill Academy, Farrell, Williamsport, Warren-Harding, Erie-Cathedral Prep, Franklin and Mercer County Athletic Conference foes Grove City, Hickory, Reynolds, Sharon and Slippery Rock.
The Tigers also will compete in the Niagara Falls tournament and the Scott City (Ky.) Toyota Classic.
"It's the roughest schedule that we've ever seen and, I'm sure, anyone in western Pennsylvania has ever seen. It's a challenge and we're excited about it. Hopefully, it'll work out for us. Surely, come playoff time, no one will be tested more than us," GJR coach Bob McConnell said.
"If we don't get prepared to play this first month of the season, we could be very easily 2-6 by the Christmas tournament. We've got loads of tests the whole way through, but we've got to keep our heads above water. If we can do that, I'll feel okay."
McConnell is worried about the consequences should the Tigers struggle early in the season.
"With the guys that we deal with, it's a major concern of mine," McConnell said. "It could be a real negative thing for us, but it could be a real positive thing for us if we're able to pick up some wins."
Much of how the 2002-03 season transpires depends on how much the Tigers' bench and role players improve over the course of the season.
Senior Justin Baity, junior Dominique Townsend and 6-foot-6 forward Troy Gross will constitute the GJR bench behind expected starters Tyrae Denmark, James Bates, Cedric Graham and Sherrad Bennard.
"It depends on how much those guys improve over the course of the season," McConnell said of his bench. "We feel pretty good about our first four guys, but our next three have to continue to improve, learn our system and get better. If they do that, we have the chance to be really good.
"We have to get our bench and our role players to better support those guys (Denmark, Bates, Bennard and Graham)." McConnell said.
McConnell is expecting Denmark, a junior guard, to average 15-20 points, 8-10 rebounds, 3-4 steals, 5-6 assists and a couple of blocks per game this year.
"He's a guy that you can count on for poise out on the court and to hit the big shot," McConnell said.
"I think he's the best player in western Pennsylvania," the coach related. "I've seen all the good players play and he does more than any of them. He's a complete player and he's made a huge jump from last year. Tyrae has made the jump to a definite Division I player, possibly a mid-major player."
Bates will get the starting nod at one of the guard positions for the second straight year.
"He has taken his game to a new level," McConnell said. "As a coach, you feel really proud when you see a kid like James go from being an average player to a really good high school player."
McConnell said that newcomer Bennard, a point guard, could eventually develop into one of the best point guards to arrive on George Junior Republic's campus.
"Our guard play is dynamite," McConnell said. "With James Bates, Sherrad Bennard and Tyrae Denmark, nobody has three guards like we do. Teams like Oak Hill Academy do, but I wouldn't think anyone in Pennsylvania would."
Another newcomer, Graham, will get the starting nod at one of the frontcourt slots and the 6-6 junior, according to McConnell, is very athletic and could become a very good player if he continues to improve on the hardwood.
Note: McConnell will be assisted Mark Metzka, Derrick Van Cobb and Brian Danilov. -- By Corey J. Corbin, Allied News sports editor
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