Offseason work translates into postseason results for New Castle.
However, with a spring, summer and fall altered due to the coronavirus, the Red Hurricane didn’t get a chance to achieve as much as it wanted.
“It completely changed our entire process. We missed three months. We played maybe 10 games, where we normally play 40,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “It’s hard to gauge the development of some of the players. We’re in the same boat as everyone else. This is the hand we’ve been dealt. We will handle it accordingly. We won’t complain. We’re clearly way behind, though. My job is to find a way to catch us up.”
An experienced roster could help soften the blow of a truncated offseason, though. New Castle returns four starters in Michael Wells, Sheldon Cox, Michael Graham and Isiah Boice as well as lettermen Donny Cade, Andrae Jackson and Jonathon Anderson.
“What created some headaches, in terms of inexperience, last year will be a luxury this year now that they’ve gained experience,” Blundo said. “Thus far, they are handling the pandemic as well as can be expected. There’s a social-emotional aspect to this thing that we have to keep an eye on with these kids. We’re trying to make this as normal as possible.”
Though the time spent in the offseason was limited, the progress pleased Blundo, who led the program to six WPIAL titles in his first 10 years as head coach. Under Blundo, New Castle has gone 242-41 and reached the WPIAL semifinals every season. Overall, he is 268-43 (89.3 winning percentage), which includes a 26-2 mark in one season at George Junior Republic.
“I think that some guys have had better summers than others. But, when you’re playing all ninth and 10th graders, like we were, one thing that is obvious is the change of their bodies from one year to the next,” he said. “I definitely see a maturity growth as well.”
Blundo was eager for practice to begin in November so he and his staff could start molding together the foundation for another title run. The ’Canes had their three-year WPIAL championship run halted in last season’s semifinals.
“I think this is the deepest team I have had in a while. We will have five players on the floor at all times that can score the basketball,” he said. “There’s some talent here. There are some pure basketball players here. We just have to grow as a group, continue to be together and have an unrelenting desire to compete night in and night out. If we aren’t as successful as we hope to be, it won’t be because of talent. There’s enough here.”
Senior Gionni Johnson, juniors Chris Hood and Cahmari Perkins and sophomores Byron Lett and Nick Wallace are battling for minutes.
“We just have to see them when the (game) lights are on to know whether they are ready or not,” Blundo said.
The regular season will have some unfamiliarity for New Castle, too. The ’Canes moved up to Class 5A and are in a new section with Chartiers Valley, Moon, South Fayette, Trinity and West Allegheny.
“I think there are a lot of unknown variables. We’re in Class 5A for the first time and there’s the uncertainty of the teams in our section. We’re going against bigger schools, bigger bodies and some bigger teams,” Blundo said. “There’s a possibility of limited playoff brackets, too. You just can’t take any chances. You have to take advantage when an opportunity presents itself. You have to win section games so you have the opportunity to become a champion.
“Playing against teams year in and year out, they become familiar with you and we become familiar with them. So, it’ll be interesting seeing how our style matches up against a whole new group of teams. The travel is a bit concerning, too.”