When New Castle took the floor on opening night for its annual tipoff tournament, fans in the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House couldn’t be faulted for taking a few second looks at this year’s roster.
After all, the Red Hurricane brings back just three lettermen — Donte Burnett, Drew Cox and Payne Prowell — who are also the lone seniors on the team. Last year, 11 seniors, including all five starters, graduated from coach Ralph Blundo’s fifth WPIAL championship team that also advanced to the PIAA Class 4A quarterfinals. To say the 2018-19 ‘Canes are a completely different team might be an understatement.
However, when the lights came on Friday, Blundo’s team came to play using its trademark frenetic full-court press defense coupled with smart offense and fast-break points to a 73-56 win over Westinghouse. On Saturday, New Castle used a big third quarter advantage to take a 67-55 victory against Youngstown Chaney.
Cox, with 19 points, eight rebounds and seven assists against Westinghouse and 20 points against Youngstown Chaney, was named the tournament’s MVP. For his performance, Cox has been named the Lawrence County High School Athlete of the Week sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
“It meant a lot,” Cox said. “It gave me so much confidence. It just showed me that every game I can come out and do the same thing and lead the team the right way and score and do all the other things well.”
The team, the winners of two straight WPIAL championships, is sure to get every opponent’s best shot. With such a young — Blundo played two freshmen late in the fourth quarter Friday — and inexperienced roster, starting the season out with two business-as-usual wins was key in terms of confidence.
“It gives our whole team confidence, especially the younger guys since they don’t have a lot of experience,” Cox said. “If we come out and show them that we three seniors can do it, then they can do it too.”
Last year, Cox scored 102 points and appeared in 26 of the team’s 28 games. The senior guard/forward said he’s comfortable moving into a leadership role partly because he was asked to do the same during football season for the Red Hurricane.
“I slid into it well from football season,” Cox said. “I was a leader in that and it just carried on into basketball season. I’m able to lead these these guys well and get the job done on game day.”
Although asked to be a leader, scoring the basketball might be the most important thing Cox, whose future plans include studying engineering in college, can bring to the table this year. In a preseason interview with the News, Blundo said the swingman was an inside-outside threat who can score.
“The harder he plays, the better he’s going to be,” Blundo said. “He’s a talented basketball player.”
A son of Erica and John Cox, he said despite the teams’ relative youth, the goal is still the same — to make sure the season leads up to a WPIAL championship game at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.
“Our goals this year are to just prove to everyone that we still have what it takes to go all the way to the WPIAL championship and win it again,” Cox said.