Fox Chapel basketball coach Zach Skrinjar considered last year’s regular season to be one of the more complete of his nine seasons with the team, with highlights like sharing the Section 3-6A title with Latrobe and Penn Hills and ending Latrobe’s 22-game home winning streak atop the list of accomplishments.
The one thing that eluded the Foxes was a playoff victory. They bowed out to Section 3-6A rival Woodland Hills, 52-47, in the WPIAL quarterfinals.
The playoff loss didn’t completely damper a successful season, but it did provide motivation.
With an experienced backcourt returning in all-section point guard Carson Cohen and sharp-shooting junior Ben Kelly, the Foxes have their sights set on contending again.
“Last year, we headed in the right direction with winning the section, but I think that’s just a building block,” Cohen said. “This year, we can take that and try to go further. We lost some experienced players, but we have some experience coming back, so I think that will really help us.”
Fox Chapel lost three starters, including 6-foot-5 all-section center Jake Livingston, but Skrinjar said he has players who will provide depth.
Junior guard Ryan Kerr is a player Skrinjar said has embraced improvement, along with sophomore Arnold Vento and Justin Supsura. Noah Marks and Micah Morris will man the frontcourt, along with newcomer Dom McGriff.
Many of the aforementioned players have played in the past, but they will see increased roles, and Cohen, a Tufts (Mass.) recruit, will be leaned upon for guidance.
“The point guard position kind of automatically lends itself to a leadership role, and Carson has really embraced that,” Skrinjar said. “He’s improved every year in high school, and I think he’s one of the elite guards in the WPIAL and maybe even the state. He can do a lot of good things with the basketball, and he keeps his demeanor even-keeled. That in itself is a calming presence for the rest of the team. They know they have a guy that they can count on to compete every night.
“We’ll have a group of guys on the floor that can all score, and they can score in different ways. Carson is doing a good job distributing the ball. He knows he can get those guys shots, and he can get his shots too when he needs to.”
Cohen is the floor general, and Kelly will look to provide instant offense from behind the arc.
“(Ben’s) shot is probably his strong suit,” Skrinjar said. “He spends a lot of time working on it. Having a knockdown shooter, who’s long, can rebound, is improving on the defensive end and can share the ball, is a good start for us.”
The Foxes play Imani Christian and Gateway on Dec. 8-9 at the Plum tip-off tournament to open the season. They begin section play Dec. 15 by hosting Hempfield.
Fox Chapel’s section was one of the more entertaining ones in the WPIAL a season ago, filled with close games, the three-way tie for first place and Woodland Hills making a run to the semifinals.
Coaches expect something similar this year.
Part of what keeps things fresh is the various styles teams bring. Latrobe lost standout guard Austin Butler, who is starting at Holy Cross, but Skrinjar expects the Wildcats to be strong again. Penn Hills brings a press style, Woodland Hills features strong guard play and Hempfield, Plum, Norwin and Penn-Trafford bring a grinding, physical element to the court.
In preparing for the mixture of styles, the Foxes like to stick to what they do best and adjust accordingly depending on what team is on the other side of the court.
“We have core principals on defense, and depending on the opponent we’ll adjust different things to try to take away what we feel their strengths are,” Skrinjar said. “We were pretty successful with that last year. Obviously, we lost some guys who were really good at doing that. We’re working with this group to get back to that blueprint we had last year.”
Fox Chapel has made the playoffs in seven of the nine seasons Skrinjar has been at the helm. Three years ago, the Foxes made a run to the semifinals. They hope to continue to build upon the tradition.
“We’re proud of what we’ve built and our piece of Fox Chapel basketball,” Skrinjar said. “That’s always been our goal is to get into the playoffs and see what we can do from there. The playoff loss might have left a little bit of a sour taste in our mouths, but our entire body of work for our season was probably one of the best in Fox Chapel history. That’s something we have to put in the bank and use it, but we also have to move forward into our 2017-18 season and try to improve on what we did.”
Cohen missed the playoffs as a sophomore when the Foxes fell short in 2015-16. He doesn’t want that experience again.
“That really hurt us,” Cohen said. “It didn’t feel good. Fox Chapel has a tradition of being good and making the playoffs, but this year we want to do better than that. We want to be a team that can make a deep run in the playoffs. We have the talent and the coaching. It’s a good group of guys.”