The early portion of Fox Chapel’s season resembled a chemistry experiment: take two starters who missed the previous season with injury, mix them with a freshman point guard and throw in more key players fitting into new roles.
As with any experiment, the Foxes had some spills. But nothing blew up.
Fox Chapel overcame early wobbles to secure its third consecutive WPIAL playoff berth, clinching second place in Section 3-6A with a win Saturday over Penn-Trafford, and will go into the postseason playing some of its best basketball of the season.
“I’ve been pleased with our improvement,” coach Zach Skrinjar said. “Some adversity along the way, but I think that overcoming that and coming together as a group, spending more time playing together and everyone getting more into their defined job and role has led to the success of this team.”
After a 2017-18 season that included a berth in the PIAA Class 6A playoffs, Fox Chapel lost starters Carson Cohen, Dom McGriff and Micah Morris to graduation, and returning guard Ben Kelly enrolled at an Ohio academy.
That, of course, left significant holes to fill, even as senior Ryan Kerr and junior Sam Brown — starters two seasons ago — returned after missing all of last season with injuries. Freshman Eli Yofan stepped into the point guard role vacated by Cohen’s graduation, with senior Noah Marks and juniors Will Livingston and Arnold Vento assuming expanded roles.
The season began promisingly, as Fox Chapel beat top-ranked Pine-Richland in the opening weekend of the season. But a stretch of three losses in four games against a rugged schedule dropped the Foxes to 4-4 heading into January.
“I think it was our mental preparation for each game,” Kerr said. “When we would win games, we would kind of think we were a lot better than we were. Then we’d go into the next game not fully prepared. Ever since then, we’ve been treating every game like it’s really important.”
Fox Chapel got back to its principles on defense. The Foxes are allowing 42.2 points in section play, holding six of their nine opponents to fewer than 50 points. Two of the games above that number belong to Latrobe, the No. 1 team in Class 6A.
Brown, the Foxes’ top defender, held Penn-Trafford’s Zach Rocco to a single-digit scoring effort in Saturday’s 55-41 win while playing through an injury.
“Our defensive intensity has picked up a ton,” Kerr said. “It’s huge. If we have a two-and-a-half-hour practice, there’s at least an hour and 45 minutes or two hours spent on defense.”
The Foxes benefit from a lineup of defined roles: Vento leads the team in scoring but gets plenty of help from Brown, Kerr and Marks. Livingston provides length, defense and rebounding in the frontcourt while also having the ability to score. Yofan had a breakout game against Penn-Trafford, scoring 14 points and adding eight rebounds, six assists and six steals.
“It was just a continuous work in progress, but that’s the best part of it,” Skrinjar said. “We never wanted to be our best self in December. The small successes that the team has seen along the way, I think has led to the collective success of the group.”
Fox Chapel loaded its schedule: two section games against Latrobe, plus nonsection contests against No. 2 Pine-Richland, Class 5A No. 3 Penn Hills and two against Class 5A No. 5 Woodland Hills. The Foxes will play Class 6A No. 4 Upper St. Clair this week.
With the WPIAL playoffs beginning later this month, Skrinjar believes the Foxes can be dangerous as long as they defend, play with confidence and play together.
“I think there’s been a spark for some of these guys,” Skrinjar said. “We’re only guaranteed so many more opportunities, and they’ve taken that in stride and they’ve run with it. I think that’s probably been the biggest thing.”
Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.