A lot can change in a week.
For the Central Catholic basketball team, it was the trajectory of its season.
Central Catholic coach Brian Urso challenged his team at a Saturday practice just over a week ago. It came a day after the Vikings dropped to 4-5 overall after a home loss to Seneca Valley.
“It was a pretty tough practice,” senior guard Dante DePante recalled.
Who were the Vikings? That’s what Urso wanted to find out.
“I told the guys that they had to make a decision on how we’re going to play,” said Urso, who is in his fourth season. “I asked them, ‘What’s our identity?’”
Following a spirited practice and what was likely the most impressive week by any WPIAL team this season, the answer now is obvious: Central Catholic is a defensive-minded group and one of the elite teams in the WPIAL … perhaps even the very best.
What a week it was for Central Catholic (7-5), which took down two unbeaten teams and another that had just two losses. Going into their games with the Vikings, those three opponents — New Castle, Butler and Lincoln Park — were a combined 32-2.
Central Catholic’s list of conquests reads like this:
• Last Tuesday, the Vikings went to New Castle — one of the toughest places to play in the WPIAL — and handed the Red Hurricanes, then 12-0, a 56-45 defeat. Senior Debaba Tshiebwe led the Vikings with 18 points.
• On Friday, Central Catholic played host to 10-2 Butler and downed the Golden Tornado, 55-53, behind 16 points from junior Cole Sullivan. The Vikings held Butler to just 23% shooting. The win improved the Vikings to 3-1 in Class 6A Section 1, placing them in a first-place tie with New Castle.
• The very next night at Westminster College, Central Catholic played mighty Lincoln Park, which was 12-0 and has looked outstanding this season while being led by Pitt recruit Brandin Cummings and five-star sophomore Meleek Thomas. The result: Central Catholic 54, Lincoln Park 49. Sullivan once again led the way with 18 points.
“It was a really good bounce-back week, and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said DePante, whose team lost three games to out-of-state teams in addition to losing to Gateway and Seneca Valley.
Central Catholic has had some added bounce in its step defensively as of late. Heading into last week, the Vikings were surrendering 61.7 points per game, a number that usually isn’t considered a championship-caliber figure. But against three of the WPIAL’s best teams, the Vikings gave up only 42.3 a game while holding all three to season lows.
“The defensive focus has been tremendous,” said Urso, whose team went 18-7 and reached the WPIAL semifinals a season ago. “We’re putting a lot of value on making stops. We realized the more stops we can get, the better off we’ll be offensively because we like to push the ball.”
Central Catholic has played mostly man-to-man defense under Urso, but now the Vikings are adding some new ingredients to their defensive recipe, including some zone and presses.
Another key to Central Catholic’s surge has been getting healthy. DePante (oblique) and Tshiebwe (sprained knee), two of the team’s top players, each missed two games with injuries. Both now are back and playing well.
DePante is a four-year starter who leads the Vikings in scoring with 15.2 points a game and in assists with 4.0 a game. He also has chipped in 4.6 rebounds a night. A 6-foot-3 guard, DePante has Division I offers from North Florida and Radford and said he is receiving interest from teams such as Coastal Carolina, Columbia and Colgate. DePante said he will wait until after the season before picking a college.
Randy Wilkerson, a 6-1 senior guard, has been steady in the backcourt and averages 10.7 points a game. Urso said Wilkerson has dropped in close to three 3-pointers made per game. Also on the perimeter is junior guard Payton Wehner, a two-year starter who doubles as the quarterback on the Central Catholic football team.
The frontcourt has and should continue to give opponents fits. The top two contributors are tall and talented. Tshiebwe stands 6-7 and Sullivan 6-5. Tshiebwe has tallied 10.9 points and a team-best 11.6 rebounds per game, while Sullivan averages 9.4 points and 5.0 boards.
“It’s a two-headed monster,” Urso said. “Teams are realizing you can’t stop them both. They work so well together and look for each other.”
Tshiebwe’s brother, Oscar, is a standout at University of Kentucky who leads the Southeastern Conference and ranks second in the NCAA in rebounding. He played high school ball at Kennedy Catholic in Mercer County.
Sullivan is also one of the top junior football players in the WPIAL and holds scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Kent State and Miami of Ohio. Sullivan has had a breakout season on the court.
“Cole has been awesome,” Urso said. “His work ethic is the reason why. He tells me he’ll do whatever is necessary for us to win. He’s rebounding, scoring inside, playing defense, and doing whatever he needs to do to help us. His toughness is contagious.”
And so are wins against excellent competition. With that comes fun, in addition to increased confidence and expectations.
“It’s great right now,” DePante said. “I feel like we’re really connecting at a good time. We’re now all back and healthy and showing everybody how good we can be.”
But as good as last week was for Central Catholic, its coach knows the Vikings have to turn the page and refocus on another challenging week that includes games at North Allegheny and Penn-Trafford followed by a contest against Imani Christian Saturday at Allderdice.
“I told them it was a great week, but we’ve got to now focus on the next,” said Urso.
And if Central Catholic continues to string together huge wins and big weeks, this could be a championship season for the Vikings, who have won only one WPIAL title (2008) and have never claimed a PIAA title.
Said DePante, “I think we’re the best team in the WPIAL, Pennsylvania, whatever.”