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Ridge stays in house for new coach

The Chestnut Ridge boys basketball program made one of the biggest leaps in the area last season, improving from a 5-17 mark in 2018-2019 to a 13-11 record last season.

That’s why it was important to keep the pieces of that progress together after coach Matt Claar departed following a playoff loss to Brookville in February.

The Lions recently tabbed Don Ellis, who served under Claar the past two seasons, as the new head coach.

“Don is familiar with our boys program, having served as our assistant coach,” Chestnut Ridge athletic director Mark Clevenger said. “I expect him to step right in and lead our team in the right direction. His knowledge of the game and his competitive nature will provide the leadership to drive our team towards success.”

Ellis, a Portage graduate and Duncansville resident, said he saw the team make a lot of progress last year.

“It felt like we were starting to get confident that we could win games last year,” Ellis said. “Before some of those big wins, we were always doubting ourselves. Once we got those, we knew we could compete with a lot of the tough schools in our conference. It was a major step from the first year to the second year, and we expect another big step this year.”

While the Lions lost a few key contributors to graduation last year, some important players, including perhaps their best, return.

“Matt Whysong and Logan Pfister will both be three-year starters,” Ellis said. “Whysong is one of the best athletes in the conference, basketball-wise. He’s one of the top players in the whole area. I really believe that. He’s really special, and Pfister is a great athlete.”

Whysong averaged 16 points per game, and Pfister, who also is Chestnut Ridge’s quarterback in football and a track star, averaged 8.9 points per game. Lucas Nicodemus, who played in 24 games last year, also returns.

“We’ll be looking to attack offensively and defensively,” Ellis said. “With our athletes and speed, we’re really looking to press and attack and play up-tempo. With our athletes, we should be able to stay with most teams playing that style. A lot of our kids don’t play AAU, so they don’t play basketball throughout the year. That does hurt us, somewhat, but if we lean on our talented athletes, we’ll be OK.”

Chestnut Ridge defeated Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference opponents Bishop McCort and Richland twice last year and was competitive against state playoff teams like Bishop Carroll and Bedford. The Lions also defeated out-of-conference foe Central.

“It helps a lot just playing in the (LHAC) instead of the leagues we played in before like the Sideling Hill League,” Ellis said. “The competition is so much better in the Laurel Highlands. Each and every game, you have to come out with your ‘A’ game, and if you don’t, you’re not going to win.”

Each team in the LHAC will be getting a later start than expected due to COVID-19 concerns. Their first official practices won’t begin until Dec. 14, and games won’t take place until Jan. 8. For a new coach, that is challenging.

“We were running open gyms, and the kids were coming together,” Ellis said. “We were getting ready to install our offense and trying to get game-ready and then the bad news hit us last week. It’s hard, because our kids don’t get to touch a basketball much. We have a lot of football and baseball players who don’t play a lot of basketball in the offseason. I have to rely on as many practices as I can get with these kids.”

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