By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- You can bet the New Castle High boys basketball community is enjoying every part of the Red Hurricanes' 18-0 season. But don't believe it has the road to Hershey mapped out yet.
New Castle is proof that nothing is guaranteed. It learned that in an overtime loss to Erie McDowell in the 1999 PIAA Quad-A state semifinal.
"We were a shoo-in by everybody's estimation," New Castle coach John Sarandrea said of reaching the state title game. "The wheels fell off."
The Red Hurricanes had everyone back from the 1998 team that finished 30-2 and lost to Harrisburg in the state final. Expectations were at an all-time high in New Castle during the '99 season.
"That team's expectations from the community and the team clearly was to get to the state final," said Sarandrea, whose team's upset at the University of Pittsburgh after leading by 19 points created a frenzied environment for 6,000 fans.
When Sarandrea glanced at his 2001-02 schedule, never once did he think his team would be unbeaten through 18 games, its best start since that '99 team began 23-0 and also finished 30-2.
Beat the best: The Red Hurricanes have prevailed over defending Pennsylvania state champions Franklin (AAA) and Kennedy Catholic (A), Pennsylvania powers George Junior and Penn Hills and Warren Harding, arguably the Mahoning Valley's best team.
"No way you can look at that and say we're going to run the table," said Sarandrea, whose team travels to Mount Lebanon tonight.
"We've played very well," he said. "What's nice is we can still get better. I don't think we have peaked yet."
This season's version of the Red Hurricanes is based on the words of former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who once said, "It's amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit."
Those words, Sarandrea said, have become New Castle's creed. The Red Hurricanes go nine deep, execute their roles, thrive on balance and up-tempo play and rattle teams with defensive pressure and quick baskets.
"They trap and rotate, have different presses, change defenses after timeouts," said Kennedy Catholic coach Tim Loomis, a former college coach whose team lost 70-52 to New Castle this season. "Those are things you are accustomed to in college."
Most depth ever: Sarandrea said this season's New Castle team has the most depth of any he's had in his 10 years as head coach.
"The number of players they send at you defensively tends to break good teams down," Loomis said.
New Castle's attack begins with 6-foot-2 senior Dom Joseph, a three-year starter who leads the team with a 19-point scoring average at small forward.
Senior point guard Mark DeMonaco (5-9) is the quarterback on the floor, using his fiery, hard-nosed style to average 14 points per game, shoot 48 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the foul line.
Senior guard Dante Spino (6-0), a transfer from Butler, has scored 13 points per game. Spino is the type of player who wants the ball in his hands at critical times.
Junior Leon Ward (6-0) started as a sophomore and averages nearly 10 points per game this season. He uses his superior athleticism to contribute in a variety of ways.
The center is senior Hoover Gibson (6-4), who has made tremendous improvement in the program and does the Red Hurricanes' "dirty work," Sarandrea said.
Senior Joe Carter (6-1) and sophomore Chris Cain (6-5) give New Castle a boost off the bench, as does senior Vojtech Hybler, a 6-7 foreign exchange student from Czech Republic.
"They are the best team in western Pennsylvania by far," said Loomis, who added that New Castle has a legitimate shot to win the state title.
Trio of goals: Sarandrea prefers not to look that far ahead. Instead, he mentions a long list of Quad-A challengers and focuses on his team's three goals -- win Section 3, District 7 and then be No. 1 in Hershey.
"It is wide open," Sarandrea said. "There are no walk-throughs. Even when we were 30-2, we always had battles."
Those battles, such as the one that ended 1999, have put this 18-0 season into perspective.