WEIRTON - Weirton Madonna began practice for the 2011-12 basketball season needing to replace five graduated seniors, including standout Conner Arlia who is now a West Virginia University football player, but also with three starters and last year's leading scorer.
They also begin the year with the eye of the state upong them as the W.Va. Class A defending state champions.
''There is no doubt that the target is on our backs,'' Coach George Vargo said. ''But we still have big goals - we want to return to the OVAC Class A championship game and we also want to get back to Charleston to defend our title.
''But the biggest things these kids have to realize is that last year is over and it is a new day. We have to be as hungry as we were last season, and while that is all fun to talk about, we have to move on and understand that is history.''
The push to get back to the state capital begins with 6-foot-3. senior standout Clay Rokisky, who was the team's leading scorer a year ago and also a first team All-West Virginia player.
Big things are also expected from 6-6 senior Drazen Frankovitch and returning 5-8 point guard Nick Battista. The other two starters will come from a group that includes seniors Conner Mogan (6-0), Josh Egyud (5-10) and Daniel Pietranton (6-1), all of whom started at one time or another last season.
The remaining trio that will form the Blue Dons' core of nine players, are sophomores Ross Comis (5-11), Nathan Guio (6-1) and Will Bowser (6-0).
''We have our core group of seniors that we are expecting a lot out of, but we are also looking for some big things from those three freshmen,'' Vargo admitted. ''It is very encouraging that we have six returning seniors and also some role players.
''I think the biggest thing is that we need to find three more players that can help us round out the bench.''
Along with Arlia, Madonna also lost Pat McCune, Chris Perna, Mario Yacoviello and Nick Alexander to graduation last spring.
''Those were some pretty good players and they were a big part of what we accomplished, but they are gone and the kids that we have will have to move on together without them,'' Vargo said.
''But we have some height and some very good guards and I know we have the ability to do that.
''And we have learned from the past that it is a good thing to play a nice schedule. That is why we went out and connected with teams like Shadyside, Beallsville and Parkersburg Catholic this year. We believe playing a good schedule will only make us better and more competitive. A quality schedule does nothing but improve a team and get it ready for what is down the road.''