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JFK returns ‘deceiving’ star

Hollobaugh leads deeper, much-improved Kennedy Eagles

WARREN — When coach Mark Komlanc looks at what he calls the “focal point” of his John F. Kennedy basketball team, junior Cameron Hollobaugh, one word comes to mind.

“Deceiving,” he said.

The 6-foot Hollobaugh may not look like the most intimidating force on the basketball court, but his hustle, strength and gritty style epitomize what the scrappy Eagles are all about this year.

Coming off a rare down season in which it finished 7-17 while playing one of the toughest schedules in the Mahoning Valley, JFK brings back a veteran team ready to get things back on track. A group that was mentally defeated by that rigorous schedule last year is up for the challenge this season.

“Last year (the schedule) did beat us up a little bit, but we got to play Maplewood in the first round, and they realized what I was preaching all year was the truth,” Komlanc said. “You’re going to get beat up along the way, but it’s going to make you better in the long run. This year, having that many kids returning, they understand that, and they’re expecting to compete and win games.”

A team that was often undersized and overmatched against opponents last year looks quite different now — aside from one key figure.

JFK boasts six players 6-3 or taller, but oddly enough, it’s the overlooked Hollobaugh who fuels the Eagles. The bulky forward, who nearly averaged a double-double last year with 9.8 points and 10 rebounds per contest, can impact the game in a variety of ways. He has the strength to post up down low, the speed to drive past bigger defenders and his athleticism helps him both rebound and defend at a high level.

One might not know any of that by looking at him.

“Playing the teams we played last year, a lot of them afterwards would make comments about how deceptive he was,” Komlanc said. “They had film on us, and they thought, ‘Oh, we can defend him. We can keep him in front of us.’ Because he doesn’t look super quick, but he’s super quick and deceptive, and he finds a way to get to the hoop, and it doesn’t matter who’s guarding him.”

Hollobaugh won’t be alone in powering JFK.

Senior Tyrel James is a returning starter at guard, and Marcus Aulizia (6-4, junior), Sejjan Couto (5-7, junior), T.J. Harden (6-4, sophomore) and Bobby Plizga (6-3, junior) all provide experience and depth. Junior guard Gabe Green is a first-year player who who starred on the football team and Komlanc believes he will be a big addition both as a leader and a player. Adding in Nick Fordeley (6-4, junior) and freshmen Hayden Wait (6-3) and Pat Valent (6-3) makes for a deep group with size and skill.

“We have so many guys with motors that if we stay healthy, we’re going to be able to play a fun style as long as we can put the ball in the hoop,” Komlanc said. “And we’ve gotten longer. We have like five kids at 6-3, 6-4. They were long and skinny last year, and they filled out a little this year. They put the time in the weight room and got much, much quicker.”

It could take some time for it all to come together.

Much of the Eagles’ roster is made up of football players, and since JFK made it to the second round of the playoffs, those players just joined the basketball team last week. Komlanc said it’s going to take time for all the moving parts to create a cohesive unit, but he believes their winning ways on the football field will pay off on the basketball court.

“Part of what Cam brings and Gabe Green brings is that they played football,” he said, “and they compete in multiple sports, and that brings, I don’t know if it’s a different level of respect or what, but between those two and Tyrel, we have solid leadership.”

When it all comes together, the Eagles should be a contender in the Division IV tournament.

Komlanc saw the growth from some close losses last year, with players learning the importance of what may have seemed like minor details late in games. Their progress began to show when they narrowly lost to eventual Division IV district champion Bristol in the tournament.

Komlanc believes another step forward is coming this season.

“That’s part of growing as a team,” he said. “I’m hoping that part of it is better this year, that we can pull away in the close games. Bristol, that’s who we lost to last year, and we were up, and then we kind of squandered that lead and fought back but just couldn’t get over the hump.

“I know a lot of the kids still remember how that felt, and they don’t want to lose in the tournament,” he added. “Inevitably, everyone ends up losing with the exception of four teams, so that’s tough to do, but we have players who have that mentality that they want to go out and they just want to win every game, no matter who they play.”

It’s a different mindset for the Eagles.

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