Teams prepare for playoff run
College basketball has “March Madness” but scholastic hoops has “Frenetic February.” The craziness begins in earnest as the WPIAL tournament commences and culminates Feb. 28 and March 1 when champions in four different classifications, boys and girls, will be crowned at the A.J. Palumbo Center on the Duquesne University campus.
Some 14 area clubs have qualified for the postseason and section champions: the Chartiers Valley boys, Seton-La Salle boys and girls, Mt. Lebanon girls and Upper St. Clair boys have drawn top seeds. However, that distinction does not guarantee success. Playoff performance does.
“Winning a section title is nice,” said Lebo floor boss Dori Oldaker. “But that is not our goal. We want to improve each day and set our goals higher.
Noting there are no ‘weak’ links in the 16-team girls’ Quad-A tournament, Oldaker added, “every team is good and as a team, you can’t have an ‘off’ night or you may lose. Every team is a challenge.”
In capturing their seventh Section 4 title in a row, the Blue Devils posted a 10-2 record, losing to Bethel Park and Baldwin, both of which enter the postseason. Overall, the Lebo ladies, who won WPIAL titles in 2009 and 2010 and had been to four state finals between 2008-11, winning two, are 15-5 after beating rival Upper St. Clair, 53-40, in their section finale. The Lady Panthers are also qualified for the playoffs, having finished tied with BP for second place with an 8-4 slate and a 14-6 overall mark.
Margie McCaffrey runs the floor for Lebo. The senior point guard leads the team with 5.5 assists per game, 41 steals and 3-point buckets. She averages 12 points per game.
With 6-foot-1 twin towers Christine Ehland and Madeleine Collins, the Blue Devils are a force inside the paint. Both are seniors and average 15.5 and 10.3 points respectively. Ehland pulls down 7.7 rebounds a game while Collins averages 5.1.
Defensively, Ehland also stands out, gathering in 32 steals. That’s one behind Anna Miller. The 5-10 senior is another hard-nosed player on defense for the Blue Devils, not to mention playmaker with 30 assists.
Maura Wallace also provides punch as the sophomore guard averages 5.4 points to go along with 22 steals and 23 assists.
Throughout their playoff run, the Lebo ladies will also rely upon their deep bench and look for contributions from Megan McGrady, Kylie Cook, Silvie Rudick, Angie Gyorinia, Fabi Shipley, Sophia Klabor, McKenzie Bushee, Kate Sramac, Allison Early, Abby Hartman, Julia Rabeneck and Sarah Walters.
Noting the playoffs are ‘quite a challenge’, Oldaker believes her team’s ability to progress as well as its unity will be keys to success.
“Hopefully, we haven’t peaked yet,” she said. “Our team is very unselfish and they love playing together.”
Meanwhile, the Lebo ladies’ male counterparts are a team to watch in the Quad-A tournament, which is expected to be dominated by undefeated New Castle as well as Hampton and North Allegheny, the top three squads out of Section 3.
The Mt. Lebanon men are on the rise. Before dropping their section finale to rival Upper St. Clair, 52-46, the Blue Devils had won eight of their last 11 games. Despite an 11-11 overall record, strength of schedule plays into Lebo’s favor. The Blue Devils played the tops teams from Arkansas and Mississippi during a tournament earlier in the season as well as North Allegheny and Chartiers Valley. Against the No. 1 team in Class AAA, Lebo lost to the Colts, 55-47, in mid-January.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Lebo floor boss Joe David, noting how in November the team was brand new. “We are playing with a great deal of chemistry now, and I challenged them with a difficult schedule against tough teams. I think that has prepared us. I think we can make some noise in the tournament.”
Throughout the regular season, Jonny David, the coach’s son, has made the most noise. In the loss to USC, the junior tossed in 16 tallies, just a shade under his 17.4-point average. Jake Champagne followed with 10 markers.
While sophomore Eddie Jenkins joins David in the backcourt, Patrick Ehland at 6-7 and Matthew Collins at 6-6 present a strong force inside for the Blue Devils along with Max Li. All are seniors.
Lebo fields five freshmen and two additional sophomores on its roster. The newcomers are Mark Lamendola, Sean White, Henry Kogan, Peter Copetas and Nate Bayer, while Jordan Davis and Xavier Awad are 10th graders. Thomas Gladden, Brandan Carse, Harrison Dang and Tyler Whitfield are juniors on the young and up-and-coming club.
As the third-place finisher in Section 4, David knows his team faces an uphill battle in the WPIAL tournament. “We are working from the bottom up,” he said.
To be successful, however, Lebo must do the simple things and do them right.
“We have to shoot well and play defense,” David said of his team, which averages 47.4 points a game while limiting the opposition to 46.9. “We have to do all the fundamental well but we also have to do the little things. Box out. Make sure of our passes.
“We are not a great, great team. We are not overwhelmed with talent like some other teams that we can get away with not doing the little things right.”
Against those teams, says David, “mistakes will be magnified.”
Though Bethel Park is the defending champion, the Lady Hawks’ enter the WPIAL Quad-A girls’ tournament on the down slide. When they dropped three straight to Lebo, Chartiers Valley and Baldwin, they saw their hopes of winning the Section 4 title vanish. BP finished tied for second place with Upper St. Clair, behind Lebo, with an 8-4 record. The Lady Hawks also succumbed to South Park, 39-32, before they ended the regular season on a positive note, beating playoff-bound Seneca Valley, 70-65, on Monday, Feb. 10.
Harper Zimmer and Kaitlin Chess led the charge with 11 tallies each.
The defeats magnified BP’s recent deficiency. In three of their last four losses, the Lady Hawks failed to score more than 35 points. A strong defensive unit, BP limits the opposition to 46.2 points per game.
“We need to put the ball in the hoop,” explained Jonna Burke.
“While I do think that we are capable of playing strong defense and we come up with good game plans against the teams that we will face, and (defense) will keep us in game, we have to score out of the 30’s. We have to be able to break the 40 mark if we expect to win games.”
As long as the Lady Hawks take high percentage shots and continue to get good looks, Burke believes the baskets will eventually fall. “I know we have been through shooting slumps before and its been a different bunch of kids scoring for us every game but recently nobody has been shooting well and that makes it difficult. Hopefully the shots start to drop and that will translate into wins and a nice run in the playoffs.”
After beating McKeesport, 69-42, to finish 17-5 overall and after defeating Baldwin, 53-43, to clinch the second seed out of Section 4 with an 11-3 slate, the Bethel Park boys’ are looking to make a run in the playoffs as well.
In the win against the Tigers, Josh Krafczynski (15), Joey Mascaro (11) and Jake Dixon (10) all scored in double figures. Against the Highlanders, Mascaro fired in 25 points while Krafczynski and Dixon followed with 13 and 10 tallies respectively.
Mascaro leads the Hawks with a 17-point average while Krafczynski and Anthony Bomar follow with 9-point averages. Dixon leads in rebounds, averaging eight per game.
The Hawks enter the post season as one of the top defensive clubs. They allow 48.9 points per game. Plum (45.3), Mt. Lebanon (46.9) and Upper St. Clair (47.4) have better defensive numbers.
Because the Hawks competed well in Section 4, Ben O’Connor believes his team is prepared for the post-season. “Lebo, Peters and USC are all well-coached, disciplined teams and games against them are always in front of nice crowds that provide playoff-type atmospheres,” he said.
The atmosphere is positive in the BP locker room even though the Hawks know undefeated New Castle (21-0) is the heavy favorite to win the Quad-A title. Hampton and North Allegheny are high seeds, but O’Connor believes Plum (18-3) and Lebo (11-11) are also teams to watch.
“Right now, I like our toughness and focus on defense,” O’Connor said. “Plus, I like our unselfishness on and off the floor.”
In order for the Hawks to continue their success into the playoffs, O’Connor said his team must continue to play loose and compete for 32 minutes. “We can’t lose track of what helped us be successful this year and that was depth and defense.”
Upper St. Clair
While Upper St. Clair clinched the Section 4 title with a 52-46 triumph over rival Mt. Lebanon, the Panthers prepared for the WPIAL Quad-A playoffs when they dropped a 60-55 decision to Chartiers Valley in their final regular season contest.
With the split, the Panthers finished 12-2 in their division and 16-6 overall.
In each outing, head coach Dan Holzer was pleased with certain aspects of his team’s game. He said the Panther played well defensively against the Blue Devils and they maintained focus and determination in attempting to topple the Colts, who are the top-ranked team in Class AAA.
“We’ve fought hard and battled. We’re playing good defense as the Lebo game indicated,” Holzer said of his team, which is allowing under 48 points per game.
“A game like (Char Valley) prepares us for the playoffs because they are as good a team as you will find in the WPIAL. To play with them you have to be mentally tough for 32 minutes because they put people into submission. They made plays at the end and we didn’t.”
Jerrad Tuite tossed in 16 of his game-high 26 points in the decisive fourth quarter as the Colts overcame a 42-38 deficit to outscore the Panthers, 22-13. Matt McConnell finished with 23 markers and Eddie Flohr followed with 10 tallies.
Conor Gallagher led the Panthers in both games. He fired in 16 points against Lebo and managed 20 markers against the Colts. J.J. Conn had 15 against the Blue Devils and Nick Staley finished with 12 against CV.
“No question, Conor makes us go,” Holzer said. “He is the engineer behind the train.”
And, the USC Express exhibited assurance against the Colts. That characteristic will serve the Panthers well in the playoffs.
“I like how gritty this team is playing and we are playing with confidence,” said Holzer. “We go inside when we need to. We make the outside shots when we have to.”
So does that mean the Panthers have discovered how to beat New Castle, which recorded it third straight undefeated regular season?
Holzer says yes. “Call Pitt and get Patterson and the rest of those guys.”
Growing serious, Holzer raved about the Hurricanes. “They are so talented and coached so well. They are the whole package,” he said. “You have to play an absolutely perfect game and hope they don’t play well. They are relentless.
Regardless, Holzer and his Panthers are excited about the playoffs. As a section champion, they draw one of the top six seeds in the tournament.
“Take New Castle out of the equation and we can go as far as we can, as far as anybody else,” Holzer said. And, if it came down to that one game, Holzer added, “Anything can happen. Look at what happened in the 1980 Winter Olympics when the U.S. won the gold medal in ice hockey.”
The USC ladies, like their male counterparts, are also banking on their strength of schedule and good fortune as they enter the WPIAL Quad-A playoffs. The Lady Panthers finished tied with Bethel Park for second place in Section 4 with an 8-4 record.
USC tuned up for the postseason by picking up a thrilling victory, 51-50, over Greensburg Central Catholic. Rachel Mazzie and Madison led the way with 16 and 15 points respectively. The Panthers are also led by Elayna Kaylor, Diandra Conwell and Constance Raftis.
While North Allegheny at 19-1 is expected to be the team to beat, Section 4 has produced five of the last six WPIAL winners. Last year, Bethel Park captured the championship. USC won a title in 2008 and Mt. Lebanon won banners in 2009, 2010 and 2012.
With wins over rival, Bishop Canevin, the Seton-La Salle boys’ and girls’ teams completed Section 4 action undefeated and enter the WPIAL tournament as the teams to beat in Class AA.
Under head coach Mark Walsh, the Rebel men beat the Crusaders, 76-33, to finish 12-0 in their division. SLS is 21-1 overall, with the one loss coming Jan. 26 at Montour, 68-56, in the Pittsburgh Classic.
“We are very proud of our team this year,” Walsh said. “We are very excited to be section champs, and to be undefeated in the section is a great honor.”
Against the Crusaders, Ryan Norkus took home scoring honors with 16 tallies. Andrew Rodgers (13), Levi Masua (10) and Malik White (10) followed in double digits.
The Rebels, who also boast a 1,000-point scorer in Dale Clancy, were section champions last season and highly favored in the Class AA tournament, but they dropped out of the playoffs in the first round, falling to Quaker Valley.
While the Rebels have moved on from that unpleasant defeat, Walsh believes his team has “learned from the experience” and is looking forward to the postseason, particularly because of how well the Rebels are playing. SLS leads Class AA with the staunchest defense, surrendering 46.5 points per game. The Rebels average 67.6 points an outing, second only to Greensburg Central Catholic (71.9) and Summit Academy (68.5). Aliquippa and Avonworth, which won the Section 2 and 6 titles, respectively, are among the other Class AA clubs to watch.
According to Walsh, there have been no secrets to success other than hard work for the Rebels. “We have a great bunch of young men who have put in a lot of time, effort and energy over the last three seasons. While we will handle (a top seed) with humility,” Walsh continued, “we are going to continue to work hard every day in practice and enjoy ourselves as we journey into the playoffs.”
The Lady Rebels’ journey in the playoffs is expected to be a long one as well because they have yet to lose to a Class AA club. SLS, which won the Section 4-AA title with a 12-0 slate, sports a 19-4 overall record. Three of the losses have been to teams outside of Pennsylvania. The fourth defeat occurred Feb. 10, however, when West Mifflin beat the Lady Rebels, 57-48.
The Rebels boast three Pitt recruits in seniors Naje Gibson and Yacine Diop as well as junior Cassidy Walsh. They also feature top defender and top outside shooting threat Nicolete Newman, also a junior.
Diop and Gibson paced SLS to victory over Bishop Canevin, 63-51, firing in 18 and 17 points, respectively. Gibson (11), Diop (11) and Shaunay Edmonds (10) were in double figures against the Titans.
The Lady Rebels were undefeated WPIAL and PIAA champions in 2012 but lost their titles to the Crusaders in 2013. This winter, Canevin finished runner-up to SLS in Section 4 with a 10-2 slate. In the loss to the Rebels, Gina Vallecorsa pumped in 17 points. Vallecorsa and fellow sophomore Erin Joyce are key contributors but Johnie Olkosky is the Lady Crusaders’ sharpshooter. It was her 3-point accuracy that led to SLS’s demise in last year’s WPIAL title tilt.
With a 44-41 victory against Canon-McMillan, Peters Township squeaked into the Quad-A playoffs, finishing fourth in Section 4 with an 8-6 record.
The Indians fell to 11-11 overall after their regular season finale Feb. 10, a 70-65 loss against Fox Chapel, which is also playoff bound.
In the win against the Big Macs, Conor Freely (14), J.C. Brush (11) and Tim Swoope (10) finished in double figures for the Indians. Sam Bohn tossed in 20 tallies for Canon-Mac, which went from first place to out of the playoffs in two weeks. The Big Macs finished 7-7 in the section and (11-11) overall after losing to Latrobe, 59-51.
In PT’s loss to the Foxes, Brush (17), Freely (14) and Swoope (11) against finished in double digits.
The following area teams have qualified for the WPIAL basketball playoffs.
Bethel Park (17-5)
Chartiers Valley (21-1)
Keystone Oaks (5-16)
Mt. Lebanon (11-11)
Peters Township (11-11)
Seton-La Salle (21-1)
South Fayette (12-9)
Upper St. Clair (16-6)
Bethel Park (16-5)
Bishop Canevin (17-5)
Mt. Lebanon (15-5)
Seton-La Salle (18-3)
South Fayette (12-10)
Upper St. Clair (14-6)