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Area basketball teams embrace opportunities to play for championships | TribLIVE.com
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Area basketball teams embrace opportunities to play for championships

The Tribune-Review
| Friday, January 30, 2015 12:24 a.m
vndMatviko012915
Louis B. Ruediger | Trib Total Media
Leechburg senior Nick Matviko, who scored the decisive points on free throws, holds the school's first WPIAL basketball championship trophy on March 2, 2007, at Palumbo Center. It was Leechburg's first WPIAL title in the school's 88 years. No Alle-Kiski area basketball team has won a title since.

Damian Davies is reminded of it every day, from the banner in the gymnasium, to the autographed picture in his office, to his championship ring.

“But my favorite reminder is my assistant coach Dave Murray’s tattoo on his arm,” Davies said. “And he has a big arm.”

It has been almost eight years since Leechburg’s boys flexed their muscles and won the WPIAL Class A championship. Davies often stops to dwell on the rich memories of the Blue Devils’ Hoosiers-like run that engulfed a small town.

He wishes he could do it all over again. If only it were that easy.

“I realized that in public-school sports there are many great coaches and teams that just do not get the opportunity,” Davies said, “so when it happened at Leechburg, the town, administration, players and coaches embraced the significance of every minute.”

Leechburg hasn’t been anywhere close to the finals since its magical win.

It carries the unique distinction of being the area’s last WPIAL basketball champion.

As time passes, that victory becomes more impressive.

Highlands will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its WPIAL Class AAA boys basketball championship Friday night before the Golden Rams play host to Valley.

Highlands has been back to the finals twice since that improbable run in 1995, losing both times.

Highlands isn’t alone. Since ’95, 11 teams from the Alle-Kiski Valley have reached the district finals, and 10 have come home empty handed.

Thrilling runs across the last two decades have come to screeching halts at Palumbo Center.

Area teams know how difficult it can be to reach the finals, let alone win a title. So they appreciate the terrifically fragile experience.

Last week, Burrell senior guard Sydney Bordonaro tweeted, “Not everything always goes as planned.”

Burrell made the WPIAL Class AA finals last season but fell to top-seeded Seton-La Salle. Burrell took the Trib’s No. 1 ranking in Class AA into this week, but the Bucs have been hampered by injuries to key players.

That, coach Meghan Ziemianski said, makes what the team did last season, more special.

“You appreciate it more,” she said.

Burrell has plenty of talent to get back to the big game, but unforeseen obstacles can decrease visibility along the way.

Freeport’s girls, although a regular playoff contender, have finished miles from Palumbo Center, the most recent site of the WPIAL finals, which will move to Petersen Events Center this season.

But in 2004, the senior-led Yellowjackets made an impressive run to the title game before falling to Carlynton in the final.

“We felt fortunate to get there, and we were disappointed we didn’t win it,” then-coach Kirk Lorigan said. “But that didn’t take away from the success of a great season. We felt blessed to be there.”

Shawn Bennis, now the boys coach at Burrell, was an assistant at Highlands in ’95 and also in 2002 when the Golden Rams were seeded No. 1 in Class AAA but encountered cold shooting and fell to Steel Valley in the final.

While all three Highlands finalists had vast differences, they also had similarities. Bennis was not a coach on the 2009 team because he was coaching at Kiski Area.

“They played for each other, not themselves,” Bennis said. “The players just loved playing the game of basketball. Both teams had great administrative and parent support. The staff was given autonomy and trust to get the job done.”

Although deeply talented, Leechburg embraced the underdog role, using it to upset top-seeded Serra Catholic in the semifinals before squeaking past California, 60-59, in the championship.

There are a number of factors that must blend together for teams to win it all.

There are lucky breaks — in season and in games: overcoming injuries and illnesses, and executing situational basketball are examples.

And this helpful situation:

“The ball gets tipped out of bounds (in the final) with five seconds (left), and I’m trying to set up a play for (a side-out),” Davies said. “My assistant coaches (John Plazarin and Murray) recognize the ball wasn’t touched. They stop the game, the refs come over and meet … and they change the spot to under (the hoop) instead of the side.

“The rest is history.”

There are draws in the bracket.

The public-vs.-private debate might rage on for many years to come, but the reality is that local teams have feared — and perhaps envied — private and Catholic school teams and don’t want to see them in the playoffs.

“We avoided (those type of) teams all the way through,” Lorigan said.

And there’s experience. The bright lights of the title game have a way of making first-year participants squint.

“Carlynton had been there, I think, five times before,” Lorigan said. “They knew what it was like. We didn’t.”

But they’ll never forget the feeling.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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