Area boys basketball teams embrace role of underdog for playoffs
Mitch DeZort delved into the NFL, and one of its biggest winners, for a metaphor on the Highlands boys basketball team.
“People were talking about how it doesn’t matter how much Tom Brady is down or what the situation might be, he always has a chance to pull it out in the end,” said the Golden Rams senior guard, referencing the New England Patriots quarterback’s comeback from 25 points down to win Super Bowl XLI for his fifth championship earlier this month.
“I kind of feel we’re in the same situation. Even if we’re in a tough spot, I still feel you can’t really count us out of anything.”
No. 9 Highlands opens the WPIAL basketball playoffs Tuesday as an underdog in the Class 5A bracket. A victory over No. 8 Laurel Highlands (17-5) Tuesday would put the Golden Rams (12-10) on a collision course with Mars in the quarterfinals.
It’s a far cry from where Highlands expected to be at the start of the season, with four starters returning from a team that made the WPIAL championship game a season ago. But it’s the reality of the situation.
The Highlands, Kiski Area and Leechburg boys, all of whom play Tuesday night, are in the role of underdog. So, too, are the Deer Lakes boys, seeded No. 12 in Class 4A heading into Wednesday’s game against No. 5 Baldwin. Valley, if it beats No. 8 McGuffey in the Class 4A first round Wednesday, would face No. 1 New Castle in the quarterfinals, and the Vikings and No. 7 Freeport have untested playoff rosters.
Then again, playing David to someone else’s Goliath might not be the worst thing in the playoffs.
“When you take the underdog role, it’s almost like a weight’s off your shoulders,” said Kiski Area coach Joey Tutchstone, whose 12th-seeded Cavaliers play No. 5 Hampton in the Class 5A first round Tuesday. “There’s really no pressure on you. Nobody’s expecting you to come out just crazy, play well. It’s not that high of an expectation for the kids, so they can relax a bit.”
Recent history suggests Tutchstone’s words have some merit.
In 2014, the last time Kiski Area reached the playoffs, the Cavaliers advanced to the semifinals as the No. 13 seed. Last season, Highlands made the Class AAA championship game after bouncing top-seeded New Castle in the semifinals.
Highlands also upset West Mifflin in the 2015 playoffs.
“Really, as the underdog ever since we were in high school, I feel it helps us in a way,” DeZort said. We play with a chip on our shoulder knowing nothing’s guaranteed. We play with that attitude.
“We’re going to come to the point of the season where we’re going to be playing a top-notch team, one of the best teams in the WPIAL. We look forward to games like that, high-level, high-caliber games. We always have a few games each year that, in our eyes aren’t necessarily upsets but in the public eye are considered upsets.”
As the postseason approached, Highlands began to find its form, winning five of its final six games after some up-and-down play earlier in the season.
Leechburg — the No. 13 team in the Class AA bracket heading into Tuesday’s playoff opener against No. 4 Chartiers-Houston — qualified for the postseason on the last night of the season, needing a win and help from Riverview and getting both. The Blue Devils (9-10) also upset Jeannette to help their playoff chances.
They even fit the stereotype of the underdog.
“We’re all pretty short, small,” senior Cory Nulph said. “We can run, though. Our coach preaches rebounding, and that’s the biggest thing. If we can control the boards and make our shots, we should be OK.”
Kiski Area (10-10) played Hampton in December and lost 75-51 and also struggled at the end of the regular season by dropping five of its last six games.
Tutchstone said he believes his players learned from the first meeting and will be ready for Tuesday night.
“It’s just erasing,” he said. “Records are out of the question now. Everything’s out of the question. They haven’t even shown any signs of us losing the last four. They’re looking at it as a one-game season now. They believe they can win.”