ShareThis Page
Area boys basketball teams embrace role of underdog for playoffs |

Area boys basketball teams embrace role of underdog for playoffs

Eric Heyl
| Monday, February 20, 2017 11:03 p.m
Barry Reeger | For The Tribune-Review
Highlands' R.J. Reiger drives past Penn Hills' Davion Stephens and Chavar Williamson (21) during their game at “The Shootout at Seton Hill” on Saturday Jan. 21, 2017. Penn Hills defeated Highlands, 67-59.

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.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

Categories: News
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.