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Alle-Kiski Valley teams see tough nonconference games as playoff prep

Doug Gulasy
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Deer Lakes’ Reese Hasley dribbles against Carlynton’s Amanda Masdea on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019. The Lancers lost twice to the Cougars this season, but coach Dave Petruska liked his team’s determination against a difficult foe.

Dave Petruska assessed Deer Lakes’ record at the end of the WPIAL girls basketball regular season, and he mostly liked what he saw.

The 16 wins certainly looked nice to Petruska, but he didn’t mind the six losses, either, mostly because of how they came. There were two losses to Section 3-3A champion Shady Side Academy, including one in overtime; two more to Carlynton, the second by a mere four points; a three-point defeat against Quaker Valley in a holiday tournament; and the last, a two-point loss to Freeport in the regular-season finale.

“We have to continue fighting. We cannot give up,” Petruska said. “That’s one thing that has held true in every one of these games that we’ve come up short. … We did not throw in the towel.”

That’s a lesson many Alle-Kiski Valley teams took out of the regular season, one that could prove important when the WPIAL playoffs begin Friday, with first-round games that run through Tuesday.

WPIAL basketball committee chairman Brian Geyer said the body took teams’ regular-season schedules into account when it seeded the playoff brackets, rewarding teams with difficult opponents and looking sideways at those with “cupcake schedules.”

Deliberately or not, A-K Valley teams heeded that idea throughout their regular season. While they ultimately don’t have much control over the strength of their section, many schools tried to load up their nonsection schedules with difficult opponents.

“It’s not necessarily about the wins in the nonsection, it’s about the competition and preparing your players for times like this,” Leechburg boys coach Corey Smith said. “I’m a firm believer in building your nonsection schedule with tougher teams.”

A quirk of Leechburg’s schedule is the Blue Devils played a handful of nonsection games against non-WPIAL opponents like District 6 runner-up West Shamokin and District 9 playoff team Karns City.

Petruska stayed closer to home, supplementing the difficulty of Deer Lakes’ section schedule with a pair of tournament appearances against Class 4A playoff team Quaker Valley and Class 4A fourth seed Freeport.

“I’ve seen other teams that finish with better records than us and ahead of us that didn’t have as tough as an out-of-section schedule,” Petruska said. “I really hope my team takes preparation from that and realizes that although we didn’t win, we came up with valuable experience.”

Petruska’s boys basketball counterpart at Deer Lakes, Terence Parham, did that as well: The Lancers played nonsection games against teams that ultimately earned the No. 1 seed in Class 2A (OLSH) and the No. 2 seeds in Class 4A (Ambridge) and A (Cornell), not to mention Class 4A playoff teams Knoch and Freeport.

“It’s good out-of-section competition,” Deer Lakes senior Colin Kadlick said. “Coach Parham said from the very get-go, ‘If you guys want to be the best, you’ve got to prove to be the best.’ He got us the best out-of-section games we could play.”

Deer Lakes’ boys, the Section 3-3A champions, are trying to end a playoff-win drought that dates to 1985. If the sixth-seeded Lancers end that in their Class 3A first-round game against No. 11 Charleroi on Saturday, perhaps they’ll have their schedule to thank.

Highlands followed that path in recent years, and it paid off with a WPIAL championship-game appearance in 2016 and a semifinal berth last season. Coach Tyler Stoczynski schedules tough matchups almost by rule, including finding difficult tip-off tournaments and playing in showcases. This season that meant games against Class 6A top seed Pine-Richland, Class 3A No. 1 Lincoln Park, Class 2A No. 1 Serra Catholic and Class A No. 3 Nazareth Prep.

“It’s just the fact that we’re going to be playoff-tested and understand what the caliber of the game is and what the intensity of the game is,” said Stoczynski, whose team split the Section 1-4A championship with Knoch and will open the WPIAL playoffs next week against Belle Vernon. “That’s what we try to show, especially with a young team, that every single play matters, especially if it’s playoff time.”

Knoch and Freeport, Highlands’ section rivals, likewise played up in competition: Knoch met Class 4A third seed Quaker Valley, and Freeport scheduled games against the top seeds in Class 5A (Mars) and 4A (New Castle).

Fox Chapel’s schedule looked like a who’s who of some of the top boys teams in the WPIAL: Pine-Richland, Class 6A fourth seed Upper St. Clair, two games against Class 5A No. 4 Woodland Hills and another against Class 5A No. 2 Penn Hills. Add that to two Section 3-6A games against second-seeded Latrobe, and the Foxes had seven games against top-four seeds.

The coaching adage is that come playoff time, every team is good. The hope among local teams is they’re just a bit better thanks to their battle scars.

“There are a lot of good teams we can face in the playoffs,” Freeport junior Samantha Clark said. “We just need to prepare for them.”

Chris Harlan contributed. Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Doug at [email protected] or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.