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Obstacles abound for playoff-hopeful A-K Valley boys basketball teams

Doug Gulasy
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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Freeport’s Garret Schaffhauser grabs a rebound against Highlands’ Antonine McDaniel Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 at Freeport Middle School.
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Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Saint Joseph’s Matthew Arvay defends on Springdale’s Demitri Fritch Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018 at Walter Dlubak Athletic Center.

Apollo-Ridge reported to the gym for a Saturday morning practice in mid-December, just hours after an 18-point loss to Sto-Rox dropped the Vikings to 0-5 on the season.

The players’ effort that day belied the record.

“The kids were upbeat,” Apollo-Ridge coach Greg Fox recalled earlier this season. “It was one of the most spirited practices we had up to that date, and that says a lot about a team. When you’re 0-5, things weren’t going well for us. The kids come to work every day, and that’s what we’re trying to build.”

The Vikings (10-8, 6-4 Section 1-2A) followed their season-opening five-game losing streak by winning their next five games, then lost three of their next four before rebounding to win four in a row. They have a grasp on the fourth and final WPIAL playoff spot in their section going into a crucial week that includes games against Summit Academy and Springdale.

Apollo-Ridge epitomizes the up-and-down nature of a typical basketball season, but the Vikings have plenty of company around the Alle-Kiski Valley. A handful of local teams are battling adversity while also fighting to remain in the WPIAL playoff chase.

“We’re still trying to work out the kinks and trying to put our kids in position to win games,” Springdale coach Aaron Epps said.

Three weeks ago, Springdale sat in an enviable position: atop the Section 1-2A standings after gutting out a two-point win over Apollo-Ridge.

Then came a pair of significant setbacks: a season-ending injury to Roman Liberati, and a significant injury to Logan Dexter. A third player, senior Mike Zolnierczyk played through a bad knee, and Springdale (9-7, 5-5) promptly dropped four of its next five games and sits outside the WPIAL playoffs, a game behind Apollo-Ridge.

“Definitely we’re not where we thought we’d be about two weeks ago,” Epps said. “But at the end of the day, we still have given ourselves a shot, despite all the injuries, despite all of that, to get in (the playoffs). There are a lot of teams done right now that can’t get in.”

The key for teams dealing with difficult situations is remaining confident, and sometimes a victory — whether expected or unexpected — can provide a welcome lift. Springdale’s lone win in the past five came against second-place Sto-Rox.

Apollo-Ridge began its comeback from the 0-5 start with a win over Riverview, and the Vikings also picked up a significant win at Sto-Rox during their current winning streak.

“(It’s) staying positive, having confidence in ourselves and working as a team,” Apollo-Ridge sophomore Keighton Reese said. “We try not to bring each other down, and we just start bringing each other up when we start missing shots.”

Like Springdale, Valley needed to adjust its lineup with three starters out either to injury or team-related issues, and the Vikings (5-9, 5-3) dropped three consecutive Section 3-3A games in mid-January.

Starter Deonte Ross returned for Valley against Steel Valley, and the Vikings got back Nyjewel Carter and David Primus for a key section win Friday over Shady Side Academy. The team is in third place in the section as it goes for a third consecutive WPIAL playoff berth.

“It’s been difficult, but I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out how to keep chemistry and the roles and the team functioning,” Valley coach Mark Faulx said. “What I hope is that the guys who carried the load when the other guys were gone will be stronger and more prepared to play with the guys upon their return. The trick will be establishing new roles and some guys will have to sacrifice minutes, but we’re hoping the experience will make the team stronger.”

Freeport is hoping it can work through problems after junior center Nolan Plocki went down with a season-ending injury last week, just two games after returning from another injury. The Yellowjackets (9-7, 3-4) also are in the midst of a difficult stretch in which they play seven games in 11 days, complicating matters as they deal with injuries and inexperience.

Coach Wayne Greiser said he shortened practices in order to ease the wear and tear on his team, which is starting two freshmen. Freeport snapped a four-game losing streak Saturday at South Park.

“We want to get a full complement of 22 games, and you’ve got to do things like this, unfortunately,” Greiser said. “We hit a rough patch, and hopefully we recover and go from there.”

The nature of an up-and-down season is that a down can quickly turn up, and vice versa. That’s why, even given its response to a difficult start, Apollo-Ridge is making sure it doesn’t let up with four section games remaining and its playoff fate undetermined.

“It’s not a quick fix,” Fox said. “Our goal is to get better every day.”

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