Undefeated basketball teams aim to avoid holiday letdowns
Bill Henry isn't surprised his team is 7-0 — Kittanning's best start in boys basketball in years. But the coach isn't side-stepping the rest of the team's schedule to get to the playoffs, either.
“Did I see this coming?,” Henry said. “Well, obviously we have some athletic kids. As a coach, you hope for the best but plan for the worst. Our goals haven't changed because we're undefeated.”
Kittanning is one of five Alle-Kiski basketball teams that will take an undefeated record into holiday-tournament time.
The trick now is keeping those marks clean with a Christmas break looming and a pause in section play creating a more lax environment.
Kittanning, built with length and thriving on a frenzied, up-and-down style of play, is averaging an A-K-best 71.1 points per game and allowing just 47.7.
The Wildcats, known just four years ago as the team with a 58-game section losing streak, will play Avonworth on Thursday in the opener of the Deer Lakes Tournament.
Streaks in Kittanning these days are heading in the opposite direction, and the Wildcats want to keep it that way.
“We're on a week-to-week focus,” Henry said. “If we have two games in a week, we're focused on those. That's how we're marching through this season.”
Fox Chapel is in a similar situation. The Foxes also are a perfect 7-for-7, with a pair of challenging games awaiting in the Montour Tournament.
The Foxes will face Hempfield and Beaver Falls in the round-robin event.
“I think we always have talked about staying in the present,” Foxes coach Zach Skrinjar said. “As coaches, you mentally break the season down into four parts. The first is the exhibition part, then section play, then Christmas break, then the rest of section play.
“It's nice to recharge the batteries a little bit. It brings you back hungrier.”
Henry knows how competitive Section 1-AAA can be and how fragile an unblemished record can be when weighed down with the stress of a section night.
Kittanning barely beat Knoch, using a buzzer-beating foul-line jumper from senior standout Sterling Henry to clip the host Knights, 68-67.
“You can't make a lot of mistakes in this section. It's a grind,” Henry said. “Our kids trust in each other. Last year, we won five in a row, and we showed we could win some tight games.”
Fox Chapel, which has only one senior starter, has used balanced scoring and fundamental, know-your-assignment defense to stay perfect.
A bench that has stretched eight-deep also has helped.
“The thing is, we're trying to make it more of an expectation to win rather than a surprise,” Skrinjar said. “We're a little less amped-up after games now.
“And we've had very competitive practices. We have some (back-up) guys competing and pushing the guys up front. We have a nice mix of guys. I like to say we're a young, veteran team.”
The Foxes have shown they can win close games. They edged McKeesport, 55-53. And junior guard Matt D'Amico put together a career-high 38-point performance in a 67-62 win over Woodland Hills.
Fox Chapel's girls, meantime, have been as resilient as the Eat ‘N Park Christmas star. A dismal 3-19 last season, the Foxes are 6-0 and have moved to No. 4 in the Trib Total Media Class AAAA rankings.
Junior center Erin Mathias, a Duke recruit, has had a double-double in every game for the Foxes, who won't play again until a Section 2-AAAA game Jan. 4 at Penn Hills.
The success of both Fox Chapel teams has fueled an already-raucous atmosphere at home games. Fox Chapel's colorful student section has become a fixture, and now that it has two unbeaten teams to root for, there essentially is no sound barrier in O'Hara Township.
Also on the girls side, Deer Lakes (6-0) and Burrell (4-0) are on a collision course for their first of two Section 1-AA showdowns — which could be the first loss for one of them.
Deer Lakes is ranked No. 3 in WPIAL Class AA by Trib Total Media and Burrell is No. 4. Both teams have tip-toed the unbeaten balance beam before.
Last year, rising Burrell started 10-0 before losing, 39-35, at Ford City. Two years ago, Deer Lakes was 10-0 when it fell at now-defunct Elderton, 33-27.
The lull in the schedule doesn't bother Deer Lakes, which plays in the St. Joseph Tournament.
“I have three seniors who have a lot of varsity experience,” Deer Lakes coach Dana Petruska said. “Each of them is as competitive as any player I have ever coached, so I don't spend a lot of time worrying about a letdown of any kind no matter who we are playing.”
Burrell is at the Hampton Tournament and faces the Class-AAA hosts in the opener.
Petruska said her team isn't looking ahead to its Jan. 14 game at Burrell.
“The Burrell game is not casting any kind of shadow on our schedule,” Petruska said. “We have a lot of games before we play them and we will concentrate on each of those games as they come up. When the time comes to play Burrell we will be ready for them and I'm sure they will be ready, too. Should be two great games.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-224-2696 or firstname.lastname@example.org.