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Number of WPIAL hoop teams lay claim to charming venues

| Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Christopher Horner
Referee Rick Locaitis watches Chartiers Valley's Haedyn Herzer amid the Montour student section during a game on Jan. 30, 2013. Montour has played its home games in the smaller middle school gym due to construction at the high school. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
The Vincentian Academy gymnasium is a small court lined with only three bleacher rows. Vincentian's Brenna Wise scores against Ellis School during their game Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 in McCandless. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Mt. Lebanon's Jordan Holmes pulls in a rebound past Bethel Park's Paige Kochka-Puskar in front of the student section Jan. 28, 2013 at Mt. Lebanon High School. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
The Vincentian Academy gymnasium is a small court lined with only three bleacher rows, where fans can become part of the action. Ellis School's Nicole Hoye battles Vincentian's Maia Joiner for the ball during their game Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 in McCandless. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Montour's Devin Wilson works upcourt against Chartiers Valley's Michael Boulos in front of the Montour student section during a game on Jan. 30, 2013. Montour has played its home games in the smaller middle school gym due to construction at the high school. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

It takes courage to shoot 3-pointers on Vincentian Academy's home court, but having small feet also helps.

Deep in the corners, there's not much room between the arcing line and the sidelines. There's more than a foot ­— but probably not two — a situation the Royals have come to accept.

For them, it adds charm.

“Fortunately, we never have any real tall kids with long feet, so our feet can fit in there,” Vincentian boys coach George Yokitis said with a laugh. “It's the teams that have big kids, their heels are on the line. So, I guess that's an advantage.”

The WPIAL has a number of basketball venues with what could be called character, places with unusual dimensions that provide a true home-court advantage. Or, at the least, they're places that make some players smile and others cringe.

Vincentian's certainly does both.

With towering white walls that squeeze the gym in all four directions, the court doesn't measure the recommended size for a high school hardwood. There should be more than 5 feet between the 3-point line and the sideline, but the Royals won't complain. They've won three WPIAL titles in the past three seasons, two by the girls and one by the boys, while calling the place home.

“I think it's a real home-court advantage,” girls coach Ron Moncrief said. “We practiced there every day and know the ins and outs of the court and we play a style that fits.”

Exit stage right

Yet, the Royals aren't alone when it comes to creative courts. They aren't even alone in their section. North Catholic has used a converted auditorium as its backdrop for its title-winning teams.

The Trojans' basketball court, named after longtime coach Don Graham, once ran widthwise across the wooden stage of the school's auditorium. That was until a few decades ago, when rows of auditorium seats were torn out, allowing the court to be turned 90 degrees and lengthened.

“I think it's one of the most unique gyms,” North Catholic coach Dave Long said. “The sound system is terrible and the lighting could be improved, but it has a certain charm. And it's an advantage for us.”

Fourteen rows of wooden auditorium seats remain behind one basket, sitting three steps lower than court level. It's an unnerving sight for visiting players shooting that direction or afraid they might plunge over the edge while finishing a layup.

“Because you don't have that wall behind it, there's a depth perception,” Long said.

Home-court advantage isn't limited to small private schools, with plenty of teams finding ways to match their style to their surroundings.

Central Valley coaches affectionately call their gymnasium The Shoebox and have strategized ways to exploit their smaller floor. Count New Castle's field house among those that work the other way. Playing on what's likely the largest floor in the WPIAL, the Red Hurricanes use it to their advantage.

Floors made to order

The National Federation of State High School Associations recommends that basketball courts measure 50 feet in width and 84 feet in length. At that size, there should be about 34 feet of midcourt space between the tops of two 3-point arcs.

But those are only guidelines. As long as the rims are hung 10 feet above, the foul line measures 15 feet and the 3-point arc sits 19 feet, 9 inches from the basket, then it probably counts.

New Castle's court measures closer to the 94 feet allowed by the NFSH. The uptempo Red Hurricanes, undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Class AAAA, have learned to use those extra feet against opponents.

“I think the size of the floor definitely makes a difference,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “We feel our pressure works in different ways. At home it's more of an attrition thing. On smaller floors, we're able to smother teams a little.”

While preparing for section road games at tighter venues, particularly Seneca Valley and Pine-Richland in Section 3, New Castle has practiced in its smaller auxiliary gym.

“It's a different landscape,” Blundo said. “Your recovery time is less. On our floor with our pressure, we can be a little more top heavy knowing we have a bit more room to recover. On a small floor, if they throw over the top, they get to the cup quicker.”

They also see opponents change their approach.

“Seneca Valley runs certain defenses at home that they won't typically run on the road,” Blundo said. “When you have long bodies like that on a smaller floor, certain zones become much more effective because there are fewer holes.”

End of tradition?

Central Valley could relate. It hasn't lost a game this season on its smaller-than-most home court, a streak that reached eight with Tuesday's victory over Beaver. Either blessed or cursed with a smaller gym, depending on perspective, Warriors coach Brandon Ambrose chose to maximize their advantage.

“You can trap a little bit easier and you have less ground to cover,” Ambrose said, “so we actually try to consider some of those things when we're doing our game planning early in the season.”

With school renovations often including new gyms, a few charismatic courts could be replaced. North Catholic has expectations to relocate, so next season could be the Trojans' last on Troy Hill.

Likewise, Vincentian has renovation thoughts that could include a new gymnasium. The school rented a North Allegheny middle school gym for a few overcrowded home games this season.

Three rows of metal bleachers parallel the wood floor at Vincentian, where every seat could be called courtside. When action nears the sideline, front-row fans pull back their feet and their elbows.

On nights of big games, an overflow crowd has stood in the hallway, watching through two large doorways. That's where Yokitis once spotted Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who was there scouting a recruit.

“Poor Jamie had to stand out in the hall,” Yokitis said. “... I happened to run into him somewhere right after that and he said, ‘Coach, there's no atmosphere like that. Don't ever give that up.' ”

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