Mt. Pleasant basketball teams face difficult playoff matchups
Navigating the WPIAL Class AAA basketball playoff brackets certainly won't be an easy task for any team, but the Mt. Pleasant boys and girls squads face the added challenge of an extra step in what each team hopes is a long postseason journey.
Both Vikings teams will have to earn their way into the first round by winning a preliminary-round game later this week.
Mt. Pleasant's boys open the playoffs with a preliminary-round game against Knoch at 8 p.m. Friday at Highlands. The Mt. Pleasant girls follow with a game against Keystone Oaks at noon Saturday at Gateway.
“I was surprised (at the pairing),” Mt. Pleasant coach Tony Splendore said.
“I thought we would be playing in a pigtail game, but I didn't think that if we won our pigtail,we would be playing the number one seed (Chartiers Valley).”
While a bit disappointed with his team's placement in the bracket, Splendore isn't dwelling on it. Instead, he's focused on getting the Vikings (13-9) prepared for the Knights (11-11), a team that could potentially be a tough matchup for Mt. Pleasant.
“I think they are a competitive team, and they are in a tough section,” said Splendore of the Knights, who finished fourth in Section 1-AAA. “They have a lot of size, and they remind me of Derry, and we had trouble with Derry.”
During the regular season, Mt. Pleasant dropped a pair of games to Derry, which may have cost the Vikings a share of the Section 3-AAA title.
Mt. Pleasant finished third in the section. Knoch's primary scorers are senior Marc Vaughan and junior Austin Miller. Both are averaging close to 11 points per game.
For the Vikings, the scoring has been spread around, with senior Cody Monroe and juniors Marcus Malara, Ryan Gumbita and Luke Liprando each averaging between 10 and 12 points per game. However, Liprando has been sick and is questionable for Friday's game.
“We don't have just one person that they can key on and stop,” Splendore said.
“I think the key to the game will be how well we get the ball inside. When you get to the playoffs, it's a different atmosphere, and I'm excited to see how we react.”
Regardless of how Friday's game turns out, it's already been a successful season for the Vikings, considering the coaching staff wasn't in place until September, and the team missed the playoffs last season.
“I think it's a nice accomplishment and I'm proud of this team, and I think we're coming together,” Splendore said.
For the Mt. Pleasant girls, the postseason has become a regular stop. The Vikings have qualified for the playoffs six seasons in a row, and coach Scott Giacobbi is hoping that experience pays off.
“We're hopeful that we can draw on that experience,” Giacobbi said, noting that all five starters (seniors Casey Zelenak and Jena Szelong, juniors Jordan Toohey and Elaina Fearer and sophomore Alexa Szelong) are playoff veterans. Alexa Szelong is scoring nearly 11 points per game.
Keystone Oaks also has that playoff experience. The Golden Eagles (13-8) have qualified for the postseason three years in a row. They are led by junior Maryssa Agurs and sophomore Lexy Mercuri. Agurs averages 15 points, and Mercuri is netting close to 10 points per contest. Keystone Oaks finished fourth in Section 5-AAA.
“I watched them on film, and they are a fast, physical and attacking team,” Giacobbi said.
Saturday's game won't be an easy test for the Vikings (10-12), the fourth-place team from Section 3-AAA. Mt. Pleasant closed the regular season with losses in three of its final four games. But Giacobbi and his team aren't worried about the past.
“When you get to this point, you have to consider yourself fortunate,” Giacobbi said. “It's a new beginning and a fresh start, and that's been our theme. We've been missing whole-game consistency, but we're very close to putting it all together.”
The Vikings will be without senior Bria Rogers, who is out with an ankle injury.
However, Mt. Pleasant will have the services of freshman Morgan Barlock, who played in the final three regular-season games after dealing with a knee injury.
Jason Black is the local sports editor of the Daily Courier. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.