Latrobe faces daunting task after drawing New Castle in 1st round
No frills, no gimmicks, no hidden agendas at Latrobe. Not on the surface, at least. Chances are there's no other way for the Wildcats to approach the WPIAL boys basketball playoffs than head-on.
Not with top-seeded and unbeaten New Castle looming as a first-round opponent.
“Our kids know who New Castle is. Everyone who plays in the WPIAL knows who they are,” Latrobe coach Brad Wetzel said. “What they've done this year is impressive. It's going to be a difficult challenge.”
It's not just been an impressive showing for New Castle this year, but last season, as well, when the Red Hurricanes won the WPIAL Class AAA championship before making a jump this season back to Class AAAA, where they won four titles in the 1990s.
“They're obviously very talented and do everything right,” Latrobe senior forward Will Wears said. “We haven't seen anybody like this team before.”
As in the parable of David and Goliath or perhaps with the obscure No. 16 seed facing a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, No. 16 Latrobe (12-10), which barely squeaked into the playoff field, will prepare for a Class AAAA first-round game Wednesday at an undetermined site against No. 1 New Castle (22-0).
Wetzel wondered what else would have been expected.
“We realized that we didn't win our last two section games, so there were going to be consequences,” he said. “I wasn't necessarily sure that we'd draw New Castle, but we did, and we're going to be ready to play.”
Latrobe lost six of nine games to end the regular season, and it isn't guaranteed that point guard Matt Cullen will be available.
Cullen, a 6-foot sophomore who is averaging 10.5 points per game, was recovering from a concussion sustained in a collision with Penn-Trafford's Corey Stanford on Feb. 5 during a 69-64 road loss that preceded a 73-62 setback at home to Hempfield three days later in the regular-season finale.
“We're preparing to go on without him if that's the way it plays out,” Wetzel said. “He's been going through the usual round of testing with an injury like this. He's questionable at this point.”
There is nothing flashy about Latrobe, a team that finished two games over .500 in fourth place among seven teams in Section 1. Senior forward Mike Soforic (13.2 ppg.) leads the Wildcats in scoring. Wears, the Wildcats leading rebounder (12.0 rpg.), said the players are taking a business-like approach to their first-round game.
“New Castle is one of the top teams in the state,” Wears said, “but the pressure is on them. We have no expectations from anybody. We're playing the same game. They have to make the shots, and we will try to stop them. We certainly have a great game plan, and we need to execute it. Our mindset is we have nothing to lose.”
New Castle, which won the Section 3 championship with a 14-0 record, three games ahead of North Allegheny, is led by senior forward Shawn Anderson, a Navy recruit who is averaging 20.2 points, and junior guard/forward Malik Hooker (17.3).
The Red Hurricanes have outscored their opponents by an average of 28 points per game and survived the only real threat to their unbeaten record with a 54-50 victory over Hampton on Feb. 8.
“They've got terrific athletes and exceptional quickness,” Wetzel said. “It seems like they are playing with six guys on the floor. But you know, we're still alive, and somebody has got to play New Castle. I believe that our kids are eager to accept that challenge.”
Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.