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Kittanning boys look to set standard for playoff success

| Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, 12:56 a.m.
Kittanning's Alek Schaffer tries to dribble between Sterling Henry (left) and Kevin Barnes at practice on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013. Bill West | Leader Times

A half-dozen Kittanning boys basketball players congregated in the high school gym before practice Wednesday afternoon and discussed what the Wildcats need to accomplish in the WPIAL Class AAA playoffs to deem the 2012-13 season a success.

Two postseason wins, one boy offered. Nothing less than a state championship, another said. Just a spot in the state tournament, a third suggested. One win, a fourth added.

There's no doubt the Wildcats see themselves as winners. They've deviated from the program's past, which included last-place finishes in section play seven times since 2002. But they're wrestling with a new identity question: Are they championship contenders?

After one of the school's best regular seasons, Kittanning (18-4) enters the playoffs as an underdog — but one that has the tools to put together a win streak. The Wildcats will meet Yough (8-14) at 8 p.m. Friday at Gateway in a preliminary-round game. With a win, they'll advance to the first round, where No. 5 Central Valley (16-6) awaits.

Kittanning secured its most recent postseason win in 1984, when it defeated host Southmoreland, 52-50, in overtime in the first round of the Class AAA tournament.

While a win Friday would not be a true first, it'd be almost as historic, as far as the Wildcats are concerned.

“Getting a win in the playoffs is an accomplishment,” senior Sterling Henry said.

Said coach Bill Henry: “I think success for us, since we haven't gotten past the first game, we need to do that.”

A season ago, Kittanning made the playoffs for the first time since 1985. A poor first half doomed the team in its 61-45 loss to Trinity in the preliminary round.

More experienced and confident, the Wildcats expect a much better result Friday. But Bill Henry warned his players not to get ahead of themselves at the start of Wednesday's practice.

“The only thing that'll stop us Friday night is in your head,” the coach said. “Physically, we're ready. It's just mentally. … You've got to outwork, outthink and outplay them.”

If Kittanning plays to the best of its abilities, a stretch of unprecedented success likely will follow, Bill Henry believes. The Wildcats can adjust their lineup to go big by combining senior Vince Mead (6-foot-6), junior Eric Hulings (6-6) and sophomore Nick Bowers (6-5). Senior Mitch Pirhalla (6-3), junior Alek Schaffer (6-1) and sophomore Noah Kunst (6-1) allow Kittanning to field a slightly smaller and much shiftier lineup. Sterling Henry (6-4) and senior Kevin Barnes (6-1) slash and score well in either set-up.

Bill Henry understands the rarity of that combination of talent and size on a roster. He hopes his players recognize it, too.

“That's been the hardest thing for us, realizing who we are and what we can do,” the coach said.

What Kittanning did during the regular season struck none of the starters or major contributors by surprise. But what happens next, whether good or bad, likely will stun at least a few Wildcats.

“It means a lot,” Pirhalla said of this team's legacy, “since we're pretty much making history for this school.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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