Alle-Kiski teams stealing the show in postseason
Talk about hoopla.
Thanks to some head-turning upsets and a number of victories that were a long-time coming, a buzz has been created by Alle-Kiski Valley basketball teams this postseason — something few saw coming before the bracket-busting commenced.
Nineteen local teams began the postseason journey, and three remain, all Class AA Final Four-bound and a win away from the finals at Palumbo Center.
The phrases, “the last time,” and “remember when,” have been uttered frequently by locals who follow the hoops scene.
Burrell's boys are returning to the semifinals for the first time since 1979 — before the 3-point line came to the WPIAL. Burrell (18-6), which had to play a preliminary-round game to get the No. 7 spot in Class AA, stunned No. 2 Greensburg Central Catholic, 67-63 in overtime on Saturday at Plum in the quarterfinals.
That game followed another dandy — Pandemonium at Plum — as Apollo-Ridge's boys, another unseeded Class AA team at the start, shocked No. 4 Jeannette, 53-49, to vault the Vikings (18-7) into the semifinals for the first time since 1988.
Apollo-Ridge also caught No. 5 Sto-Rox snoozing in the first round, and posted another upset there.
Now the possibility exists of a Burrell/Apollo-Ridge championship game. What? Sounds like something Seth MacFarlane might have conjured up at Sunday night's Oscars.
Then there are the Burrell girls, who are living up to expectations as the No. 3 seed. The upstart Bucs (22-2) haven't upset anyone, but they are in the semis for the first time since 1994.
“Our girls continue to be relentless,” Burrell coach Meghan Ziemianski said. “We have six solid girls, and we can get a spark off the bench, and we all get more confident. They can all turn into scorers.”
Burrell never has had both basketball teams in the semifinals in the same year.
This year's WPIAL playoffs have had special moments, with teams finding new routes to relevance.
“I can't remember how far back, exactly, but it's been a while since that has happened around here,” said Harry Orbin, a long-time athletic director at several local schools and the current interim athletic director at Gateway. Orbin also serves on the WPIAL Basketball Steering Committee.
The postseason has had a positive vibe that resonated with once-dormant local programs who wanted their turn to shine.
And like the NCAA tournament, the unexpected is what's drawn a crowd.
“It's about having that thirst and not wanting to see it end,” said Apollo-Ridge sophomore Tre Tipton, who helped lead the Vikings back from 18 points down against Jeannette. “We were truly blessed to have this opportunity.”
Burrell boys coach Rob Niederberger said his players were biting their nails along with everyone else in the gym at Plum watching Apollo-Ridge rally.
“It gave us a little inspiration,” Niederberger said. “Our guys thought maybe they could go out and do the same thing. I told them, ‘Guys, this is your team, not mine. If you lead, I'll follow.”
The local upsets began early and have continued.
Three local teams zapped No. 5 seeds. St. Joseph's girls, finally healthy again after a rash of injuries, clipped Avella, and Kittanning's boys stunned Central Valley.
Kittanning quietly bumped elbows with the top eight teams in Class AAA before falling to No. 4 Beaver Area, 71-66.
Kittanning won two consecutive playoff games for the first time since 1925.
“If you would have asked anybody (about expectations) other than the people involved in the program (before the season), they would have said we'd be .500,” Kittanning coach Bill Henry said. “We had success over the summer. We had the pieces in place.”
Like Burrell, Knoch's boys posted their first win in the playoffs since 2006.
The playoff buzz has brought droves of fans, some out of the woodwork.
Alle-Kiski basketball coaches, players and followers form a sort of fraternity at this time of year. They go to each other's games. They want to know who won, even if it's another local team in a different classification.
They root for each other.
Six local boys teams and four girls teams posted 16 or more wins. The Kittanning boys and Burrell and Deer Lakes girls have 20 or more wins.
Orbin said the committee looks at several things when seeding teams. He said he noticed the strong records of A-K teams.
“We always look at the records, opponents and the strength of sections,” Orbin said. “Sometimes, history goes into our evaluation.”
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.