Tough foes don't faze Apollo-Ridge boys basketball team
Another playoff game, another quality team.
The Apollo-Ridge boys basketball team seems undaunted by the caliber of opponents so far in this year's WPIAL Class AA basketball tournament.
The Vikings have defeated Neshannock (64-62), fifth-seeded Sto-Rox (56-52) and No. 4 Jeannette (53-49). Those schools had a combined record of 49-17 when they faced Apollo-Ridge.
The Vikings now face the task Wednesday of getting past top-seeded Beaver Falls, the No. 1-ranked team in Pennsylvania this week, according to a statewide poll.
The semifinal game will be 8 p.m. at North Allegheny following the Burrell-Quaker Valley semifinal.
The Tigers have cruised past two playoff opponents: Bishop Canevin (78-37) and Brentwood (66-36).
“Maybe the coaches are a little more daunted than the kids,” Apollo-Ridge coach Matt Gourley said with a laugh. “But it's better that they're playing good, sound, fundamental basketball. We only had three turnovers in the second half versus Jeannette.”
Apollo-Ridge started the season 5-0 then sputtered a bit midway through the section season with three losses in four games.
But now the Vikings are clicking.
“After that Neshannock game, there was no looking back,” senior Josh Reynolds said. “Some doubted us when we struggled against some weaker opponents, but our confidence level is way up.”
Case in point was when Apollo-Ridge fell behind, 24-6, against Jeannette. The Vikings worked their way back and earned a four-point lead by the end of the third period.
It's just the second time in school history that the Apollo-Ridge has reached the semifinal round. The other time was in 1988, when the Vikings lost a one-point decision to Carlynton on a buzzer-beater.
Before 1988, the only boys team to make it to the semifinals in the current school district territory was the 1949 Elders Ridge team that lost to eventual WPIAL champion Oakmont.
By contrast, Beaver Falls has been among the WPIAL's elite hoop programs for many years. The school has won seven WPIAL titles, all since 1970 — the first year of Apollo-Ridge's existence.
Coach Doug Biega has won 298 games in just 14 seasons, an average of 21 victories per season.
Still, the Vikings are looking forward to the challenge.
“The players are very excited and anxious for Wednesday to come around,” Gourley said. “They're not scared, but we've got to come ready to play; we can't fall behind like we did against Jeannette.”
“This has definitely been an unbelievable experience,” Reynolds said. “It's been great for the school and the community. There have been fire trucks meeting us with their sirens going as we got back into Apollo.”
The winner of Wednesday's game advances to the WPIAL finals, scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at Palumbo Center.
The loser can start thinking about the PIAA tournament, which begins March 9.
George Guido is a freelance writer.