Scrimmages play key role in basketball playoff prep

| Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, 11:11 p.m.

Call them the games within the games. The games nobody sees, even though they happen during WPIAL playoff time.

They are the pick-up scrimmages that happen between playoff teams from different classifications, some before the playoffs begin, others in between rounds.

They are postseason rehearsals and teams treat them like the real thing.

“They can get pretty intense; just like the games,” Plum boys coach Ron Richards said. “There's only so much you can do in practices. It gets monotonous real fast. You want to play and stay sharp.”

Plum had to sit for 10 days before opening the Class AAAA playoffs against Kiski Area, which sat idle for eight days. The Burrell girls had a nine-day layoff before taking on Shenango in the Class AA first round.

Practices at this time of year, some coaches say, have the same appeal as biting into a piece of plastic fruit.

“You can get really bored with practice,” Burrell coach Meghan Ziemianski said. “And you end up getting very little out of it.”

Teams are permitted to scrimmage opponents that aren't in their bracket and can play mock games as many times as they'd like.

“I wish we could scrimmage every day,” Burrell girls assistant coach Mark Ziemianski said. “The girls play hard; we have girls like Syd (Bordonaro) and Natalie (Myers) and they always go full-speed no matter what we're doing.”

While most see scrimmages as jazzed-up practices, teams see them as additional real-game action. Referees even work them, and some teams use scoreboards.

“You want to know who wins, right?” Meghan Ziemianski said.

There are no foot-thumping student sections or cheerleaders, but the games are played until somebody wins.

Burrell didn't use a scoreboard in a recent tri-scrimmage with Indiana and Mars, but it played as if it was the semifinals with a trip to the Palumbo Center on the line.

“Syd comes over to me and says, ‘We're down one,' ” Meghan Ziemianski said. “They know. They always know the score. You know our girls, they're gym rats. They'll play anybody.”

Plum and Knoch canceled a nonsection game set for the final Saturday of the regular season, but instead scrimmaged each other before their respective playoff openers.

“It was a nice scrimmage; the teams were much sharper than they would have been before,” Richards said. “It was full-out hustle by both sides.”

Kiski Area, which beat Plum, 50-40, to advance to the Class AAAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2010, had a pair of scrimmages set up, but they were canceled because of weather. That meant amped-up practices. Nothing boring about it.

“We had to turn practice up a notch,” junior guard Mike Simmons said. “It got a lot more competitive. The second team got after it more on defense and made it harder for us on offense. They were told to foul and hold and just make it harder for us to do our job.”

Kiski Area first-year coach Joey Tutchstone said his predecessor, Harry Rideout, was not a fan of in-playoff scrimmages.

“It just wasn't his thing,” Tutchstone said. “And if you think about it, if you're not scrimmaging, that's more time to focus on the team you're getting ready to play.”

Scrimmages aren't for everyone. And speaking of rules, there are none that say you must scrimmage during playoff time.

St. Joseph's girls are in the quarterfinals for the fourth straight time but this year's group prefers practice over scrimmages.

They have not scrimmaged at all since the regular season ended. And they'll have had a full week in between games when they take the court on Saturday.

“We don't have enough bodies to risk injuries in scrimmages between playoff games,” senior forward Nikki Mielecki said. “Instead, we have practices with intense conditioning and skill work. We have had too many injuries already so our bench is down.”

Mielecki said practices have not become ho-hum.

“Our team gets along very well so we enjoy spending time together, even if its just practice,” she said. “Everyone on the team has been bringing a lot of enthusiasm and energy to these last few practices before the big game. This is very important for being able to make some further improvements on our game and finish preparing for what's ahead.”

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