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Highlands boys, Burrell girls look for respect at pairings meeting

| Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Highlands' Lavontae Martin (23) grabs a rebound in front of Mars' Steve Castello (10) during their game at Highlands High School on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Highlands' Mitch Dezort (30) attempts a shot over the block of Mars' John Castello (3) during their game Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, at Highlands.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
Highlands' Kayla Beale grabs a rebound against Deer Lakes' Alexa Burke during the basketball game at Highlands High School on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.
Erica Dietz | for the Tribune Review
Highlands' Ashlyn Jonczak wrestles for the ball against (left) Deer Lakes' (4) Victoria Keibler and (13) Jess Phillistine during the basketball game at Highlands High School on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.
Dan Speicher | For The Tribune-Review
Burrell's Brooke Smith (12) shoots while defended by Greensburg Central Catholic's Hanna Norton (5) on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016, at Burrell.
Dan Speicher | For The Tribune-Review
Burrell's Natalie Myers (24), works her way past Greensburg Central Catholic's Haley Moore (14) as she heads towards the net, during the game at Burrell High School on Monday, Jan. 25, 2016.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Leechburg's Mikayla Lovelace (21) goes up for the shot around St. Joseph defenders during their game Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, at St. Joseph in Harrison.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
The Leechburg team celebrates their victory over St. Joseph at St. Joseph High School in Harrison on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.
Jason Bridge | Tribune-Review
Leechburg head coach Damian Davies prepares his team before they take on St. Joseph at Leechburg High School on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016.

Highlands has seen a steady upturn in its boys basketball program in the three-plus years Tyler Stoczynski has been coach.

In his first year, the team went 1-21. The next season, it finished 9-13.

Last year, the Golden Rams ended 13-14 and made it to the WPIAL quarterfinals and PIAA play-in round.

Now, the Rams are 18-4 and primed to make noise in the postseason as a form of validation.

“It's been a fun, humbling ride,” Stoczynski said. “I didn't realize what all goes on when you're running your own program. My assistant (Corey Dotchin) has been so helpful in so many ways. We see basketball the same way. The kids have wanted to put in the time. The blueprint is there.”

Highlands will learn its first-round playoff opponent Tuesday when the WPIAL announces pairings at its annual meeting at the DoubleTree Hotel in Green Tree.

Stoczynski has his team earmarked for a No. 4 or 5 seed in Class AAA. New Castle, Beaver Falls and Mars are likely the top three. Highlands hasn't earned a top-five seed since 2010-11 when it was No. 5 and lost in the first round.

“We play in absolutely one of the strongest sections (in Class AAA),” Stoczynski said. “I think we have a strong resume and have earned a four or five.”

Highlands' losses are to Section 1 champion Mars (17-5), twice, and Class AAAA teams Norwin and Penn-Trafford.

“You look at us, Highlands, Hampton. Our section, I believe, is going to do very well in the playoffs,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said. “Tyler Stoczynski is one of the rising young coaches in the WPIAL.”

The wild card Tuesday is the Leechburg boys team, which has come under fire for alleged hazing by players over a 10-year period. No charges have been filed. Coach Damian Davies called the accusations “sensationalism” and that the matter was dealt with two weeks ago when some players were suspended by the school.

The Blue Devils (8-10) still are a playoff team unless they decide to take a self-imposed absence from the tournament while the investigation continues. A special meeting is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Leechburg to address the basketball issues.

Leechburg has confirmed it will not make a decision on whether to stay in the playoffs until its meeting Tuesday. That decision likely will happen after the WPIAL has slotted Leechburg into the Class A bracket. The pairings meeting starts at 7 p.m.

The WPIAL said it will not involve itself in an investigation.

Springdale's boys will make their first playoff appearance since 2010-11. The Dynamos (9-11) previous won a playoff game in 2008.

Burrell leads six local girls playoff teams. The question for the Bucs (18-4): Can they get a No. 1 seed for the first time in school history?

Burrell has been to the WPIAL semifinals three straight times: as a No. 3 seed once and twice as a No. 2. The Tribune-Review recently bumped the Bucs up to No. 1 in Class AA.

Burrell's playoff nemesis, Bishop Canevin (18-3), also is in the running for a top-three seed. Burrell lost to Class A No. 2-ranked Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, 56-31, on Saturday, its most lopsided loss since 2013.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by our rankings throughout this season,” Burrell coach Meghan Ziemianski said. “We don't even try to guess what the WPIAL is going to do. We have no control over it anyway. More or less, we think about getting scrimmages lined up for the next week.”

The Leechburg girls (14-8) are back in the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06. Highlands (12-9) hasn't been to the postseason since 2010-11.

Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor for the Valley News Dispatch edition of the Tribune-Review. Reach him at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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