Highlands has had success vs. top seeds in WPIAL boys playoffs
A semifinal game. At North Allegheny.
Against a giant of a No. 1 seed.
Deja vu has paid Highlands boys basketball a visit.
In a situation eerily similar to the one the Golden Rams faced in 2008-09, they'll have to tumble over a top-seeded team that stands between them and a spot in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game.
Fourth-seeded Highlands (20-4), having its best season since that memorable run, takes on top-rated New Castle (20-1) at 6 p.m. at North Allegheny. The winner plays for the title Friday night at Petersen Events Center.
In 2009, Highlands leaned on a baby-faced freshman to stun heavily favored Chartiers Valley, 66-59. Micah Mason scored 14 of his game-high-tying 19 points in the fourth quarter before a standing-room-only crowd at North Allegheny.
It might be Mason's second-most famous high school game. His 64-point game against Valley that got him into Sports Illustrated is a net-strand higher on the list.
Jeff Sinclair added 17 points and Mike Trenski 13 as Highlands downed the Colts and returned to the finals for the first time since 2002.
If it's a seven-year cycle thing, Highlands is destined to shock the world again and play for the trophy.
Highlands has a propensity for upsets in the playoffs. It is best known for knocking off another heavy favorite, Blackhawk, 58-56, in the 1995 Class AAA final at Palumbo Center. That remains the program's only WPIAL title.
The '09 stunner carried a similar vibe. Chartiers Valley was 24-0 when it played Highlands. Philadelphia 76ers guard T.J. McConnell was a junior on that team. McConnell tied teammate Teagan Lindsey with 19 points.
“Our fans believed in us and we always believed that we were capable of competing with those teams,” said Reuben King, a senior guard on that team. “It had that big-fight feel to it, and we just wanted to show everybody that we belonged.”
New Castle plays at a rampant pace and will look to dictate the pace early. The Red Hurricanes' only loss is to Allderdice, the top-ranked Class AAAA team in the state.
Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski wasn't aware of the '09 upset because he wasn't around. He didn't arrive until four years later, well after the dust had settled and the program turned to face a new direction.
In 2008-09, the 6-foot-8 Stoczynski was playing his senior season at Gannon after a standout prep career at Erie McDowell and a year of college hoops at UMass-Lowell.
While he pays respect to Golden Rams teams of the past, the fourth-year coach doesn't want his team to see underdogs when they look in the mirror. He has the same unassuming confidence that Rich Falter had when he coached the Rams.
“We feel we deserve to be here and can compete with anyone at the top of Triple-A,” Stoczynski said. “We aren't just happy to be in the semis. Our goal has never been to make it to the semifinals and stop there.”
Stoczynski sets aside big-picture thinking for attention to detail. He believes if his team executes like it can, the dominoes can fall.
“We want to make sure we take care of the small things during the game so we have an opportunity to be successful,” Stoczynski said.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editorof the Valley News Dispatch edition of the Tribune-Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.