County basketball teams enter final week of regular season with high stakes

Feb. 5—One week.

That's all that remains in the regular season for WPIAL boys and girls basketball teams competing in section play.

Five boys teams — Mohawk, Neshannock, Ellwood City Lincoln, Shenango and Union — along with four girls squads — Neshannock, Ellwood, Mohawk and Union — have locked up postseason berths.

The Union girls are the lone outright section champion among county teams in the WPIAL. The Mohawk boys have locked up at least a share of the Section 1-3A title. The Warriors (10-0 section, 14-6 overall) can claim the crown outright with a win at New Brighton (0-10, 2-16) on Tuesday.

The New Castle High boys are in an unfamiliar role — scrambling for a postseason berth. The Red Hurricane (12-6, 3-7) has reached the state playoffs each of Ralph Blundo's first 13 seasons of his tenure. That is in jeopardy in year No. 14 as New Castle needs a win Tuesday to stay alive in a quest to make the WPIAL playoffs.

"It's a playoff game and we have to win," Blundo said.

The 'Canes hit the road for a Section 1-6A matchup against Pine-Richland (3-5, 7-11) at 7:30 p.m. The Rams won the first meeting, 62-49. A loss eliminates New Castle from playoff contention.

"They played great at our place and we played really poorly," Blundo said of Pine-Richland. "It's a win we would have liked to have gotten. But, we didn't and now we have to take care of business at their place."

The 'Canes finish section play at 7:30 p.m. Friday when they host Seneca Valley (2-6, 6-14). The Raiders won the first matchup, 66-51.

"We have gotten better for sure as a team," Blundo said. "We have to play well Tuesday night. Nothing else matters right now."

In boys Section 1-1A action, Union (7-1, 11-9) and Rochester (7-1, 13-5) will meet at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday on the Scotties' home floor in a battle for the section title. Union won the first battle, 50-36, and can sew up the outright section championship with a victory in the rematch.

"I was hoping we would be in this position and we are. It's a credit to the kids," Scotties coach Mark Stanley said. "We had a lot of question marks because these kids didn't have a lot of time together.

"We played a tough preseason schedule. We didn't have a very good nonsection record because we played a tough schedule. It's a credit to them for continuing to work hard."

Stanley knows the importance of what a section title would mean for his team.

"I believe the winner of this game will be a 2 or 3 seed going in, which I think is deserving," he said. "You always want to get a good seed and a first-round bye and a home game. There's a lot on the line."

Junior guard Lucas Stanley, a son of the coach, leads the team with a 22.5 scoring average. Lucas Stanley has scored 100 of his 405 markers in the last three games combined, all of which are wins.

"Rochester plays hard," Coach Stanley said. "It's been a rivalry with us for the last few years in football, basketball and baseball. We have a lot of respect for them. I'm looking forward to playing them on Tuesday."

In girls action, Neshannock (7-1, 14-5) and Beaver Falls (7-1, 13-5) share the top spot in Section 1-3A and are battling for a league crown. The Lady Lancers entertain Mohawk (4-4, 11-8) at 7 p.m. Monday, while the Lady Tigers tangle with Ellwood City (5-3, 13-7) on the road at 6:30 p.m.

"It absolutely is a big opportunity for us," Neshannock coach Luann Grybowski said. "(A section championship) really wasn't on our radar because of our youth, considering where I thought the rest of our section would be. With Ellwood City and Mohawk having the most coming back, and Beaver Falls, too.

"I'm a realist. I thought we could come in second, third or fourth. I didn't know if we would learn enough and grow enough to be where we would be playing for a section championship. Now, it's a reality and the kids are excited."

Thursday night shapes up as a battle for the section championship as Neshannock travels to Beaver Falls for a 6:30 p.m. matchup.

"This is probably the biggest week of the season," Grybowski said. "Actually, our destiny is in our own hands, and I told the kids that. Let the chips fall where they may. If we win two games, we're section champs. If we split, it depends on what Ellwood City does with Beaver Falls; there's a lot of its.

"The reality is, we control our own destiny. I told the kids if you win out, you could be the 3 seed. If you lose, you could drop all the way down to the 8 or 9."

Neshannock has just one senior on the team in Kaitlyn Fries. The Lady Lancers have no juniors, five sophomores and four freshmen.

"They have grown leaps and bounds in different areas each game," Grybowski said of her team. "We're still turning it over in key situations and that's not healthy this time of year. You either win or you learn.

Freshman Sophia Bonner is Neshannock's starting point guard and fellow ninth-grader Lily Rowe is the team's backup floor leader.

"We don't have a lot of experience there," Grybowski said of her point guards. "They're both doing a nice job. We don't have someone scoring 20 points a game. Everyone is contributing and it's someone different in double figures every night."

The WPIAL will release the boys and girls basketball playoff pairings on Feb. 12.