The final week of the WPIAL basketball season is one predictably filled with intrigue and uncertainty as teams ardently vie for the chance to capture a section championship or even just qualify for the playoffs.
As fate and the schedulers have it, many of these teams fighting for those titles and precious playoff spots will square off against one another this week, with few of these races as heated as the one taking place in Class AAA Section 2 between the boys' teams at Beaver, Blackhawk and Central Valley.
All three entered the week with 8-2 records in section play, each with hopes of capturing the section championship and the section's top playoff seed. But Blackhawk's chances were diminished significantly Tuesday when the Cougars lost to Central Valley, 66-56.
"This is pretty much exactly where we want to be," Central Valley coach Brandon Ambrose said. "I don't think a whole lot of people had us at the top of their list at the top of the season, but our team has improved as the season has gone on."
The three teams took decidedly different routes to get to that shared destination before Tuesday.
Beaver got off to the best start of any of the three teams, racing out to a 12-0 record that had them among the top-five teams in the Post-Gazette's Class AAA rankings. The Bobcats, however, went on to lose three of their next six games, with two of the losses coming in section play (interestingly enough, to Blackhawk on Jan. 15 and Central Valley on Jan. 29). But a victory against Ellwood City Tuesday has put them in position to win at least a share of the section title.
Led by senior center Aaron Barlow, who is averaging more than 21 points per game, Beaver has the chance to achieve a goal in its season finale -- a road date against Blackhawk Friday.
While the Bobcats will obviously have a hand in their fate, no team had a more active role in shaping its own destiny than Blackhawk. The Cougars play both Central Valley and Beaver in the final week of the season.
The fact that they entered those games as a section contender is a product of a midseason turnaround that had seen them reel off seven consecutive wins after a lackluster 5-7 start to the season. Ambrose was paricularly complimentary of the job that Blackhawk coach Andy Hedrick has done this season.
Central Valley, too, has been able to gain some recent momentum. Though the Warriors' 6-4 start to the season didn't put them in a dire situation, they have responded with wins in nine of their past 11 games. A section title would be the first for the school that is now in its third year of existence.
"I come from the mentality that winning a section title is something very important," Ambrose said. "It's one of the goals we have along the way."
A section championship would actually be the first for any of these three teams since Blackhawk won Section 2 of Class AAA in 2003 when it finished the regular season 22-2 under legendary former coach John Miller.
Another heated race
The tangle between Blackhawk, Beaver and Central Valley at the top of Section 2 is far from the only thing still to be decided in that section, as the boys' teams at West Allegheny and Ambridge are locked in a tight battle for the section's final playoff spot.
The Bridgers are 6-5 in section play, with the Indians trailing closely behind with a 4-6 section record (before a game Wednesday night at Ellwood City). Ambridge won the previous meeting between the two teams this season, a 56-45 victory at home, but the two teams will meet again Friday at West Allegheny in a game that could decide which team will qualify for the section's final playoff spot -- or possibly both could make it.
If the Indians can defeat Ambridge, the teams will have split their games against each other and both would qualify for the playoffs.
Of course, West Allegheny had an important section game Wednesday night and needed to defeat Ellwood City (3-18, 0-11) to make Friday's game meaningful.
Though the tight playoff races chronicled above occur on the boys' side of things, there is an interesting non-section game for a local girls team.
Monday -- Blackhawk at Penn-Trafford, 7:30 p.m. -- With so many tight section races, it's a game that ultimately has little postseason meaning. It is, however, a contest between two of the top teams in their respective classes, with one of the squads, Blackhawk, entering the week with an undefeated record.