Competing in the rough-and-tumble Class A Section 1 can help prepare a team for the WPIAL basketball playoffs.
The only problem is making sure after navigating the tough 10-game schedule that a team is able to secure one of the elusive playoff berths in the section.
Last season Our Lady of the Sacred Heart was a perfect 11-0 against non-section opponents but it went 4-6 in Section 1 and missed out on the playoffs by one game. This year the Chargers would not be denied. They went 18-4 overall and 7-3 in section play to tie for second place with Union and qualify for a postseason berth.
In the WPIAL first round No. 6 OLSH defeated No. 11 Trinity Christian, 56-40.
Last season Section 1 produced both teams that met in the WPIAL finals, Lincoln Park and Cornell.
This year three Section 1 teams are left standing in the WPIAL quarterfinals. Along with OLSH, No. 1 Lincoln Park (17-5) and No. 4 Union (17-5) are also in the quarterfinals. The Chargers played both teams twice during the regular season and they are no worse for the wear.
They hung with Lincoln Park for quite a while in both contests before losing by 22 and 24 and they were able to split the series with Union, earning a 39-38 win on Jan. 29.
"It's not only Lincoln Park, but Union, too," coach Mike Rodriguez said. "They are excellent basketball teams. All the teams in the section are strong. Our section was tough and we believe it prepared us to go forward."
OLSH will meet No. 3 North Catholic (15-5) in the WPIAL quarterfinals at 6:30 p.m. Friday at North Hills.
The road to the WPIAL quarterfinals has been an uphill one for Rodriguez's squad. All five starters who finished last season graduated. The only player back with starting experience, senior guard Stefan Arch, was not cleared to play until a month into the season because of a concussion that ended his season last year on Jan. 4.
"Last year we were 15-6 but there were injuries and it was a tough section," Rodriguez said. "We are excited we have this opportunity. I wish the seniors last year would have had this opportunity."
Aside from Arch, the point guard, Rodriguez relies almost entirely on his junior and sophomore classes. Junior guards Cameron Johnson and Kendall Paige and junior forwards Ian Schrenk and Nick Metz start while sophomore guards Santino Platt, Joe Sebes and Hunter Szilagy and sophomore forward Cedric Gray come off the bench.
Johnson, a 6-3 shooting guard, leads the team averaging 15 points per game. He matched his season average in the playoff win against Trinity Christian.
"Cameron does a nice job slashing to the basket," Rodriguez said. "He goes strong to the basket and is a good finisher."
Paige, a 6-2 guard, scored 10 in the first-round win. Metz, the Chargers' center, is undersized at 6-3, but he has more than held his own in the paint.
"[Metz] will look up to everyone he plays against," Rodriguez said. "But he does a nice job. If we are at a height disadvantage against a team, we will try to pick up the tempo if we can."
Against North Catholic, OLSH will have to deal with a pressure defense, a veteran group and a standout player in senior 6-4 forward Danny Savulchak, who is averaging 21 points per game.
"We have looked at some film -- they are very good," Rodriguez said. "They are a well-coached basketball team. They are physical and quick. Our guys are excited for the opportunity."