The fact that Aliquippa has a 15-5 record and a chance at a section championship would understandably be a surprise to some. This time last year, the Quips were finishing off a 10-14 season with a team that included seven seniors.
Although the team's rise this season wasn't entirely expected, Quips coach Nick Lackovich knows that it is one of the first steps toward his ultimate goals for the program.
The first-year Aliquippa head coach is aware that if his team -- and the program -- hopes to be great, it will need experience in the sort of must-win situations that are discussed this time of year.
Friday night, it will be getting just that.
Winners of their past eight games, the Quips (15-5, 11-2) are preparing themselves for a game against Class AA Section 2 foe Beaver Falls (16-5, 11-2), the defending PIAA champion that has also won a section championship in six consecutive seasons. The game Friday night at Aliquippa will determine the section title.
Lackovich was an assistant coach at Beaver Falls prior to taking the job at Aliquippa last offseason. He's seen what impact these sorts of big moments have had on players and a program, and he's hoping Friday's game can be the start of a similar trend with the Quips.
"That's always one of our goals -- to win our section," Lackovich said. "With having such a young team that's never been down this road before ... it's been a while since they've had a game like this. I think they're ready to accept the challenge and make the next step."
Part of the reason Aliquippa's turnaround this season was not anticipated was because of just how young many of the team's top players are. Jassir Jordan, the Quips' leading scorer, is only a sophomore, as are Charles Humphries, Kaezon Pugh and Steven Johnson. Darrien Fields and Patrick Anderson are juniors, and though there are still senior standouts such as Jyier Turner and Shawnqueze Adamson, much of the team's core still has at least another year of eligibility remaining.
The success this season has at least partially come from what Lackovich considers to be a pretty simple approach -- making sure his team excels on defense, rebounding and taking care of the ball. Taking those principles to heart, Aliquippa has made significant progress.
"We strive daily to get better in those three areas because we feel like if we do well in those three areas, we'll be tough to beat," Lackovich said.
The game against the Tigers is a rematch of a Jan. 14 game, one in which Beaver Falls had five players score in double figures en route to a 75-54 home win. That loss was the last one the Quips have suffered this season, meaning that they head into Friday's game with the kind of confidence that could help them win their first section title since 2007.
"With each win, the kids are seeing what we're tying to do is working," Lackovich said. "I'm sensing a confidence growing there."
Another title for Blackhawk
With a 77-51 victory Monday against Central Valley, the Blackhawk girls' basketball team avenged its only section loss of the season and secured at least a share of the Class AAA Section 2 championship.
It marks the third-consecutive season in which the Cougars have done that, a span in which they've gone 68-9. For the sake of comparison, the three years prior to that, they went 48-27.
No rest for the weary
Though it is already eliminated from playoff contention, the Riverside girls' basketball team will be ending its season in a bit of a frenzy.
Beginning tonight, the Panthers will play four games in five days, a difficult task for a team that hasn't played more than three games in a five-day span this season. The Panthers trail Shenango for the final playoff spot in Section 2 by two game, but because the Wildcats swept the season series, it is effectively a three-game lead. Each team has only one section game remaining.
Central Valley (17-2, 11-0 Class AAA Section 2) at New Castle (20-0, 13-0 Class AAAA Section 3), 7:30 p.m., Monday -- At a point in the season in which many games are filled with postseason implications, this is a game between teams that aren't even in the same class. Still, it figures to be an intriguing matchup between the Post-Gazette's No. 1-ranked team in Class AAAA and the No. 2 team in Class AAA.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG