PIAA Boys Basketball Championships: Pursuit of perfection -- New Castle a win away
Seton-LaSalle, Lincoln Park facing strong opponents in state title games
March 21, 2014 12:00 AM
New Castle celebrated beating Hamption High School in the Boys WPIAL AAAA Basketball Championship at the Palumbo Center earlier this month, but they have loftier goals this weekend in Hershey -- a state title and a perfect season.
By Mike White / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ralph Blundo will acknowledge he is a demanding coach. He expects maximum effort from his players, demands they act a certain way at practice, show up at practices with their shirts tucked in, their shoes tied and the drawstrings on their pants tied.
Blundo might stop short of demanding perfection. But his players might give it to him Saturday night anyway.
New Castle is one win away from finishing the season with a perfect record. New Castle takes a 30-0 mark into the PIAA Class AAAA championship game Saturday night at the Giant Center in Hershey. The Red Hurricanes' opponent is La Salle College High School of the Philadelphia Catholic League.
While winning WPIAL titles with undefeated records the past three seasons was quite the feat for New Castle, it has been 31 years since a WPIAL boys team walked away from a PIAA title game with a perfect record.
The last WPIAL team to make it through an entire season undefeated was Sto-Rox, which finished 32-0 in 1983. The PIAA has been staging boys championship games since 1920 and only 11 WPIAL teams have finished without a blemish on their record. The first was McKeesport in 1921.
The enormity of a perfect record is not lost on Blundo, but he insists it is never talked about with his team.
Like Dolphins, Sto-Rox aware of legacy
No WPIAL boys basketball team has finished a season with a perfect record since Sto-Rox 31 years ago. One of the leaders of that Sto-Rox team hopes the streak goes to at least 32 years.
Daren DiMichele was one of the leading scorers on the 1983 Sto-Rox team that finished 32-0. He isn't exactly rooting for undefeated New Castle to win the PIAA Class AAAA title Saturday and finish with a 31-0 record.
DiMichele said he and some of his teammates are kind of like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only NFL team to win a Super Bowl with a perfect record. Some of the Dolphins' players have been known to root against any NFL team that has a chance to go undefeated.
"I'm nervous," DiMichele said.
"How did Hampton blow that [PIAA quarterfinal] game against New Castle? I've got mixed emotions, but when you get down to it, I think I want them to lose. I know it sounds selfish. I know New Castle has been banging on the door and it would be nice for them to win. I just wish they would've just lost one game during the year, then I'd be rooting like crazy for them."
The 1983 Sto-Rox team had a reunion in February. DiMichele said he still talks to some of his former teammates about New Castle's quest for perfection. There is a legacy to protect, he insists. He and some former teammates might watch the New Castle vs. La Salle College title game Saturday night.
"I talk to Junior Price, Mark Beavers and my brother-in-law [Denny Vith], who were all on that team," DiMichele said.
"Denny doesn't think the way I do. He wants New Castle to win. Mark doesn't care. But Junior doesn't want them to win, either. I guess in the end, I might be happy if they win. Maybe I'll just be mad for a few minutes. I know they've worked hard the last two or three years to get this. I know how hard we worked."
"The record really has never mattered," Blundo said. "We're playing in a game Saturday where both teams want to get one win just to be state champions. Whether your overall record has nine or 10 losses, or zero, will matter nothing at that point."
New Castle is 86-2 the past three seasons, but has fallen short of a PIAA title, losing to Montour in the second round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs two years ago, and to Lower Merion in last year's Class AAAA semifinals.
But even La Salle coach Joe Dempsey marvels at New Castle's record, no matter the outcome of Saturday's game. This is the first time a WPIAL team has made it to a PIAA title game with an undefeated record since Blackhawk of 2000, but the Cougars lost to Steelton-Highspire.
"I don't care who is on your schedule or what league you are in," Dempsey said. "To get up 30 times and not have one hiccup is just unbelievable. You see [undefeated] Wichita State doing it now on the college level, but to get a bunch of 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old kids up every night is something."
In La Salle (23-6), New Castle faces a club that finished as the No. 3 team from District 12. La Salle knocked off perennial power Chester, 61-55, in the semifinals Tuesday.
La Salle and New Castle have three common opponents -- North Allegheny, Lower Merion and Abington. La Salle lost to North Allegheny, 85-61, but that was in the season opener, and La Salle is playing much differently now. La Salle also defeated Lower Merion, 71-48, and Abington, 57-54.
New Castle beat North Allegheny three times, defeated Lower Merion, 62-59, in double overtime and defeated Abington, 58-54, in the PIAA semifinals.
La Salle is well-balanced offensively. David Krmpotich is a 6-foot-7 junior forward who averages 11 points and is getting looks from some Patriot League colleges. Jalen Herdsman is a 6-5 forward and 5-11 guard Najee Walls averages 10.4.
"We know they have great talent and great coaching," Blundo said. "I think it's going to be a great basketball game. It will be two teams that really want to win and will be prepared to win."
WPIAL champ Seton-LaSalle has a 29-1 record, but coach Mark "Knobby" Walsh knows his team is considered the underdog in the Class AA title game against Constitution of Philadelphia. Constitution (27-5) is the No. 1-ranked Class AA team in the state.
"I feel like the Norman Dale guy from 'Hoosiers' [the Hickory coach played by Gene Hackman] when he played in the state finals," Walsh said. "With their athleticism, and especially the schedule they've played, it's definitely a big challenge for us."
Besides playing some powerhouse teams in Philadelphia, Constitution also played Mater Dei (Calif.), the No. 2 team in USA Today's national rankings, and Lone Peak, a perennial power in Utah. Constitution lost to Mater Dei, 71-37, and lost to Lone Peak, 62-50.
"We're not committed to any one style. We go out and do what we need to do to win," Constitution coach Robert Moore said. "We can get up and down because we go nine deep. But Seton-LaSalle is a quick and athletic team and Dale Clancy is a lightning bolt on the court. It will be a good matchup."
Ahmad Williams, a 6-6 junior, averages 15.6 points a game and 6-1 junior guard Kimar Williams averages 12.
Constitution is a public school in its eighth year of existence. It specializes in social studies and history classes. Constitution beat Lincoln Park for the 2012 PIAA Class A title, but moved up to Class AA last season.
Lincoln Park has been on one of the most dominant postseason runs by any team in WPIAL history, winning eight playoff games (WPIAL and PIAA) by an average of 43.5 points.
The Leopards' closest playoff game was 17 points.
But Lincoln Park now faces a team that actually matches up in size -- and possibly talent.
Math, Civics & Science is a charter school in Philadelphia that beat Lincoln Park in the title game three years ago. MCS starts 6-9 junior forward Mike Watkins (Penn State recruit), 6-5 sophomore forward Nazeer Bostick, 6-4 junior guard Samir Doughty (has Division I scholarship offers) and 6-3 senior guard Louis Myers. Plus, 6-6 Terquin Mott comes off the bench.
Lincoln Park has 6-8 forward Elijah Minnie, 6-7 forward Ryan Skovranko and 6-7 guard Maverick Rowan (averaging 30 points in the postseason).
"Lincoln Park isn't the biggest team we've faced," said MCS coach Dan Jackson. "They have very good size, but I think we have, if not the same type of size, athletic wing players and guards who will be able to compete with their size."
Doughty leads MCS in scoring at 16.4 and Watkins averages 10.7.
Don't be deceived by MCS's 15-14 record. It lost to six out-of-state teams, including national power Montverde Academy (Fla.). They also lost to strong Pennsylvania teams in higher classifications (Chester, Martin Luther King (both Class AAAA), Constitution (AA) and Philadelphia Electrical (AAA).
Lincoln Park's only loss this year was to New Castle, 71-63,, a PIAA Class AAAA finalist.
"I think from top to bottom, this is probably the best team we've faced," Lincoln Park assistant coach Mike Bariski said.
Only 11 boys teams from the WPIAL have won a state championship with an undefeated record:
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