All teams facing stiff tests

Winning a District 6 basketball championship is still a prestigious, thrilling accomplishment.

But it no longer guarantees a relatively smooth ride through the first or second round of the state playoffs.

The state playoffs, which get underway this weekend, don’t feature a lot of easy outs, even for teams with gaudy records who are coming off district titles.

“You’re playing the best teams if you’re playing in the state tournament,” said Hollidaysburg Area High School girls coach Deanna Jubeck, whose District 6-AAAA champion Lady Tigers (22-2) host WPIAL fifth-seed Penn-Trafford (20-5) in a first-round state playoff game at 6 p.m. tonight at the Altoona Area High School Fieldhouse. “All 32 teams [in each classification] have gotten there for a reason. Whether you’re playing a 20-2 team or a 12-12 team, you still have to play your best game in order to move along in the bracket.”

Jubeck isn’t even thinking about the next round, where either WPIAL champion Bethel Park (23-2) or Mount Lebanon (22-3) would be in store for her team.

“We haven’t looked past round one,” she said. “Our main concern is Penn-Trafford. They have a good record, they’re part of the WPIAL, and any game you play at this point in time should be a good game. You have to take it one step at a time and go from there. It’s a single-elimination tournament, so if your team isn’t on in any one game, that might be the game that sends you packing.”

Penn Cambria High School boys basketball coach Jim Ronan said that he’s quite cognizant of his team’s tough first-round draw. The District 6-AA champion Panthers (20-4) get WPIAL sixth seed Greensburg Central Catholic (22-2) in a first-round game Saturday at 4 p.m. at the Altoona High Fieldhouse.

“We’ve definitely noticed that it’s a tough draw, but it’s something that we’re trying not to focus on,” Ronan said. “We know going into the state playoffs that it’s only the best of the best, and we’ve had some tough games recently, so we’re battle-tested.”

Penn Cambria just wants to continue the roll it’s been on lately. The Panthers – who are led by 6-foot-7 senior forward A.J. Leahey’s 20-plus points and 11-plus rebounds per-game averages – beat Northern Cambria for the District 6-AA title March 2.

“We’re playing so well right now, we want to keep focusing on the positives,” Ronan said. “We just want to go about our business the way we have for the last month and a half, prepare for Greensburg, and give it our best shot. We feel confident that if we prepare and play as well as we have recently, that we have a good chance to come out with a ‘W.”

Playing tough opponents right off the bat can actually work to a team’s advantage, in that it is a built-in safeguard against complacency.

“We know we have to play our best ball,” Ronan said. “Any time you lay back on your heels a little bit, anybody can get you.”

Not that the District 6-A boys basketball champion Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic High School Marauders, who host Smethport in a first-round game tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Altoona High Fieldhouse, would ever take such an approach. Smethport is a fourth-place finisher out of District 9, but carries a 22-3 record into tonight’s game.

“I would hope that we wouldn’t be complacent against anybody, let alone a team that is 22-3,” said Bishop Guilfoyle boys coach Chris Drenning. “Honestly, I think everybody is good at this point in the season. [Smethport] comes from a real strong district. I don’t think there are any easy games now.”

Like Hollidaysburg, the District 6-A champion Bishop Guilfoyle Lady Marauders are a senior-laden team this year. BG has two seniors, guard Halee Adams and forward Elyssa Ehredt, who are four-year starters, and two other seniors, Kayla Bates and Devin Stessney, who have started for three seasons.

Those players all have the experience of playing in, and winning, at least one state championship game. BG opens this year’s playoff run with a 5:30 p.m. tipoff Saturday against Johnsonburg (17-8), a fourth-place finisher out of District 9. That game is also set for the Altoona High Fieldhouse.

Veteran BG girls coach Mark Moschella knows that it isn’t worth looking ahead. If the Lady Marauders win Saturday, they would face either District 7 runner-up Serra Catholic or District 10 runner-up Cochranton in the second round.

“You can’t look ahead,” Moschella said. “I don’t want to be talking about Serra because I know absolutely nothing about Cochranton, and we could be playing either one of those two if we win our first game.”