Basketball coaches use early-season games to build toward section competition

Monday, December 11, 2017 | 11:00 PM

Tyler Stoczynski believes in the importance of compiling a difficult nonsection schedule, but Highlands' boys basketball coach took it to another level this season.

So as teams from around the WPIAL participated in tip-off tournaments, Stoczynski entered the Golden Rams into the one at Pine-Richland, where his Class 5A team met the top two teams in Class 6A: No. 2 Butler and No. 1 Pine-Richland.

Although Highlands lost both games, that wasn't the point. Stoczynski aims his goals toward the end of the season, not the beginning.

“I don't think we would get a lot out of going out and beating somebody else by 30 points,” Stocyznski said. “I think we get more out of going out and getting our butts kicked, then coming back to the drawing board and seeing where we have to get better.”

Coaches take different approaches to the nonsection boys basketball schedule. Many, like Stoczynski, believe in the benefit of a difficult nonsection slate. Others spend the time trying to put together their rotations or nail down their playing style.

“(We) just tried to pick good, high-quality teams out that we can compete with,” said Leechburg coach Corey Smith, whose team won its host tip-off tournament before traveling to 2017 playoff team Burrell on Monday. “I don't want to pick too many teams that I know I don't have a chance with, but I like to pick teams that we can compete (with).

“Even if we lose, as long as we compete hard and work hard, hopefully it gets us ready for Friday night against Riverview, our first section game.”

Only one Alle-Kiski Valley school has a completely new coach. Plum's Hart Coleman guided the Mustangs to wins over rival Gateway and Imani Christian at their host tournament.

“We're continuing the process of finding our footing,” Coleman said after the Gateway win. “With a lot of new guys on the team and only two returning varsity players, we want to see who would step up and be able to play varsity basketball.”

With so many new players, Coleman said the rotation is “not completely set in stone.” That's the case for many coaches, who are tinkering with new lineups as they try to find what can help their team earn a WPIAL playoff bid.

“Coming off the bench is a lot different than having your name called at the beginning of the game,” said Deer Lakes coach Terence Parham, in the process of replacing eight seniors from last season's playoff qualifier. “I'm just trying to see who's ready for that action and who plays better coming off the bench. You don't always get it in two games, and I thought I would have it. Right now I don't, so I'm still searching. But that's definitely what you're trying to find.”

The WPIAL Class AAA runner-up in 2016, before the PIAA moved to six classes, Highlands (0-2) is breaking in an almost entirely new starting lineup. The Golden Rams lost by 10 to Butler and Ethan Morton, a highly recruited college prospect, and followed that with a 63-39 defeat Saturday against tournament host Pine-Richland, which was missing some of its core players because of the Rams' participation in the PIAA football championship game that day.

Stoczynski said his players responded well to the losses.

“That's what I really like about this group: Even when we came out of this weekend 0-2, our first thought was, ‘How do I get better?' and ‘Where can I get better?' ” he said. “They were very receptive to the film session that we did. They're continuing to take everything in stride and continuing to implement it into their games. That's all I can ask for, and it's an enjoyable group to coach because of that.”

The ideal for a coach is getting his questions answered while also winning — “One thing I know about my guys: We are going to give the opponent 100 percent,” Smith said after Leechburg beat Saltsburg and Apollo-Ridge to claim its tournament title — but Stoczynski isn't panicking about being 0-2. The Golden Rams face 2016 WPIAL champion Beaver Falls on Tuesday and have a late-January contest against City League power Allderdice, whom the Golden Rams beat earlier this year for the Pittsburgh Basketball Club summer league title.

“We have a little saying: You're either getting better or getting worse,” Stoczynski said. “We always want to be on that incline going up.”

Michael Love contributed. Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @dgulasy_Trib.

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