WPIAL boys basketball playoff races heating up in Alle-Kiski Valley

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 | 12:16 AM

Back in the gym Monday after a pair of narrow losses last week, Deer Lakes was focusing squarely on its upcoming schedule.

The Lancers couldn't wallow given their placement in the Section 1-4A boys basketball standings.

With the second half of section play underway in much of the WPIAL, the playoff race is beginning to shape. And teams battling for a playoff position like Deer Lakes (6-7, 2-3) know the biggest games are to come.

“This week, we have three section games, real quick, back-to-back,” Deer Lakes senior Josh Solomon said. “You've got to turn the page pretty quickly, and you've got to move on. But also, we try to realize what we did. We definitely try to build off the losses and wins.”

A handful of Alle-Kiski Valley boys basketball teams began the week separated by a game or less from the fourth and final playoff spot in their sections. That includes Deer Lakes, which is a half-game behind Derry for the fourth playoff spot in Section 1-4A. Freeport (8-5, 4-3), which rallied to beat Deer Lakes last week, is in third place, a half-game up on Derry.

Fox Chapel (Section 3-6A), Burrell and Apollo-Ridge (Section 3-3A), and Leechburg and Springdale (Section 1-2A) are in the middle of tight playoff races.

“I think the section is up for grabs for anyone,” said Apollo-Ridge coach Damon Andring, whose Vikings (5-7, 1-2) are a game behind South Allegheny for fourth place. “Every box score you see is teams beating teams they normally don't beat and losing to teams they shouldn't lose to.

“It's a great thing to be right smack dab in the middle of it with a bunch of young kids that are hungry. No one's running away with it, and everyone has a shot every night. With the group I have, it's right where I want to be.”

In the tightest of races, one game can make the biggest difference. Leechburg's upset of Jeannette last season helped propel the Blue Devils into the playoffs when Springdale lost in an upset to Riverview on the final night of section play. And after dropping a pair of section games, fourth-place Leechburg (9-4, 4-3) pulled another upset of Jeannette over the weekend to gain a wider edge on fifth-place Summit Academy in the section.

“The confidence, the energy is really up right now,” Leechburg coach Corey Smith said. “What I keep telling my guys is you can never get too high or too low. You've got to take one game at a time and concentrate on the next opponent.”

Sections 3-6A, 1-4A and 1-2A had tight races last season, too, though Solomon said he believes it is closer this year.

The Lancers lost a big game to Freeport last week when the Yellowjackets staged a double-digit comeback in the second half. Then Deer Lakes hung with first-place Indiana for three quarters before the Little Indians pulled away in the fourth.

Deer Lakes faces two games against Derry in the next eight days — a home contest Thursday and a road rematch Jan. 30 — along with two games against Valley and another matchup with Freeport down the stretch.

“(The key has) got to be focus because you really don't have any opportunities for slippage,” Lancers coach Terence Parham said. “Especially this week because you have three section games. In a sense, it's almost like an NBA playoff setting because we see Derry on a Thursday and then, boom, we have to see them again on a Tuesday. And I think Valley's the same situation. So the focus really, really has to be key. Without it, you leave room for error.”

Leechburg, whose game Tuesday at Greensburg Central Catholic was postponed, faces a similarly crucial game Friday against Summit Academy, which defeated the Blue Devils in their first meeting. Smith expects a tougher game the second time around in a season that already has been difficult because of weather-postponed games and other challenges.

“It's been a roller-coaster ride so far,” Smith said. “But we're still riding it. We're still on it, and we're ready to go.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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