Coach Berger brings calming influence to Ligonier Valley boys

Sunday, February 17, 2019 | 7:36 PM

The coach at Ligonier Valley has changed, but the core group of players remained the same, providing an opportunity for another banner year in boys basketball after last season’s District 6-3A championship and PIAA first-round ouster.

This Rams team (20-2), a year older and wiser than the one that hoisted the school’s first D6 championship flag, is back to defend its title by tuning out unhelpful noise.

“If we play as a team, we can be unstoppable,” Ligonier Valley guard Jaxon Ludwig said.

The top-seeded Rams’ run at back-to-back D6 championships begins Friday in the quarterfinals at home against the winner of a play-in game Tuesday between No. 9 Central Cambria (7-13) and No. 8 Mt. Union (10-11).

“I believe we can go farther than last year with the right mindset,” Ligonier Valley coach John Berger said. “This team is determined. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve sensed the season coming up to the end. If we don’t get any injuries, we’re a tough bunch to beat.”

In the intense world of Ligonier Valley basketball, Berger’s presence in his second go-round as coach often offers a calming influence. He urges the team to stay together unlike last postseason, when its unity unraveled at times under former coach Todd Hepner.

“I have a lot of respect for coach Berger,” Ludwig said. “When we mess around and aren’t preparing the way we know we should be, he encourages us and tells us we’re a good team and we do good things. I think it’s fantastic to be part of this team.”

Ludwig said Berger challenged him at the start of the season to become the team’s “lock-down defender.”

“I’ve been matched up at times against the other team’s best player, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job so far,” Ludwig said.

Berger’s no-nonsense approach — he is Ligonier’s longtime police chief — most recently was reflected in his handling of a delicate situation involving star guard Michael Marinchak, who happens to be Berger’s nephew.

After Marinchak, the team’s second-leading scorer, was ejected from the Rams’ 66-42 victory over West Shamokin on Feb. 8 in the Heritage Conference championship game at IUP for picking up two technical fouls, Berger privately was livid.

Marinchak subsequently was required by PIAA rules to sit out Ligonier Valley’s next game, an 83-62 victory at Bedford in the Rams’ regular-season finale.

You’d imagine Marinchak, who averages 21 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds, would have missed the game no matter what the PIAA said.

“People look up to me for so many different ways,” Berger said. “I told Michael, ‘You embarrassed yourself. You embarrassed me. You embarrassed your parents, your grandmother.’ … I told him that if he ever embarrasses me again, like he did at IUP, I don’t know if I want to keep coaching this team.”

He’s eligible to play in Ligonier Valley’s first D6 playoff game Friday, but Berger said Marinchak won’t be in the Rams’ starting lineup, though the 5-foot-10 junior figures eventually to play.

“It’s the right decision, and Michael apologized,” Berger said. “It’s a great group of young men. They definitely have bought in. I told them this sort of thing stops now. Nobody says anything to the referee anymore. If you now have a question, you come to me. By their reaction, you would have thought it was a different team.

“I think we’re going to be OK, and I think Michael will be OK.”

Ligonier Valley, the only Class 3A team with a bye in the playoffs, is led by 6-8 center Marrek Paola, who scored 39 points against Bedford, topping his career high of 38 a earlier this season in a victory against Allegany (Md.).

The Rams could get a rematch with No. 2 Richland for the D6 title. Richland (16-5), also known as the Rams, opens Friday at home with a quarterfinals matchup against No. 7 Cambria Heights (11-10).

Richland, despite losing to Ligonier Valley in last year’s D6 championship game, went on to play for the PIAA title, falling to District 12 champion Neumann-Goretti, 57-42, at Hershey’s Giant Center.

In other D6 quarterfinals Friday, No. 3 Forest Hills (14-7) entertains No. 6 Penns Valley (11-9), and No. 4 West Shamokin (16-7) welcomes No. 5 Bellwood-Antis (14-6).

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