Highlands, Belle Vernon boys set to face off for WPIAL Class 4A basketball title

Friday, February 28, 2020 | 5:52 PM

At this point in the season, every team is playing its best basketball, and over the past two weeks, Highlands and Belle Vernon boys have played better than anyone in WPIAL Class 4A.

At 1 p.m. Saturday, the teams will clash at Pitt’s Petersen Events Center for the WPIAL championship.

No. 1 Highlands (21-3) has won its past two games in different fashions. It defeated No. 9 Ringgold, 80-56, in the quarterfinals on the strength of its 3-point shooting. Then, against No. 5 Blackhawk, the Cougars took away the Golden Rams’ shooters, and they worked their offense through 6-foot-6 forward Johnny Crise on the way to a 53-45 victory.

The victories prove the Golden Rams are able to adapt their style of play.

“It’s a testament to this group of guys and how much they believe in each other,” Highlands coach Tyler Stoczynski said. “Nobody cares who’s doing what. Luke (Cochran) sat for a portion of the third quarter, and he was one of the loudest on the bench cheering for the other guys. That shows what our team is all about.”

No. 6 Belle Vernon (19-6) has won 12 of its past 14 and has done so in convincing fashion. In the first round, the Leopards defeated Derry, 65-44. Then, they defeated two teams that have reached the WPIAL championship for the past three seasons.

In the quarterfinals, Belle Vernon upset Quaker Valley, 66-61. On Wednesday, in the semifinals at North Allegheny, the Leopards beat three-time defending champion New Castle by 10 points to earn their first appearance in a WPIAL title game since 1978.

“This is exciting, and I’m glad I’m the person that’s gotten to do it,” said Belle Vernon coach Joe Salvino, who won six WPIAL titles as Monessen’s coach and has 665 career victories.

The Golden Rams are returning to The Pete for the second time in five years (they lost to Beaver Falls in the 2016 Class AAA title game). It is the second appearance of Stoczynski’s eight-year term at Highlands, and his seniors — Crise, Korry Myers and Cochran — are hoping to end their high school careers on top of the WPIAL.

“They are a good team. They are there for a reason after beating a good New Castle team,” Cochran said. “We definitely match up up size wise. They are going to come with their best. We are going to come with our best, and it’s gonna be a dogfight.”

Belle Vernon is looking to cap its underdog story with a WPIAL title as well. With the run the Leopards have been on, it would be quite the conclusion. But lifting WPIAL gold won’t come easily.

With their array of shooters and size in the paint, the Golden Rams present problems at both ends of the court. Salvino said his Leopards just have to stick to their gameplan and execute the smaller things.

The Leopards also will be playing without second-leading scorer Cam Nusser (14.2 points). Salvino said Nusser’s absence is not related to the ankle injury he suffered in the first round of the playoffs.

“We definitely have to limit their second-chance opportunities at baskets, I know that,” Salvino said. “They have their big guy, and he’s a good ball player. We have to keep them off the boards, and turnovers are another big thing, too. We can’t give them more opportunities than we are going to have.”

The Leopards present just as many problems. Sophomore guard Devin Whitlock has been a handful for opponents and already is closing in on 1,000 career points. Seniors Jared Hartman (6-3) and Michael Pohlot (6-4) also provide size down low.

The Golden Rams are looking forward to the test and the opportunity to play for a WPIAL championship.

“We’re excited this was one of goals that we talked about as a team at the beginning of the season,” Stoczynski said. “Slowly but surely we’re trying to accomplish those goals one by one. So, we’re looking forward to the opportunity to showcase where our program has gotten to.”

Greg Macafee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Greg by email at gmacafee@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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