Highlands, Fox Chapel boys rewarded with byes for late-season charges

Tuesday, February 13, 2018 | 11:39 PM

Uncertainty surrounded Highlands at the beginning of the boys basketball season, the graduation of four starters from one of the more successful stretches in recent program history leaving an inexperienced roster.

Yet the Golden Rams jelled early and didn't look back, closing the regular season as one of the hottest teams in the WPIAL — and they received their reward Tuesday.

Highlands (17-4) received the No. 2 seed in the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs, learning their postseason fate along with seven other Alle-Kiski Valley boys qualifiers at the WPIAL's annual pairings meeting Tuesday evening in Green Tree.

The second seed marks Highlands' best in Tyler Stoczynski's six seasons as coach. The Golden Rams (17-4) received a first-round bye and will play either No. 7 West Allegheny or No. 10 Laurel Highlands in the quarterfinals Feb. 23.

“(It's rewarding) moreso for the guys,” Stoczynski said. “They played together, they worked together and they do everything as a team. They embody that team-first mentality. That's come to fruition to help us, and we got a two seed out of it. We're just excited to go from there and to get better as we go along.”

After dropping its first two games and three of its first five, Highlands closed the regular season on a tear: The Rams' win Monday over Freeport was their 14th in their final 15 games.

Fox Chapel, which finished the regular season on a similar hot streak, likewise received a bye. The Foxes (17-5) received the No. 3 seed in Class 6A and will play either Pine-Richland (17-5) or Bethel Park (13-9) in the quarterfinals Feb. 24. The team also had a first-round bye last season.

“I thought we deserved a bye, or at least consideration for it,” said Fox Chapel coach Zach Skrinjar, whose team went unbeaten in the second half of Section 3-6A, including key wins over Woodland Hills and Penn Hills. “I think the committee is pretty good at seeding them, and I think they did a fair job. I really do think teams 3 through 7 could be seeded in any which way. It just kind of fell where it was.”

Burrell (10-12) got its own reward for a shared section title, receiving the No. 5 seed in Class 3A and a first-round matchup with Riverside on Friday.

“They're taking into account the battles that go on in each section and rewarding the section champion,” Burrell coach Shawn Bennis said. “I'm very happy with 5.”

The A-K Valley section with perhaps the closest battles all season was Section 1-4A, where Valley, Freeport and Deer Lakes resided.

Not much room separates the rivals in the playoffs, either: Valley (13-4) got the No. 8 seed and a matchup with South Park, Freeport (15-6) the No. 10 seed and a game against South Fayette, a first-round rematch from last season, and Deer Lakes (12-9) the 11th seed and a matchup with Ambridge. All three of their games are Feb. 21.

“It's going to be a tough one, but everything is tough at this time of the year,” Deer Lakes coach Terence Parham said. “We welcome the challenge.”

Leechburg returned to the playoffs for the second consecutive season and received the No. 8 seed in Class 2A. The Blue Devils (14-7) will face No. 9 Fort Cherry, an opponent Leechburg coach Corey Smith anticipated but didn't know much about.

“We have a whole week off, so we're going to try to get a good scrimmage in Friday or Saturday, and we'll go from there,” Smith said.

The Leechburg/Fort Cherry game kicks off a tripleheader Tuesday at North Hills.

The final game of that tripleheader belongs to Springdale, which went down to the wire in the regular season before clinching its Class 2A playoff berth with a win over Riverview in its section finale. The Dynamos (12-8) received the No. 10 seed and will play No. 7 California.

Leechburg won the A-K Valley's most recent boys basketball championship, in 2007. Since then, a pair of teams — Burrell in 2013 and Highlands in '16 — reached the final before falling.

Can someone end the drought this season? The answer will come in the next two-plus weeks.

Of course, nobody is looking that far ahead, least of all Stoczynski.

“We continue to get better, and that's always been our plan,” Stoczynski said. “A part of the process is to always get better every day in practice a little bit.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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