Ligonier Valley boys turn focus to Beaver Falls, PIAA tournament

Thursday, March 7, 2019 | 8:35 PM

Ligonier Valley, the only Westmoreland County-based high school whose sports teams compete outside the WPIAL, is getting a rare opportunity to impress its western neighbors in boys basketball.

The District 6 Class 3A runner-up Rams will meet Beaver Falls, the WPIAL fifth-place team, in a PIAA first-round game at 4 p.m. Saturday at Johnstown High School, looking to give District 6 back-to-back opening 3A victories over the WPIAL.

Richland, which a week ago knocked off Ligonier Valley in overtime in the D6 championship game, took down Aliquippa last season in a PIAA first-round game after losing to Ligonier Valley in the D6 title matchup.

“Our guys were upset afterwards,” Ligonier Valley coach John Berger said of a 68-64 loss to Richland on March 1 at Mt. Aloysius College. “They were upset, but they’ve turned their focus now to making a run in the state playoffs.”

Count second-year Beaver Falls coach Carliss Jeter among the believers in Ligonier Valley’s recent success.

The Rams, who saw their season end a year ago in a 65-60 loss to District 3 fourth-place Lancaster Mennonite in a PIAA first-round game, take a 22-3 record in against Beaver Falls (10-14).

“They play very hard,” Jeter said. “They change up their defenses pretty well, and they’re a really well-coached team. We’re going to see a little different style of basketball going out that way, and I try to get that across to my team.”

Beaver Falls, despite a sub-par record, plays in the rugged WPIAL Section 1 along with other perennial powers such as Aliquippa and WPIAL champion Lincoln Park.

The Tigers’ usual 10-player rotation is highlighted by just two players with varsity experience before this season in senior guards Jaylen Vaughn and Gage McKelvey.

Kyzer Cleckley, a 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior, who is receiving Division I interest in football; 6-3 junior Darius Nesmith; and 6-6 sophomore Camden Glass help to provide muscle inside for Beaver Falls.

“Before it’s all over, Camden will be a Division I player,” said Jeter, the father of former Beaver Falls basketball star and ex-Pitt and Vanderbilt player Sheldon Jeter.

Like his son, Carliss Jeter also played at the Division I level, spending two seasons from 1984-86 at Chattanooga, including a year on the same team as future NBA player Gerald Wilkins.

Cleckley, who missed most of Beaver Falls’ football season with a lower leg injury, could cause a similar matchup problem for Ligonier Valley as did Richland’s Collin Instone, a 6-3, 260-pound New Hampshire football commit, who led the Rams with 27 points.

“Kyzer’s a bruiser. He’s someone I can depend on to be a rebounder inside,” Jeter said.

The Tigers likely will need it to offset Ligonier Valley senior Marrek Paola. The 6-8, 210-pound Paola has scored at least 30 points in seven consecutive games and eight of the past nine. He registered 35 in the D6 title-game loss to Richland.

“He shoots the ball very well,” Jeter said. “He can step out and hurt you from the 3-point line.”

Paola has been flirting with 2,000 career points, but likely would need Ligonier Valley to advance far into the PIAA playoffs to reach that total. The Seton Hill commit’s career numbers (1,887 points, 1,051 rebounds, 199 blocks) are impressive, nonetheless.

Berger, in the first year of his second stint of leading the Rams program, said he isn’t sure how his team will react come Saturday, aside from one element that Jeter readily acknowledges.

“I have no doubt we are going to come out and play hard,” Berger said. “This team knows no other way to play.”

Ligonier Valley owns two victories this season over schools of larger classification, including an 80-52 rout of Class 5A Kiski Area, the only WPIAL opponent on the Rams’ regular-season schedule.

They also defeated Class 4A Clearfield, 80-78, in the Purchase Line Christmas Tournament.

“We’ve not seen this type of team this year,” Berger said of Beaver Falls. “They are very quick and athletic, and they really attack the glass, which (despite Paola’s presence) is our downfall. We rely on one, maybe two people to do it.”

So, what exactly is Berger’s best advice to a team that has won all but three games so far?

“I told them it gets tougher as you go,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready to adjust and, at the same time, just play your style, play your game.”

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