Ligonier Valley squares off with Richland again in district title game

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 | 1:30 AM

John Berger is hoping for an early birthday present.

He turns 47 on Sunday, two days after his Ligonier Valley boys basketball team meets Richland in a District 6 Class 3A title-game rematch.

The clash, set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Mt. Aloysius in Cresson, could be dubbed, “The Battle of the Rams II,” acknowledging the identical Rams nickname for both schools.

“I’m hoping my birthday gift is a District 6 championship,” said Berger, who is in his second go-round as coach at Ligonier Valley. “That would be a nice way to celebrate.”

The game will match the top two seeds in the Class 3A. Ligonier Valley defeated Richland, 58-54, in the 2018 championship game at Mt. Aloysius.

“The kids want this game bad,” Berger said. “They’ve wanted it for a while now. But Richland wants us, too.”

Especially in light of last season’s heartbreaking loss in which Ligonier Valley converted 20 of 23 foul shots, including 5 of 6 from guard Michael Marinchak in the final 32 seconds that sealed the victory.

“They’re a good team,” Berger said of Richland. “It’s going to take a big effort from us because they play really well as a team.”

The Richland Rams, after losing to Ligonier Valley in the district championship game, marched all the way to the PIAA final, losing to District 12 champion Neumann-Goretti, 57-42.

They clinched a spot in the title game with a 54-52 victory over District 3 runner up Lancaster Mennonite, which beat Ligonier Valley, 65-60, in a PIAA first-round game.

Top seed Ligonier Valley (22-2), which is led by center Marrek Paola and his 27 points and 13 rebounds per game, carries a five-game winning streak after defeating No. 5 Bellwood-Antis, 65-45, on Tuesday in the nightcap of a semifinals doubleheader at Central Cambria.

Paola, a Seton Hill commit, led the way for the Rams with 30 points and 19 rebounds.

“I’m definitely shooting the ball the best I’ve ever shot it this year,” Paola said. “I’ve been able to step out at times a little more and get some 3-point shots down. The game is expanding to a point where big guys are hitting 3s.”

No. 2 Richland (19-6), which will be making its third consecutive appearance in the championship game, eliminated No. 3 Forest Hills, 50-35, in the semifinals for its third victory in a row.

Richland last lost Feb. 16 to Class 2A Bishop Guilfoyle, 58-51, in overtime in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference championship game.

“It’s going to be a heckuva fight,” said Berger, who coached Ligonier Valley to a two-year record of 30-16 from 2011-13 before taking over the program again this season.

The game perhaps will take on an added incentive for both schools.

Richland defeated Ligonier Valley in the District 6-3A football championship game in the fall, preventing the Rams from making a third consecutive appearance in the PIAA playoffs.

Richland wide receiver Caleb Burke is the point guard in basketball and, like in football, is an intricate piece of the team’s success. He scored a game-high 24 points against Forest Hills in the semifinals.

“He makes them go. He’s the quarterback (for the basketball team),” said Berger, whose birthday comes roughly four years after he suffered a heart attack brought on by a hereditary condition.

A former Ligonier Valley standout himself, Ligonier police chief Berger recovered from the heart attack Aug. 13, 2015, when doctors inserted a stent.

“I’m feeling fine. I’m excited for our guys and for the chance to play for a championship,” Berger said. “Even though we’re guaranteed to play in the PIAA playoffs, it would mean more to me to win a District 6 championship.”

Berger said Ligonier Valley’s 66-42 victory over West Shamokin in the Heritage Conference championship game Feb. 8 at IUP was a good primer for the rest of the postseason.

“It’s going to be a big stage again,” he said. “Playing at IUP helped us to get ready for this moment. We need not to get worked up. We need to just play our game.”


More Basketball

WPIAL reveals section alignments for 2024-25, 2025-26 winter sports seasons
Former Norwin star Jenna Lusby hired as Jeannette girls basketball coach
7-time WPIAL champion coach Spencer Stefko steps down at North Allegheny
Mike Iuzzolino takes over Sewickley Academy boys basketball program
Belle Vernon hires former Shaler, Gateway coach to lead girls basketball program