Quick Ligonier Valley boys look to make a run to another district title

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Monday, December 2, 2019 | 5:50 PM


You won’t see Ligonier Valley police chief John Berger handling out any speeding tickets in the Ligonier Valley High School gymnasium this winter.

That’s because speeding is allowed by the boys basketball team when it is playing for Berger, who also is the boys coach.

If Ligonier Valley wants to reach the PIAA District 6 Class 3A basketball championship game for a third consecutive season, it will be the team’s speed on defense that will get it there.

The Rams defeated Richland in the 2017-18 championship game, and Richland turned the tables in 2018-19 with an overtime win, 68-64.

“It was our worst shooting night of the season, and we still took the game into overtime,” Berger said. “That loss stung. It took us a while to bounce back.”

The Rams (20-4 last season) are poised to make another run in 2019-20. They return four starters: senior guard Michael Marinchak, senior guard Jaxon Ludwig, junior forward Issac Neidbalson and sophomore forward Matthew Marinchak.

Berger will have to find replacements for 6-foot-6 center Marrek Paola, now at Seton Hill, and guard Aaron Tutino, who is playing football at St. Francis.

Players expected to fill key roles are seniors Cooper Mills and Kyle Silk, junior Derek Fox and sophomore Jude Grzywinski. Silk played at United last season.

Because Paola was such a force in the paint, the Rams offense went through him. This year’s squad is a little smaller but a lot quicker.

“I can’t believe how quick we are,” Berger said. “I feel we’ll be able to use eight to 10 players. The team speed will be beneficial.”

Michael Marinchak is returning for his fourth season as a starter. He and Paola made a strong 1-2 punch for the Rams. Now it’s his time to shine, and he knows defense is the key.

“We’re quick. We’re really quick,” Marinchak said. “We’re going to be up in guys’ faces. We’re going to be all over teams. We lost Marrek. Now we’re just fast.”

Paola averaged 26.8 points and 16.9 rebounds last season. He finished with a school-record 1,912 points, 1,059 rebounds and 204 blocks and was Tribune-Review Player of the Year.

Michael Marinchak was an All-Heritage Conference player and made the Trib’s first team. He scored 16 points per game. He’s one of the area’s slickest-passing guards and helped Rams average more than 70 points.

Matthew Marinchak made the Tribune-Review’s second team. He averaged more than 10 points per game.

“I’m counting on Michael to be a leader,” Berger said. “It’s his time to step up.”

Michael Marinchak plays with a lot of emotion, but he said he’s confident he’ll be able to keep it under control.

“I definitely want to be the leader of this team,” he said. “I want to help the younger guys so when I leave, they can continue the legacy.

“We expect to win the conference again with this squad. We’ve been working hard every day. I think we’re ready to go. The ultimate goal is the district title game and our first win in state history.”

Ligonier Valley, which again will be favored to win the Heritage Conference, plays Dec. 10 at Penns Manor. Barring an unexpected development, this will be the Rams’ final season in District 6. They await a vote from the PIAA on Wednesday that will formalize their entry into the WPIAL.

Berger has the team in three tournaments where he expects tough competition. The Rams open the season Friday against returning WPIAL Class A champion Nazareth Prep at the Derry tournament. On Saturday, the Rams face Kiski Area.

Ligonier Valley also is in the Hollidaysburg tournament Dec. 13 where it will face Susquehannock from District 3. The Rams are in the Purchase Line tournament Dec. 27-28.

Berger said he hopes the tough non-conference schedule will prepare the team for a late-season run.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Paul by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

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