6 Alle-Kiski Valley basketball teams play waiting game for PIAA playoff spots

Sunday, February 24, 2019 | 8:15 PM

A rubber match of sorts between Section 3-A rivals Leechburg and St. Joseph takes place in Monday’s WPIAL Class A boys basketball semifinals. One team will advance, the other will see its season end.

Just one thing: The Blue Devils and Spartans have no say in the matter, no control of their destiny. Instead, they will be spectators, waiting to see what happens in the semifinal game between No. 1 Vincentian and No. 4 Monessen.

It’s a common feeling for WPIAL basketball teams that lose in the quarterfinals, as Leechburg and St. Joseph did (Leechburg to Vincentian and St. Joseph to Monessen). Because of the WPIAL’s follow-the-leader format, teams that lose in the quarterfinals remain alive for the PIAA tournament pending results from later playoff rounds.

As much as Leechburg and St. Joseph were looking forward to a potential Round 3 after splitting a pair of thrilling games during the regular season, now they’re cheering on other teams.

“I told (Vincentian’s) coach after the game, ‘Good game, of course we were both trying to win, but now I’m rooting for you guys,’ ” Leechburg coach Corey Smith said. “I said, ‘Do me a favor and beat Monessen.’ ”

Six Alle-Kiski Valley teams find themselves in the space between the end of the season or the continuation of it, and all face specific scenarios:

Fox Chapel needs Mt. Lebanon to win the WPIAL championship in Class 6A boys after losing to the Blue Devils on Saturday. Knoch needs the same from Quaker Valley in the Class 4A boys bracket.

• The Deer Lakes girls and Leechburg/St. Joseph boys will find out their fates based on what happens in the semifinals. Deer Lakes qualifies for the state playoffs if South Park beats Shady Side Academy on Wednesday to advance to the WPIAL Class 3A championship game and is eliminated with a Shady Side Academy win. Leechburg makes the state playoffs if Vincentian beats Monessen on Monday and is eliminated if Monessen wins. St. Joseph makes the playoffs if Monessen wins and is eliminated with a Vincentian victory.

• The Deer Lakes boys, who lost to North Catholic in the Class 3A boys quarterfinals, face the most complicated situation. The Lancers will get in if North Catholic beats Aliquippa in the semifinals Monday. But even if Aliquippa beats North Catholic, Deer Lakes remains alive. It could still get in if Aliquippa wins the WPIAL title.

“It’s a very hard place to be in for the next week,” Deer Lakes girls basketball coach Dave Petruska said. “But if things do go our way Wednesday night and South Park does end up beating Shady Side, then we’ll be right back at it Thursday, given new life and looking to take advantage of it.”

In previous years, the WPIAL held play-in games to determine which teams would make the state tournament, but it reverted to the follow-the-leader format in the 2017 postseason, when the PIAA expanded to six classifications in basketball.

Because of issues like availability of facilities and officials, the WPIAL continued to maintain the follow-the-leader format for a third consecutive postseason, although some coaches would like to see the play-in games return.

“There’s no question, I would be 100 percent into playing to earn your spot into the (No.) 5 and 6 seed,” St. Joseph coach Kelly Robinson said. “Because now you have destiny in your own hands. Not only do your earn your spot and take your destiny into your own hands, but you also keep your team focused and fresh, and you’re playing that Monday or Tuesday. It keeps you going.”

Because PIAA tournament games don’t begin until March 8 or 9, some WPIAL quarterfinal losers will sit for two weeks or more in between games.

“(With play-in games) there would be no skipping a beat,” Petruska said. “We would be getting right back after it and focusing on another task at hand. Instead, we have to just sit and watch.”

What happens is teams are left in what Deer Lakes boys coach Terence Parham called “limbo” — do they practice or not? Smith and Parham said they planned to gather players for a practice Monday, even before the semifinal games. Petruska and Robinson said they would give their teams time off as they awaited their fates.

“We don’t like rooting for the other team, but we’ve got to root for North (Catholic) on Monday, and, obviously, if they’re able to do that, then we go,” Parham said. “But on the flip side, if they lose, then we’ve got to wait to see what Aliquippa does. It’s a tough thing to balance. It’s a chess match, and, hopefully, we make the right moves and keep the guys fresh and into it.”

Another complication of the in-between life is what coaches tell their team after the quarterfinal losses.

“You tell the kids how much you love them and how grateful you were to be a part of the season they gave you,” Robinson said. “My kids gave me such a memorable season, something I’ll never forget, and I know the positive feelings they have for the season. You almost have to say your goodbyes that moment, and then you turn around and say if Monessen wins, I’ll see you on Tuesday. It’s an odd situation.”

Two things are for sure: First, the coaches of in-limbo teams will follow the semifinals closely, whether in person — Petruska joked he would be sitting in the stands at South Park’s semifinal game, wearing a blue shirt — or remotely.

The other? Even if it takes another team to get them into the PIAA tournament, those teams will love to get another opportunity.

“It’s a heck of an accomplishment,” said Smith, whose Blue Devils got pulled into the state playoffs last season by Sewickley Academy. “It’s a credit to the kids for working their tail off all year long, all summer long, preseason. Everything that we work for, everything that we do day-in and day-out, hard work pays off.”

Doug Gulasy is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Doug at 412-388-5830, dgulasy@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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