Yough girls charging toward playoffs during breakthrough season

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Wednesday, February 1, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Mike Gerdich, walking gingerly in front of his team’s bench, watches a loose basketball roll out of bounds and into the near corner during a home game against Charleroi.

He makes his way to the ball, bends down with a cringe and grunts under his breath, “Oh, that hurt,” as he bounces the ball to an official.

The Yough girls basketball coach has been dealing with severe lower back pain since October. Lower back pain that has been so bad, he has needed to sit cross-legged at some workouts.

He has been jabbed multiple times with anti-inflammatory and trigger-point injections. But the pain comes back like a Monday morning.

At home, he has to lie down to find relief.

“I haven’t been able to go to work, so I’ve been working from home,” Gerdich said. “It hurts to sit on the bench for too long, and it hurts to move.”

A former McKeesport and Saint Vincent player, Gerdich used to be a force around the basket. He was known for his toughness.

While it takes all he has to stand for 32-minute games and two-hour practices, he won’t miss time with his girls.

That’s because he knows the program has felt pain, too.

Making the WPIAL playoffs for the first time in 13 years won’t heal Gerdich’s back problems — offseason surgery looks to be the only solution — but for the Cougars, it’s a benchmark for which they have been longing.

Yough (10-8) has secured its first WPIAL playoff berth in over a decade and is on track for its first winning season since 2009-10.

“We have an opportunity,” the sixth-year coach said. “We knew the possibility was there. It’s a great way to send our seniors off. It would be amazing for the girls to experience that.”

In 2020-21, the WPIAL had an open tournament as the covid pandemic face-guarded the league. Any team could enter the postseason tournaments. Come one, come all.

Yough, though, caught the bug. Masked up and following protocol, some players tested positive, and the team could not participate in the free-for-all.

“We talk about the playoffs and what it would be like to finally make it,” said senior Laney Gerdich, Mike’s daughter. “It’s something we have all worked for. We knew we had a chance to make it this year.”

Yough proudly holds up its 10 wins. You would, too, if you had won 11 games combined from 2013-20.

The program has been an afterthought come playoff time. But this year’s team suddenly sits a game back of first-place Waynesburg (15-2, 5-2), a team it beat 44-38, with three section games to go: at Waynesburg, at McGuffey and against South Park.

The top four teams in each section qualify for the playoffs.

The social-climbing Cougars think it’s their turn.

“We’re getting there,” coach Gerdich said. “It’s taken awhile, but we’re getting there.”

Yough has won four straight and six of eight, with arguably its best game coming Monday in Herminie when the Cougars took care of Charleroi, 54-38, behind a second-half performance that was nearly flawless.

The Cougars worked the ball around the horn — it hardly hit the floor — and created high-percentage shots in the process.

“These young ladies are finding a way to win,” Mike Gerdich said. “They’re gaining confidence and making stops.”

Yough plays old-school basketball, running half-court sets and utilizing true post players.

While so many teams are known for their guards, Yough is built on front-court skill and grit.

Laney Gerdich is a 6-foot forward/center who has been a tough matchup for opponents because she plays like her father.

“There aren’t a lot of post players now,” she said. “You look around, and everyone is a stretch and they want to shoot 3s. I love playing in the post.”

Said Mike Gerdich: “We have some horses. I’m a post player: Pound the ball inside.”

Yough has also received big minutes from 5-10 sophomore forward Hailey Bock, 5-8 junior forward Autumn Matthews and 5-7 senior guard Mikalah Chewning.

A blue-collar approach has helped Yough grind out wins. The team averages just 37.7 points but only gives up 35.9.

“We have had games where we’ve had a ton of turnovers, and that has to come down,” he said. “But we have made up for it in other ways.”

For instance, Yough had 32 turnovers against Brownsville, almost as many points it scored. Yough won, 35-28.

“It starts with our defense,” Matthews said. “And when we share the ball, we play our best.

“I think this could be our year.”

Mike Gerdich said he won’t let his back pain deter him from his commitment to coach.

“I want to come back if they’ll have me,” he said about next season. “I have to make sure everything is OK health-wise. If I can’t give all of me, that’s not fair to the girls.”

Gerdich would bend over backwards for Yough, if only he could.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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