By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
INDIANA — Like a pack of panthers poised to pounce, West Middlesex High boys basketball team waited at Ed Fry Arena’s midcourt during Saturday’s matinee.
Its halftime locker room chalk talk and warm-ups completed, the Big Reds were ready to roar after a lackluster 1st half during Saturday’s PIAA Class AA western regional semifinal with Conemaugh Twp.
“The most important minutes of basketball, we always talk about, are the first two minutes of the third quarter, and our kids came out focused that third quarter,” assessed West Middlesex mentor Chad Mild, whose Big Reds recorded a 60-46 win.
By virtue of the victory at Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Kovalchick Convo and Athletic Complex, West Middlesex (25-3) moved into the west region championship game for a 2nd straight season.
West Middlesex also advanced a step ahead of the program’s single-season wins record, surpassing the 1990 team (24-5) of coach Nick Cannone, prolific sharpshooter Rick Ladjevich, and a feisty guard by the name of Chad Mild.
“Definitely, this is more gratifying. I love to see our kids succeed. It’s what it’s all about,” Mild admitted. “I’ve got a special group, they believe in each other, our community’s proud of them. And, you know, it’s not just about the wins; it’s about the camaraderie that we’ve shared over the last four years with this senior group.
“It’s just the journey of getting to where we want to be.”
Despite a 7-for-25 1st-half shooting performance, Middlesex maintained a 20-14 margin at intermission. Conemaugh connected on only 5 of 32 floor shots and the Indians went almost 4 full minutes without a score. After drawing within 15-12 on Dillon Boyer’s bomb from the left wing, Conemaugh did not convert again until Josh Burns’ putback of his own miss with 2:38 left in the half. That drew the Tribe within 15-14.
However a 5-point swing ensued. Christian Porterfield pumped in a corner triple – courtesy of Trey Staunch’s kick-out pass – with 1:5:1 left. Then after Boyer’s miss, Matt Dogan drove for a score with 71 ticks remaining to intermission.
“We felt in the locker room that we left some shots out there that we just didn’t finish,” Mild admitted. “So the start of the third quarter I thought we were really explosive and got to the rim and finished.”
Middlesex maintained it momentum during the 3rd period. Dogan divided 8 points with Staunch and Jerrod Palmer pumped in a triple. Then during the quarter’s waning seconds, Matt Dogan drove the length of the floor after hauling in a defensive rebound, appearing primed to finish; instead, he kicked out to his kid brother Ryan waiting in the corner, and the frosh flushed another trey at the horn. That built the Big Reds’ bulge to 36-26 entering the 4th frame.
Conemaugh closed within 43-36 with 4:02 left on Burns’ traditional 3-point play following a backcourt steal. But 11 seconds later Staunch and Jeremy Jancso collaborated. Staunch dished out a team-high 4 assists.
The 4th frame was a familiar refrain: A dose of Dogan doing his damage from the free-throw line. He converted 15 of 16 attempts – 19 of 20 in all – en route to a game-high 28-point performance that also included a team-high 11 caroms, 1 more than Conemaugh’s Jeff Fisher.
“Matt’s a special player. He’s the reason why we’re in the western finals,” Mild praised. “He’s a game-player, and he wants the ball in his hands, and shoots a very high percentage from the free-throw line.”
While Middlesex manufactured only a middling 15 of 42 from the field, the Big Reds recorded 26 of 29 free-throw attempts. Conversely, Conemaugh – with no starter taller than 6-foot-3 Jeremy Sotosky -- made only 18 of 50 floor shots, many with a defender impeding sight lines.
“With their length, they forced us to do some things we didn’t have to do all year long,” allowed Chuck Lesko, Conemaugh head coach. “I give them all the credit in the world. They made it tough on us, and it was an uphill battle from the get-go.
“Our kids played hard, and I’m proud of them – they never quit,” Lesko emphasized. “But when it gets down to the end and number thirty-one’s (Matt Dogan) on the foul line, he’s pretty much ‘money.’ We knew that going in, but he still got there. But, you come, you take your chance, and we did that.”
In addition to Dogan, Staunch scored 16 – 6 for 6 from the charity stripe – and snared 6 caroms. The Big Reds made 14 miscues, 4 more than the Tribe. But Conemaugh could not compensate for its cold shooting.
“We scouted these guys the last couple weeks … and that was one of the things we thought we could do, was use our length,” Mild admitted. “And we wanted to force these guys (Conemaugh) to the middle. A lot of people forced them to the baseline; we forced them into the middle, where we had help, into our length, and I thought we did a nice job defensively.”
“ … Conemaugh was very well prepared and well-coached, I thought their kids were a class act, “ Mild praised.
Reflecting back about 23 years, Mild mused, “We got beat at the old Pitt Field House, I believe, by Washington. That would’ve been 1990, my junior year. We had a very good player – Ricky Ladjevich – and Russell Kelley, who actually played here at IUP.
“We got beat by Washington. But this is nice,” Mild continued. “I’ve been in this situation as a coach, also, a few times. It’s nice to get over this hurdle – the ‘Elite Eight’ – and make it to the west finals.”
PIAA CLASS AA
WESTERN REGION QUARTERFINALS
W.MIDDLESEX 15 5 16 24 60
CONEMAUGH 8 6 12 20 46
WEST MIDDLESEX — M.Dogan 4-19-20-28, Klaric 0-0-2-0, Staunch 5-6-6-16, Jancso 3-1-1-7, Palmer 1-0-0-3, C.Porterfield 1-0-0-3, Ginther 0-0-0-0, R.Dogan 1-0-0-3, J.Porterfield 0-0-0-0, Williams 0-0-0-0, Long 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goals: M.Dogan 1, C.Porterfield 1, Palmer 1, R.Dogan 1. Totals: 15-26-29-60.
CONEMAUGH TOWNSHIP — Boyer 7-2-2-16, Burns 5-4-4-14, Sotosky 3-1-2-7, Spiegle 0-0-0-0, Fisher 3-2-3-9, Callihan 0-0-0-0, Steeves 0-0-0-0, Mauer 0-0-0-0, Wilson 0-0-0-0. 3-pt. goal: Fisher 1. Totals: 18-9-11-46.