By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
MERCER COUNTY —
In some regards, it seems as though it took place a long time ago ...
When West Middlesex High boys basketball team was beaten by Beaver Falls, 50-41, at New Castle’s Tipoff Tourney Dec. 7, 2012 the PIAA football championships were a week away.
Conversely, it seems difficult to fathom a full calendar year has passed since West Middlesex was within seconds of advancing to the commonwealth’s Class A title tilt before suffering a last-second setback to Lincoln Park Charter, 47-45.
But the Big Reds (25-3) gained a reprieve today at 7 p.m. at Sharon High, meeting Beaver Falls (26-3) for the Class AA western regional crown.
“I’ve been coaching fourteen years and this is my fifth western final. ... This is a fun game. I don’t know why else you’d do this if not for these last two games,” reasoned Tigers’ taskmaster Doug Biega.
West Middlesex has won 21 consecutive contests en route to Region 2-AA and District 10 championships, establishing a school single-season standard for wins. The Big Reds boast Matt Dogan, Mercer County’s career scoring leader (2,228) as the linchpin of its playoff-experienced rotation.
Beaver Falls is ... Beaver Falls — one of the WPIAL’s most proud programs, as any old-school Section 3 aficionado will recall.
Not unlike West Middlesex, however, the 2011-12 Tigers were tormented by their own season-ending tumult — a 56-54 overtime loss to Imhotep Charter in the Keystone State AA title tilt.
So from an emotional standpoint, which team has the edge?
“We always look at that Lincoln Park game — we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t,” admitted 14th-year Middlesex mentor Chad Mild. “That was heartbreaking for our kids, especially the seniors.
“And,” Mild emphasized, “we don’t want that feeling ever again. That’s been our momentum every day we prepare ... the long hours ...
“All I’ve got to do is mention ‘Lincoln Park,’ and that gets (the Big Reds’) attention. So we’re going into (tonight’s) game knowing that we don’t want to experience that feeling again,” Mild added.
About 3è months ago starters Trey Staunch, Jeremy Jancso and Roman Klaric were only a week removed from playing in the D-10 Class A football championship game. Not a veiled alibi, the Big Reds recorded sub-par 20-for-51 shooting against Beaver Falls. Even the dominant Dogan did not reach double digits for the only time this season, shooting 3 for 19.
“(Drew) Cook’s a basketball-only guy, and Dogan’s a basketball-only guy ... other than that I think you had a lot of football/athlete-type guys trying to feel their way around,” Biega offered.
Mild mused, “I think we’re shooting the ball better. Guys are stepping up, like Christian Porterfield, Jerrod Palmer, and Ryan Dogan coming off the bench. Our shooting’s better now. And I think, obviously, guys know their roles better after twenty-eight games They all have a defined role.”
But Beaver Falls is better, too, led by athletic 6-foot-3 Elijah Cottrill, who collected a game-high 15 points — 9 during the 4th frame, in spite of a high-ankle sprain — in that earlier meeting.
“I think our whole team’s playing better,” Biega echoed. We graduated six or seven of our top eight from a defending WPIAL championship team in 2012, so not only were some kids playing into shape, but they were learning — as was I — the strengths and weaknesses of this version of our team.
“But, absolutely,” Biega said, “everybody’s playing better, and I’m sure Chad would say the same.”
“I thought that night we had some guys just coming out of football, but we still had our chances to take control, but didn’t,” Mild admitted. “I think it was 29-29 (entering the 4th frame), but we failed to score on three possessions.”
Cottrill’s cast of companions complements him as does Dogan’s. Cook canned a game-high 19 points and Danny Stratton scored 15 (Cottrill 14) in the Tigers’ triumph over Lakeview (56-44) in the regional semifinals.
“Cook and Cottrill are doing that they’re supposed to do. They’re a very good backcourt,” Biega praised.
“I think they’re distributing the ball better and attacking the hoop better from that first time,” Mild said in assessing the Tigers. “It’s a dribble-drive offense they’re using, and they’ll kick the ball out for three’s. And they have five scorers on the floor at one time.
“The first time we played them they didn’t pressure us a whole lot ’cause they got in foul trouble, so they settled into a 2-3 zone,” Mild recalled. “But from that night on they’ve been full-court, man-to-man, pressuring everybody. They call it their ‘Jet’ press. But we’re used to playing against that style, and we’re not shying away form it. We saw that with Youngstown East and Farrell, so we’re well prepared for that pressure they’ll bring.”
Middlesex made only 11 miscues in that earlier meeting, but 4 during the 4th quarter when the Big Reds also missed 9 of 15 floor shots. Dogan drove for a score with 2:06 remaining in the 3rd period, knotting the count at 27. But Dogan did not score again that night.
For his part Mild admitted, “We’re excited. They’re ranked number one in the state (Harrisburg Patriot-News), so I think this’ll be the first time all year that we’re coming in as the underdog.”
Beaver Falls has become a force in Class AA with Biega as bench boss. The Tigers were toppled by Sto-Rox in 2004, then won three consecutive WPIAL crowns. Then this more recent run.
“I absolutely think (past postseason) experience could be an advantage,” Biega began. “We’ve been in this situation a lot. But this West Middlesex team is a unique team. I don’t know about them from when they were younger, but it seems like they’ve always been succesful, they’ve been groomed to make the run they made last year and this year.
“So I’m sure they’re seen by their community as a group that can get after something special,” Biega said.
The outcome, Mild said, will come down to “ ... defintely a part of execution. We know who we are and what we want to do, and we know what they want to do. So it comes down to who executes better, who does what they do best on that night.”
“That’s what all big games come down to — execution,” Biega agreed. “The team that executes better, defends better. But,” Biega cautioned, “if we get ‘mauled’ on the glass, if (the Big Reds) beat us up on the glass it’ll be an uphill battle for us.
“I’m sure they’ll be trying to limit their turnovers against our pressure, but they had an advantage in size and rebounding.
“The key to the game,” Biega offered, “is whomeve makes better mental plays down the stretch and limits their turnovers.”
Given the circumstances, personnel and chemistry, it’s not lost on Mild — tonight may be a once-in-a-lifetime.
“ ... We couldn’t ask for a better opportunity. We’ve worked hard to position ourselves to get to the state championship game, and we’re goin’ in with the expectation of winning this game,” Mild said adding,
“I know we believe in our hearts we’re as good as them and we can beat them — that’s what we’re taking away from having beaten them once (60-58, in the ’11-12 New Castle Tipoff tourney).
“I think the experience advantage is negligible,” Biega observed. “I think they see themselves, and their town sees them, as a team of destiny.
“The bottom line is they’re very good,” Biega praised. “Being battle-tested may be a checkmark in our column, but West Middlesex is a very good team.”
Not surprisingly on a Sunday, Mild was making his way to study film. But a day removed from his club’s 60-46 conquest of Conemaugh Twp., not boastfully, but matter-of-factly, Mild admitted,
“ ... Our confidence is through the roof right now.”