By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
With the approaching spring, a young man’s fancy turns to ... what else? The PIAA playoffs. And when Shenango Valley scholastic basketball aficionados think of the postseason they think of Farrell.
Recently at E.J. McCluskey Gymnasium, the banners above were blowing in the breeze — ’52 ... ’54 ... ’56 ... ’59 ... ’60 ... ’69 ... ’72 — swaying as sprinting players created a vacuum of air rising from the floor. Melodramatic maybe, but there’s a feeling at Farrell that harkens back to the heyday when playoff success was a rite of passage.
The District 10 champion Steelers (22-3) meet Montour (16-8) in the opening round of the Class AAA tournament, 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sharon High.
“We’ve put in the hard work, so I think we deserve it,” assessed senior spokesman Dewayne Burns. “Since last February to now, I think we’ve been doing a great job. Every day we come out here and strive to be great, and we’ve been very successful.”
“It feels great,” admitted 11th-year Steelers’ skipper Roland Shannonhouse.
Shannonhouse was coached by Frank Sincek ... who played for, then coached under, then succeeded McCluskey ... who forged Farrell’s 7 state championships. Sincek now serves as one of Shannonhouse’s assistants. While pausing from a recent pracitice conducted by Sincek, Bobby Stewart, Marco Miller and Tim Odem, Shannonhouse related,
“You step back and look at it, and you feel the ‘buzz’ around town, what you hear around town and the things you hear at school.
“But I think what we’re failing to realize sometimes,” Shannonhouse emphasized, “ ... this triple-A/single-A thing (Farrell will be competing in Class A next year), I get that question all the time. But I think people fail to realize: What we’re doin’ here is pretty difficult. You’re talking about a small single-A school that’s competing against triple-A schools night in and night out. It can’t be done alone.
“I think we forget that sometimes,” Shannonhouse reiterated. “You need full cooperation from the administration, you need full cooperation from the parents, from the community, the fans. I mean, we need everybody working together with these guys, to come together and to have the type of season that we’re having.
“All we need now,” Shannonhouse continued, “is for them to finish strong, and that’s what we tell our kids: Finish strong. But we still need the administration, we still need the fans, we still need everyone — the parents — everyone to keep pitching in and to keep the guys in line, keep them positive, keep them confident, and hopefully, we can take this thing somewhere.”
In the last 3-plus seasons Montour has morphed into a monster.
The Spartans secured WPIAL championships in 2011 and 2013 and twice advanced to the PIAA championship game. Montour mustered respective marks of 23-8 in ’10-11 (losing to Philadelphia’s Neumann-Goretti, 55-45); 24-5 in ’11-12 (losing to Hampton in the WPIAL Tournament semifinals, then bowing to Neumann-Goretti again, 48-45), and 25-5 a year ago (winning the WPIAL, but bowing to Philadelphia’s Archbishop Carroll (50-45) in the state semis. They were led by point guard Devin Wilson, who matriculated at Virginia Tech University.
This year the Spartans suffered a WPIAL tourney quarterfinal-round setback to eventual champion Central Valley (50-38).
“They’re similar, maybe, to a Girard-style of basketball,” Shannonhouse assessed. “They have a six-six kid (Dustin Sleva) that can play a little bit inside. We’re gonna have to try to get him uncomfortable, push him out away from the lane, and speed the game up. That’s been our strength all year — speeding that game up.
“If we play slow-down basketball, we struggle; if we let that (opposing) teams get comfortable on offense, we struggle. So we really have to speed ’em up, turn ’em over, use our speed getting up and down to try and get this one,” Shannonhouse said.
“We’ve just got to stay together, move fast and play defense,” Burns said.
Farrell faced a variety in its trio of D-10 tourney triumphs: overtime (Girard, 63-60); rallying from a huge deficit (18 points with 4:51 remaining, to edge Strong Vincent, 71-69), and a back-and-forth flow (83-78 over Erie-East). Having survived each scenario should serve the Steelers, Shannonhouse said.
“I think it was something we really needed. Throughout the course of the year, you’re playing twenty-plus games before you get to the playoffs, and you’re talking about, maybe, two or three close games that we played in, and we actually struggled in those games.
“I thought in the District 10 tournament we had to knuckle down, do some different things as far as personnel and effective play. And I thought it really helped us, and I’m hoping we’re now better prepared and more confident, ready to go out there and face any challenge and in the fourth quarter have a chance to win it.”
Forecasting Farrell’s future brought Burns back to his youth.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted a state championship in football and basketball. When we were younger, we all played together as kids, and we all had big dreams of winning state championships with each other. Right now, I think we can do that.”
“ ... (Seniors Ike Jones, Tyrone Archie, Chris James and Tionté Davis) are like my close brothers ... everybody on the team is like my brother, but those guys (fellow seniors) are special to me,” Burns said.
Shannonhouse said his seniors are special to him, as well.
“Deserve. I think they deserve it,” Shannonhouse said of the statewide stage and PIAA pedestal. “For what they have done, how they have succeeded so far, they’ve really earned it.
“I was corrected the other day,” a smiling Shannonhouse said. “I said we started last March and (junior point guard) Jamel Brown said, ‘Wait a minute, coach. We started in February.’ And that’s why they’re getting what they have. It’s been a phenomenal ride for them because they worked so hard to get here.
“Some of these guys haven’t taken a day off in over a year now,” Shannonhouse continued, “and to be playing at this time of year, after what those guys did this past summer, selfishly, it can only help the program in the future. The younger guys will see what it takes in order to have this type of success, they know they have to get in the gym ... It’s just been a God-send for us, and we’ve really been blessed as far as the future of the program’s concerned.”