The time is now for the Titusville Rockets boys and Maplewood Tigers girls basketball teams. There are no more consolation games to be played. It’s win or go home. Tonight, basketball teams across the state will be fighting to keep their seasons alive as PIAA Tournament action begins.
Titusville travels to Wexford to face the District 7 champions, the New Castle Red Hurricane, at North Allegheny High School at 7:30 p.m., in a Class 4A contest. Maplewood heads north to Edinboro University to battle the Bishop Canevin Crusaders in a Class 2A affair beginning at 5 p.m. Here is an inside look into each matchup:
Titusville Rockets vs. New Castle Red Hurricane
Being the underdog is nothing new to the Rockets. In fact, they’ve flourished in that role this season. Not many expected Titusville to win its region, advance through the district playoffs and make the state tournament. Rockets coach Craig Mehlenbacher has said his team takes it all as a “challenge.”
“These kids have worked extremely hard to get to this point,” Mehlenbacher said. “We’ve been underdogs all season. Since [some members of the media] predicted us to finish last in region, people have been counting us out. No one expected us to do what we did in the district playoffs. This group of boys wants to prove everyone wrong.”
The Rockets are coming off a tightly contested affair against the Harbor Creek Huskies in the District 10 Consolation Game where Titusville held on to a 68-65 victory at Oil City High School on March 1. Looking for its first ever PIAA tournament victory, Titusville will have its hands full again tonight when the club plays in its fourth state tournament game in school history.
New Castle has established itself as a perennial PIAA contender over the last decade since head coach Ralph Blundo took over the program. Across the past nine seasons, New Castle has won six district titles and qualified for the state tournament in each year. The program has 23 PIAA appearances to its record, won about two-thirds (41-21) of its PIAA games played and made four championship contests — the only title coming in the 2014 campaign over La Salle, 53-39. Last year, New Castle was knocked out by Sharon in the quarterfinals, 53-42.
The 2018-19 installment of the team won the school’s 13th district championship, tying Farrell for the most in WPIAL history. The Red Hurricane’s 60-54 victory over Quaker Valley in the title game on March 2 at the Peterson Events Center not only clinched the program’s third straight district title, but it also avenged two prior regular-season conference losses to the Quakers.
Like Titusville, New Castle has the ability to make buckets from short and long range. Brothers Sheldon and Drew Cox have paced the New Castle attack this season, scoring 309 and 304 points, respectively. Sheldon Cox, a 6-foot, 2-inch sophomore made a team-high 51 3-pointers, while Drew Cox, a 6-foot, 1-inch senior, scored the majority of his points from short range. Freshman Michael Wells and junior Demetris McKnight also had strong campaigns with 272 and 285 points, respectively. Wells made 41 triples to this point in the season, while senior Donte Burnett is also a threat from long range with 30 made 3’s on the year.
“It’s a group effort on their end,” Mehlenbacher said. “They are the true definition of a team. There’s not one person you can key on so you just have to go out there and adjust to the hot hand.”
During this week in practice, Titusville has been “trying a bunch of things,” according to Mehlenbacher, in order to match up with New Castle. Both teams like to run up and down the floor to keep the pace of the game up-tempo, which is a contrast from Titusville’s last opponent in Harbor Creek. Being a physical team has also been a focus in practice for the Rockets.
“We’ve got to be physical,” Mehlenbacher said. “New Castle is a very physical team. When watching the film, when their opponents lost physically at some point in the game, New Castle took control. We have to keep our composure because they like to press a lot. They’ve got three or four different presses.
“They get penetration and push the ball,” Mehlenbacher continued. “Our region was quite similar to that, so we’re used to it. I’d much rather play against a team like us that is up-tempo.”
New Castle has experience on its side, but the team also has more familiarity with the venue. The Red Hurricane played two games at North Allegheny High School during the WPIAL playoffs — quarterfinal and semifinal victories over Ringgold and Highlands, respectively. Although Titusville as a unit hasn’t played together in Wexford, members of the team have played at the venue through AAU basketball.
“You have to prepare them mentally as much as you can,” Mehlenbacher said. “They got a taste of that at districts with the heavier media, bigger crowds and larger gyms. It’s going to be a lot of the same. [New Castle] has a ton of fans, so we have to roll with the punches. We have to just relax, go out there and play our game.”
No matter the outcome, the 2018-19 Rockets have accomplished something that only three other teams in the history of the program can say they’ve done — make the PIAA playoffs. Donning the Brown and Gold at states is a “honor” that Mehlenbacher’s team is well aware of.
“Our guys are more honored than anything,” Mehlenbacher said. “They just feel honored that they’ve made it this far and have been able to represent the town of Titusville.”
Maplewood Tigers vs. Bishop Canevin Crusaders
The Maplewood Tigers girls basketball team will be making its sixth trip to the PIAA Tournament in school history tonight, and is looking to snap a five-game PIAA losing streak. With a victory against Bishop Canevin, the Tigers would pick up their second state tournament victory in school history and first since the 1994 first round when Maplewood beat Geibel Catholic, 61-52.
Maplewood enters this year’s Class 2A tournament as the second seed out of District 10 for the first time in program history. All five previous trips to the dance came as the third seed. This will also be the closest Maplewood has played to home in a state playoff contest. Edinboro University is just over 20 miles away from Guys Mills, while Bishop Canevin has a much longer jaunt of about 114 miles from its home court.
Bishop Canevin has had a little more luck on the PIAA scene over the course of the program’s history. The Crusaders won the state championship in 2013 with a 45-38 victory over York Catholic, and were the state runner-ups in each of the past two seasons to Neumann-Goretti.
Maplewood coach Kyle Krepps believes his team won’t be fazed by the big stage of a state playoff game, or by the daunting opponent, and has told his Tigers to “embrace” tonight’s contest.
“They’re relaxed and ready to go,” Krepps said. “We’re eager to play, and there doesn’t seem to be any nervousness. Isabelle [Snyder] has been through it all with volleyball. She’s the leader of our team and sets the example. I told the girls to not hold anything back. They should be proud of where they’ve gotten and to go after it.”
In addition to Snyder, Kaysea Thomas and Izzy Eimer were also on the Maplewood girls volleyball team this season that experienced the high demands of the postseason.
Bishop Canevin had another regular season to remember with a perfect 12-0 record in conference games and 20-2 overall mark, and seemed to be a lock to win the District 7 Championship. After a first-round win over Ellis School, the Crusaders surprisingly had their 14-game winning streak snapped by Our Lady of Sacred Heart, 51-45, in the WPIAL semifinals on Feb. 25. In each of the three previous seasons, Bishop Canevin won the WPIAL championship.
Over the course of the season, Bishop Canevin has surrendered only 33.9 points per game on average this season, which will force the Tigers to be efficient on their offensive possessions and limit quality scoring chances on the defensive front. The Crusaders have only surrendered more than 40 points on eight occasions this season — three of those coming in a Christmas Tournament at Mission Bay High School in San Diego, California. Although the Crusaders have put up some impressive numbers, Krepps and his Tigers have been “focused on us, again.”
“[Bishop Canevin] is similar to a West Middlesex-like team,” Krepps said. “They have quick guards and a big girl in the post. We’ve been fine tuning some things on our end and have worked on beating the half-court zone trap.”
Krepps acknowledged that beating Bishop Canevin is a “formidable task.” However, the Tigers have the chance to hand the Crusaders another upset defeat and get past the first round of the state tournament for the second time in school history.