NEW CASTLE —
Tomorrow marks the third meeting this season between the New Castle and Seneca Valley high school basketball teams.
It is by far the biggest.
The Red Hurricane battles the Raiders in the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals at 7 p.m. at Ambridge High, with the winner playing for the ultimate prize — WPIAL gold — on Saturday.
The teams squared off twice during the Section 3 regular season, with the ’Canes (24-0) posting a pair of wins — 79-45 on the road and 75-52 at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House in the rematch.
“I think when you play a team three times, there’s a familiarity aspect,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “It works both ways.
“Our guys, they get it. They know that basketball is basketball. What you’ve done the first two times is completely insignificant on any given night. They know that Seneca Valley is a good basketball team and we’ll have to play well to win.”
The winner advances to the WPIAL championship game against the survivor of the Hampton-North Allegheny contest at 9 p.m. Saturday at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center. The Hampton-North Allegheny matchup is another Section 3 rematch, with the home team winning each time.
The Raiders (17-7) have lost the last three meetings with New Castle, which is ranked No. 1 in the WPIAL in Class AAAA by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and No. 5 in the state by the Patriot-News of Harrisburg.
“This is just like a section game,” said Seneca Valley coach Victor Giannotta, who is in his ninth season at the helm. “Neither of us have an advantage, you throw out those first two games and go play.”
The ’Canes are gunning for the program’s ninth district championship and second consecutive. Last year, they claimed the Class AAA title over Hampton before both team’s were realigned into Section 3 this year.
But there’s still business to take care of before making reservations for Saturday’s championship game.
“That’s one thing our guys have done well is to stay focused on the task at hand,” Blundo said. “They’ll have to play very well (tomorrow). We need to stay focused on Seneca Valley and only Seneca Valley.”
Seneca Valley is bidding for its first district title in school history. In fact, the Raiders were just 9-39 in Giannotta’s first three years as coach.
New Castle and Seneca Valley clinched PIAA berths with each team’s quarterfinal-round win. The top-seeded ’Canes breezed past two-time defending WPIAL Class AAAA champion Gateway, 87-55. The 12th-seeded Raiders knocked off fourth-seeded Upper St. Clair.
“That was a situation where you lose that one and you lose another opportunity possibly to extend your season,” Blundo said of the quarterfinal contest. “We’re glad to know we’ve clinched that spot and now we’re focused on the next game which is Seneca Valley.”
The Raiders had to grind out a win over the Panthers. Seneca Valley led 6-0 after the first period and 17-10 at the break.
Giannotta, who is assisted by former Laurel head coach Joe Venasco, acknowledged what effect the experience playing against a team like New Castle has on a squad.
“Playing against teams like New Castle, or Hampton or North Allegheny prepares you well for the postseason,” he said. “We played a lot of man-to-man against Upper St. Clair and that helped us in that game.”