NEW CASTLE —
Today, one historic run will continue and another will end.
The New Castle High boys basketball team just hopes it’s on the positive side when the Red Hurricane meets Gateway at 3 p.m. today at Ambridge High School in a WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinal.
New Castle (23-0), 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, looks to keep its winning streak intact. In addition, the ’Canes, who have won 50 of their last 51 games, want to win another championship. They claimed last year’s WPIAL Class AAA crown before moving up to Class AAAA this year.
Meanwhile, the Gators (16-5) have won the WPIAL’s last two Class AAAA championships and hope for another. Coincidentally, New Castle is the only WPIAL Class AAAA boys program to pull off the title three-peat (1997-99).
“We’re looking forward to the challenge. They are the reigning WPIAL (Class AAAA) champs, not us. We’re looking forward to a good game,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “They are a team we believe is really good. We certainly respect their program; not many teams win back-to-back Quad-A championships.
“I never really thought of (Gateway tying New Castle with three-straight titles). We just want to get to this game and play,” he continued. “For as good as they have been the last two years, I think they are just as good this year. They are very experienced, strong and athletic. They have to be one of the top three or four teams in Quad-A.”
Gateway started out the season 11-2, but struggled down the stretch. The Gators lost three of their last seven to close the regular season. They opened the WPIAL tournament with a 56-45 win over Kiski. Gateway overcame a 13-point deficit to take the victory.
“This is a big challenge. It’s huge. It’s gigantic,” Gateway coach Mitch Adams said. “New Castle is 23-0 for a reason. They have a great program going and great players and a great coach. Ralph has done a wonderful job. It’ll be a monumental challenge for us. We have to play a near-perfect game to even think about beating New Castle.”
Senior guard Dennis Boyce’s 23 points led the Gators to the win. He has been a stalwart on the team’s last two championship squads. Gateway owns two big inside forces in Tom Kromka and Deon Cottrell-Baker, both of whom are 6-foot-5.
“The last two years, they’ve been playing their best basketball come playoff time and this year is no different,” said Blundo, who owns 70-9 record at New Castle and 96-11 overall. “They have a really, really good point guard in Boyce. Kromka and Cottrell-Baker are big, thick and strong presences in the post. They do a good job. They like to pound the ball inside to those two. They have athletes on the wings and a couple guys who can shoot.”
While New Castle may not match Gateway’s height, Adams knows the ’Canes make up for it in quickness and tenacity.
“We’re pretty quick, too. It’ll be a good matchup; I just hope we are able to withstand the pressure. New Castle has a lot of hops and quickness,” he said. “Handling the pressure and shooting the ball well are the big keys for us.”
Blundo wants his troops to limit Gateway’s chances.
“I think we have to do a good job with our post defense and guard the ball. We have to rebound really, really well. They are pretty big and we have to keep them off the glass and limit them to one shot. We can’t let them have any success on the offensive glass,” he said. “I think this Gateway team is more of a post-oriented team than any other team we’ve played this year. We’ll have to do some things to make it difficult on them down there.”
Even though the Gators have won the last two WPIAL Class AAAA trophies, Adams knows a three-peat is no easy feat.
“We’ve been very fortunate. We’re lucky — that’s all. I don’t tell anyone we’re good. We’ve just been very fortunate,” he said. “The players are looking to defend their titles, but it’s a new year, a new crew, a new everybody. We are a work in progress every day. We’re in fear of no one, but we respect everyone. You have to respect a 23-0 record. I don’t care if you’re playing tiddlywinks — 23-0 is 23-0. That’s the way it is.”
A triumph today secures a PIAA playoff berth and a semifinal matchup against either Upper St. Clair or Seneca Valley. Today’s losing squad could get pulled into the PIAA tournament only if the winning team ends up capturing the WPIAL title.