Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Gold is on the line.
History is at stake.
And two familiar foes are ready to do battle to settle it all in the WPIAL Class AAAA championship game.
The New Castle and Hampton high boys basketball teams will meet at 9 p.m. today in the title tilt at Duquesne University’s A.J. Palumbo Center.
The top-seeded Red Hurricane (25-0) can win its second consecutive WPIAL championship and become the first program in district history, regardless of classification, to claim consecutive crowns in different classifications. It would mark New Castle’s ninth WPIAL basketball championship.
The ’Canes topped the Talbots in last year’s Class AAA title game, 57-44.
“That’s obviously something that would come with it,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said of the attempt at making history. “For us, we just want to win this game.”
New Castle 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.
Another historical first would occur if New Castle upends Hampton because no team ever has won a WPIAL title with an unbeaten record two seasons in a row. The WPIAL crowned its first district champion 104 years ago and there have been 252 winners in four different classes since the first titleist.
The third-seeded Talbots (21-4) stand in New Castle’s way. The teams are Section 3 rivals and the ’Canes won both regular season meetings, 75-54 at the Ne-Ca-Hi Field House and 54-50 on Hampton’s floor. In fact, the four-point margin was New Castle’s closest regular-season verdict the last two seasons. The ’Canes led the first meeting by just two points after three quarters before pulling away.
“I spoke to my team about that accomplishment today and just how great of an accomplishment it is,” said Talbots coach Joe Lafko, who is in his 17th season at the helm, of returning to the district championship game. “It’s great to play for a Quad-A championship.
“Going to the finals in back-to-back years is a challenging feat. I’m very proud of my guys. We’re taking a workmanlike attitude to this game.”
The Talbots have played in five WPIAL championship games since 2006 and their fourth in the last five seasons. They won the crown in 2009.
“We’re very proud of our tradition,” Lafko said. “Having a chance to reach the (WPIAL) finals is a goal of any western Pennsylvania team. To have the opportunity to play for the championship is always a goal of ours.”
Hampton’s top weapons are in the form of size and wingspan courtesy of junior twin brothers Ryan Luther and Collin Luther.
Ryan Luther, a 6-foot-8 forward, paces the Talbots at 21 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. He has Division I offers from Dayton and Duquesne, while receiving interest from other schools such as North Carolina-Wilmington, Davidson, Iowa and Virginia Tech.
“Ryan is just a special player,” Blundo said. “He can play inside and he can play outside.
“He does it every way you can do it. He’ll post up. He gets to the cup. Any way you can do it, he’s able to get it done in that fashion.”
Ryan dominated the ’Canes in the first matchup, posting a game-best 30 points. He has scored 58 points in the last two playoff games.
Collin Luther, a 6-7 guard/forward, checks in at 16 points and 4.3 boards a matchup.
“Collin is the stabilizing force for that team,” Blundo said. “He handles the ball. He’s big, strong and he can finish around the cup.
“He’s been doing it for three years now.”
Collin is receiving Division I looks, with Bucknell and Navy expressing interest.
Jon Floss, a 5-11 junior guard, sat out Hampton’s home loss to New Castle with the flu. Jack Obringer started in Floss’ absence that night, but Floss will be in the starting lineup for the Talbots tonight.
Floss contributes eight points a game and Obringer chips in six.
“It’s certainly good to have Floss back in the lineup,” Lafko said. “He’s athletic and he will give us more depth.”
David Huber, a 6-2 sophomore guard, tosses in 17.3 markers and 3.1 rebounds a matchup and Joey Lafko, the coach’s son, adds 10 points a game.
“David Huber continues to improve,” Joe Lafko said. “He continues to learn the game.
“Joey Lafko has continued to step up and battle injuries for us. He made some big plays and big shots for us this year.”
The Talbots, who placed third in the section, average 61.3 points and give up 52 a contest.
“Offensively, they’ll take the easy one if they can get it. If not, they’ll slow it down,” Blundo said. “We shortened the game in the fourth quarter at Hampton because we had a lead. They can play a variety of different styles. Man, zone press and they’ll show a couple of different zone defenses.”
Blundo knows repeating as champions won’t be easy.
“We just have to continue to do what we’ve done and that’s play New Castle basketball,” he said. “We need to play extremely hard and do a good job on the boards.
“I just think we’re playing our best basketball right now. But both teams are playing well.”
PACING THE ’CANES
Shawn Anderson, a 6-3 senior guard/forward and Navy recruit, leads New Castle in scoring at 20.7 points a game. He ranks second in the county in that category to Neshannock’s Ernie Burkes (21.1 ppg.).
“Shawn Anderson is a very good player,” Lafko said. “The thing that stands out the most to me is his ability to shoot from the perimeter.
“He can score from anywhere on the floor. He can pull up and knock down 3s. He’s a quick rebounder and he’s a good jumper.”
Anderson is averaging 8.4 rebounds, three assists and 2.4 steals a game. He has tossed in 76 total points in the three playoff games this season.
“His level of consistency is the same,” Blundo said of Anderson. “The way he plays is the same every single game. Shawn always plays well in big games, as has other guys. For us, every game is a big game. That’s the atmosphere we try to create.”
Malik Hooker, a 6-2 junior guard/forward, backs up Anderson’s numbers at 17 points, 7.8 boards, three steals and 2.7 assists a contest.
“Malik is another improved shooter for New Castle,” Lafko said. “His athleticism makes him a tough player to guard.”
Anderson and Hooker were a lethal one-two punch against the Talbots at the Field House. Hooker paced New Castle with 24 points and Anderson chipped in with 22. Anderson scored 17 markers in the rematch and Hooker added 15.
Anthony Richards, a 5-9 junior guard, tallies 9.5 points a game to go with a county-best 64 3-pointers. Brandon Domenick, a 5-9 senior point guard and Gannon recruit, contributes 9.1 markers a matchup along with 56 3-pointers.
Domenick owns the program’s all-time record for 3-pointers made with 194.
“Richards is a good shooter and he plays extremely good defense,” Lafko said. “He pressures the ball very well.
“Brandon is a very good point guard. He has had an exceptional four years at New Castle. He’s the all-time leading 3-point shooter in New Castle history, that stat alone speaks volumes to him playing the game and his team’s success. He distributes the ball. He finds the open man and he can knock down open shots.”
The uptempo ’Canes are averaging 80 points a game, second in the district behind Vincentian Academy (83.6 in Class A). New Castle is giving up 52.2 markers a contest.
The ’Canes’ defense forces 25.5 turnovers, while opponents are causing just 10 New Castle miscues.
“New Castle gives you great defensive pressure,” Lafko said. “They really put a lot of pressure on the ball and they make you work to bring it up the floor.
“New Castle creates offense from their defense. They run traps at you and rotate well. They also run the break as well as any team I’ve seen. They fill the lanes and can finish off the fastbreak. That factor is something that very few teams in the history of basketball can do. This team does it as well as any team I’ve seen.”
Hampton has lost its last four matchups against the ’Canes by an average score of 66-52.
“I think there are three keys to victory for us,” Lafko said. “It will come down to how well we handle New Castle’s pressure. Another key will be how many open shots we will get off transition.
“The third is we’re going to have to limit their second and third opportunities. They’re quick to the ball and that’s a credit to their athleticism. They get a lot of rebounds and loose balls.”
Both teams have secured spots in the PIAA playoffs as well, which starts March 9 in Quad-A. The winner will meet the fifth-place team out of the WPIAL, which is Gateway. The loser will battle the District 8 (Pittsburgh City League) champion Westinghouse.