Ralph Blundo

New Castle coach Ralph Blundo during a home game against Sharpsville.

GREEN TREE — The quest for a fourth straight WPIAL championship is ready to start for the New Castle High boys basketball team.

The WPIAL released the basketball playoff pairings Tuesday night at a meeting at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel-Pittsburgh.

The seventh-seeded Red Hurricane (15-7) will square off against Mount Pleasant (12-10) at 8 p.m. Feb. 19 at North Allegheny High School in a Class 4A first-round matchup.

“It’s a great time of the year,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “We look forward to being in that tournament and being one of the teams that are capable of winning it.

“We’ve been down this road before. We understand the process and how to get there.”

Neshannock (3A), Laurel and Shenango (both 2A) and Union (1A) also learned their postseason fate.

The ninth-seeded Lancers (15-7) will oppose Washington (15-6) at 6:30 p.m. Friday at West Allegheny.

“We’re happy to be in the playoffs and we’ll go from there,” Neshannock coach John Corey said. “You have to take care of business when it’s one and done.”

The fifth-seeded Spartans (14-8) will tangle with Winchester Thurston (10-10) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Shaler.

“That’s exactly where we thought we’d be,” Laurel coach Ken Locke said. “I think (Class) 2A was pretty formal; I don’t think there were too many surprises.”

The sixth-seeded Wildcats (17-5) will meet California (12-9) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at North Hills.

“We were thinking a six or seven (seed). That’s right where we thought we’d be at,” Shenango coach Bob McQuiston said.

The 10th-seeded Scotties (13-8) will battle Monessen (10-12) at 1 p.m. Saturday at North Hills.

“We tied for fourth (in the section). I figured we’d get seeded anywhere from seven to 10.

“It’s hard to fight where they put you. I figured we would get Clairton or Monessen and we got Monessen. I’m not disappointed.”

LOOKING FOR A FOURTH

Blundo is in his 10th season at the helm of the ‘Canes and he owns six district crowns. His teams have won three straight titles twice.

“You can’t win a championship in a tournament you’re not in,” Blundo said. of the WPIAL playoffs. “At the very least you have to do enough to get in.”

New Castle fashioned an 8-4 mark in Section 2 action. The ‘Canes suffered three league losses by eight total points.

“It’s just natural to think about a couple of really tough losses in games we weren’t really ready to win,” Blundo said. “I’ve thought about it. But we don’t do this thing to have a great regular season record. Our goal has always been to play at a certain level.”

The ‘Canes were lethal from the perimeter this year. Isaiah Boice (70), Sheldon Cox (68) and Michael Wells (46) combined to make 184 3-pointers for the team.

“We demonstrated good perimeter play throughout the year,” Blundo said. “The focal point of our game is hitting 3s.

“Michael Graham, Jonathon Anderson and Donny also have been key for us.”

In years past, the ‘Canes would have a high seed and likely a bye. Instead, the team will play a first-round game this year.

“Now that it’s all said and done, I do think not having a bye is good for this young group,” Blundo siad. “I don’t think that long layoff is better for them. Even with my experienced groups, the layoff is long.”

EXTENDING THE STREAK

Neshannock has qualified for the WPIAL playoffs each of Corey’s 12 seasons.

“It’s not about just making the playoffs but winning a district championship,” Corey said. “Those are two goals that you put up there on the board and talk to your guys about.

“To get in is step number one.”

The Lancers are allowing just 48.7 points per game, which ranks sixth among all classifications in the district.

“I’m very proud of our guys,” Corey said. “I think we continue to mature and grow intellectually as smarter basketball players.

“Defensively, our effort has been tremendous throughout the season. That speaks to our guys really buying in defensively and really giving us the effort to get into the playoffs and possibly being successful.” 

Neshannock was without Michael Sopko and Cam’ron Owens for periods of time this season. Sopko was out of action with a sprained ankle, while Owens missed with a concussion and then later with a sprained ankle.

“Our rotation is usually seven or eight guys,” Corey said. “Sometimes we were playing five guys. 

“This is the healthiest we have been all season long.”

PLAYING WELL

Laurel was riding a four-game winning streak prior to falling to Neshannock in the regular season finale.

In that four-game winning streak was a 72-70 Section 3-2A home win over Shenango to complete the season sweep.

“I think we’ve jelled a little the last three weeks and come to together as a team,” Locke said. “We struggled a bit earlier in the season. But come late January, we know we have to be at our best and we’re coming in on a high right now.”

The Spartans tied for second in the section with the Wildcats.

“We’re pleased with reaching the playoffs,” Locke said. “We wanted to win a section title and we came up a bit short.

“I think we’re in a spot where we need to be. We’re happy with it. Now we’re looking forward to getting started.”

IN A GOOD SPOT

Shenango enters the postseason with 17 wins, the most wins for the program since McQuiston’s first season in 2006-2007, when the team finished with 19.

“We’re excited about it,” McQuiston said of the playoff berth. “It’s a reward for all the hard work; it was one of our goals.

“I told the kids, it’s time to make another run. Let’s make our next big run.”

McQuiston pointed to Ryan Lenhart, Reis Watkins, Jason Kraner and Colin McQuiston, the coach’s son, as pivotal players on the squad.

“Lenhart has been playing really well; he has really stepped it up and he’s shooting really well,” McQuiston said. “Watkins is rebounding well, averaging close to 10 points and 10 rebounds a game.

“Kraner gives us a lot and Colin has really stepped it up. I’m pleased because everyone is playing well at the right time of year.”

JUST GETTING IN

Union clinched its playoff spot on the final night of section play with an 87-54 home win over Western Beaver.

“Every year you want to be in the dance at the end,” Stanley said. “I think it’s positive that we’ve been in playoff mode for a couple of weeks.

“It’s OK to play with that pressure. The games are meaningful and you get tested.” 

Stanley’s team also has dealt with its share of injuries. Nate Meeks was lost prior to the season to a torn ACL playing ultimate frisbee. Nick Pasquarello then was lost to an injury for six weeks.

“Making the playoffs may be a little more sweeter this year because of the things we went through,” Stanley said. “The kids hung in and took care of what they had to.” 

Union has many key players in its rotation according to Stanley.

“Pasquarello, Sean Louis, Tyler Benedict, Michael Flowers, Vince Fuleno. We’ve got a nice mix and we fit well together,” Stanley said. “Benedict gets after it on the boards with Pasquarello and Louis.

“Flowers is one of the best defenders I’ve coached. Fuleno is a great shooter.”

THE SPECIFICS

The WPIAL championship games will be played over three days from Feb. 27 to Feb. 29 at the University of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center.

Five schools from Class 4A advance to the PIAA playoffs, while seven move on to the state playoffs in Class 3A. Six teams will reach the PIAA playoffs in Class 2A and Class 1A.

rponiewasz@ncnewsonline.com

Sports Writer

Ron Poniewasz Jr. is a sports writer at the New Castle News. Email him at rponiewasz@ncnewsonline.com.

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