By Rich Rhoades
It’s postseason time once again and this year in District 9, 21 boys’ teams will try to grab one of six PIAA state playoff berths among three classifications.
Only one team can defend its district title as the Johnsonburg Rams, PIAA finalist a year ago, will try to repeat in Class A. New champions will be crowned in Class AA and AAA since the defending champions — Brockway and Bradford — didn’t go to the postseason this year.
Here’s a closer look at each classification:
As usual, the small-school division garners the most interest as 11 teams try to lock up one of four state playoff spots. And can the Johnsonburg Rams, last year’s state runner-up, become the first D9 Class A repeat champion since Elk County Catholic won four straight from 2004 to 2007?
For that to happen, the fourth-seeded Rams (21-3) might need to beat top-seeded ECC (21-3) for a fourth time in a possible semifinal matchup. They’ve already handed the Crusaders their only three losses while the Crusaders, Lincoln Park and DuBois Central Catholic handed the Rams their losses. Going into this week, the Rams and Crusaders were ranked sixth and seventh respectively in Penn Live’s Class A state rankings.
For Johnsonburg, the 1,000-point senior guard duo Cameron Grumley (21.3 ppg.) and Cole Peterson (21 ppg.) lead the way. The Crusaders are led by senior Cory Huff (15.9 ppg.) and junior Mitchell Struble (10.6 ppg.).
Both teams have byes into the quarterfinals where the Crusaders meet the 8-9 winner between Venango Catholic (11-11) and North Clarion (14-8). Devin Zagar (17.9 ppg.), a 6-foot-11 junior, leads the Vikings while junior Christian Cyphert (16.1 ppg.) is the top scorer for the Wolves. North Clarion won both regular-season meetings.
Johnsonburg takes on fifth-seeded Coudersport in the quarterfinals. The Falcons were runner-up to Cameron County in the North Tier League. Sophomore Darren Keglovitz (10.1 ppg.) is the Falcons’ top scorer.
On the other side of the bracket are second-seeded Clarion-Limestone (21-2) and third-seeded Cameron County (20-2). The KSAC champion Lions are led by 1,000-point scoring junior guard R.J. Laugand (19 ppg.). Laugand has help with two other underclassmen teammates in double-figure scoring with freshman Dan Callen (11.6 ppg.) and junior Josh Kahle (11.3 ppg.).
The North Tier League champion Red Raiders (20-2) also have a 1,000-point junior in forward Nate Sestina (23.2 ppg.), the top scorer in the district. Senior Dylan Clingan (11 ppg.) is a double-figure scorer.
The Lions receive a first-round bye into the quarterfinals. They’ll meet the 7-10 preliminary round winner between No. 7 DuBois Central Catholic (15-6) and No. 10 Union (11-11). Junior Dane Aucker (16 ppg.) is the top scorer for the Cardinals while sophomore Cole Morris (12.3 ppg.) leads the Knights.
The Red Raiders also get a bye into the quarterfinals and play the 6-11 preliminary round winner between Ridgway and Clarion. The Elkers, last year’s district runner-up, are led by sophomore Jeremy Breier (16.8 ppg.) and junior Josh Roselli (11.6 ppg.). The Bobcats have two double-figure scorers in sophomore Taylor Smith (13.4 ppg.) and senior Antonio Troese (11.4 ppg.).
The top four finishers advance to states with first-round games scheduled for Friday, March 7. The champion meets the District 10 third-place finisher, the runner-up faces the District 6 third-place team, the third-place finisher meets the WPIAL champion and the fourth-place team takes on the District 6 champion.
It’s a wide-open field looking to capture a district title and the lone state qualifying spot and it’s guaranteed to be a new champion since defending champ Brockway didn’t enter the postseason.
Top-seeded Redbank Valley (16-7) is in the rare spot of perhaps the favorite to win it all. The Bulldogs reached the KSAC Championship game for the first time and put together their first winning season since 2007. They’re also gunning for their first district title since 1980.
Head coach Greg Bean’s team is still young with most of its roster filled with juniors, including 1,000-point scorer Jake Dougherty, who’s averaging a double-double at 20.2 points and 11 rebounds per game.
The Bulldogs have a bye into the semifinals in the seven-team bracket where they’ll meet the 4-5 winner between Cranberry (12-10) and Keystone (11-11). The Berries beat the Panthers, 47-42, in their only meeting back in December. Senior Adam Lencer (21.7 ppg.) ended the season on a hot streak scoring for the Panthers. Juniors Janco Swart (13.) ppg.) and Jacob Creighton (12 ppg.) lead Cranberry.
On the other side of the bracket, second-seeded Karns City (14-7) takes on seventh-seeded Kane (7-15). Both teams have 1,000-point scorers with the Gremlins’ Tyler Kepple (14.7 ppg.) and the Wolves’ Jeff Kocjancic (15.4 ppg.).
Third-seeded Curwensville (14-8) and sixth-seeded Brookville (8-14) are the other quarterfinal matchup. Seniors Brett Gardner (14.9 ppg.) and Tanner Elensky (13.2 ppg.) lead the Golden Tide. Senior Nate Shirts (16.5 ppg.) leads the Raiders.
The District 9 champion advances to states where it will take on the District 10 third-place team Saturday, March 8, at a D9 site and time to be announced.
Considering that the only meeting between the Punxsutawney Chucks (13-9) and Clearfield Bison (6-16) this year was a 70-38 rout by the Chucks at home, it looks to be a one-sided affair when the only two playoff teams in bracket meet in the championship game likely Feb. 28 or March 1 at Clarion University.
The Chucks haven’t won a district title since 2005, which also happened to be a win over the Bison (60-41). The last two years, the Chucks lost to Bradford in close games.
Head coach Dirk Neal’s squad is mostly a senior group, led by its top two leading scorers Brandon Mancuso (16 ppg.) and Tyler Young (13.2 ppg.). The Chucks struggled for consistency most of the season, splitting their first 12 games before finishing the regular season with a 7-3 record over the final 10 games.
Meanwhile, the Bison have just six wins, the lone notable win over 14-win Central-Martinsburg. The other five wins have come against teams with a combined three wins — winless Philipsburg-Osceola, two-win Bellefonte and one-win Harmony.
Junior Erik Sellers (9.8 ppg.) is the top scorer on an otherwise senior-dominated team. The Bison last won a D9 title in 2009 and have had just one winning season since, in 2010, which was their last year in the District 9 League.
Punxsutawney owns 17 district titles while Clearfield has won six championships.
Only the champion advances to the PIAA playoffs that begin Friday, March 7, at a District 9 site to be determined.
With DuBois (11-10) the only Class AAAA school in the district, the Beavers advance to a sub-regional playoff against the District 10 champion likely the weekend of Feb. 28-March 1.
District 10 has a three-team tournament with top-seeded Cathedral Prep taking on the winner of the McDowell-Central Tech matchup.