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5 Things: Droughts, streaks and second chances highlight WPIAL basketball playoffs

The numbers for area high school basketball teams to advance to the WPIAL playoffs is down from years past.

The 19 to qualify – 10 boys teams and nine on the girls side – will start the second season as early as tonight. The first round will continue through next Wednesday, and there is plenty of things to watch.

Here are five things to watch as teams begin what they hope is only the start in their path to The Pete.

1. Will droughts end?

Something has to give at some point, right?

For the Burgettstown girls and Charleroi boys, could this be the year they get rid of what Cougars’ coach Bill Wiltz called an elephant on their back at Tuesday night’s pairings meeting?

Charleroi hasn’t won a postseason basketball game since 1997, and Wiltz knew the exact year before I finished my question to him after the brackets were released. The Cougars have lost 13 straight first-round games.

They won’t have to wait, either, playing Friday night against No. 10 seed Carlynton.

It’s been even longer since Burgettstown has won in the playoffs. The last time the Blue Devils won in the postseason, they came back from a nine-point deficit entering the fourth quarter to edge Northgate. That was March 2, 1993.

Burgettstown, the No. 7 seed, will play Riverview, ironically at Northgate, at 6:30 p.m. tonight.

2. Can teams stay hot?

There is a mad scramble for playoff-bound teams this week to find scrimmages. Whether that be to keep the momentum they built towards the end of the season or find footing from a rough road to the finish line of the regular season.

With how many local teams finished, the wait might be the most agonizing part.

Sixth-seeded South Fayette probably doesn’t want to wait until Monday night for its first-round game against No. 11 seed Franklin Regional. The Lions ended the season on a five-game winning streak, including a victory to knock section foe Trinity out of playoff contention and a non-section win over Bishop Canevin to conclude the regular season.

Peters Township is catching fire at the right time. After alternating wins and losses through most of January, the Indians have won three straight and will look to make it four Tuesday night in an eight-nine matchup against Hempfield.

The Monessen boys also have won three in a row. Washington has won six of its last seven. Charleroi is victorious in five of its last six.

But it’s not just on the boys’ side.

The Monessen girls also have won three straight, while the Charleroi girls are on a four-game winning streak.

Belle Vernon and Avella were on nice runs when the regular season concluded. The Leopards had won seven of their last eight games while Avella finished 5-1 down the stretch.

3. Not the full story

When Devin Whitlock transferred from Monessen to Belle Vernon last year, the power in the Mon Valley might have shifted.

It was just one year ago when Whitlock, a freshman at the time, was leading Monessen to the WPIAL Class A semifinals and the PIAA semifinals. Both playoff runs ended at the hands of Vincentian Academy.

Whitlock will now look to help Belle Vernon to its first semifinal appearance since 1998. The sixth-seeded Leopards have to wait until Wednesday to open the playoffs. They play No. 11 Derry at Fox Chapel (8 p.m.).

Belle Vernon’s 16-6 overall record is somewhat deceptive. It only lost two games in Class 4A, both against Uniontown. The other four losses all came out of the classification but each of them against teams that qualified for the playoffs.

Monessen hasn’t had the success past Greyhound teams have had, which includes having its 66-game section winning streak come to an end this season. The Greyhounds are 10-12 and the seventh seed in Class A. They will play 10th-seeded Union Saturday at North Hills (1 p.m.).

A losing record? For Monessen?

Nine of those losses were against teams in a higher classification, including eight with opponents that are still playing.

4. Second chance

Blowing a 17-point lead and not getting a blatant foul call that led to the game-winning basket in the final seconds was how last season ended for Peters Township.

The Indians and head coach Gary Goga were eight minutes away from upsetting top-seeded Pine-Richland in the WPIAL Class 6A quarterfinals.

A lot of those same Peters Township players are on this year’s team, so there might not be a group more excited to get a second chance at the postseason.

They are in a similar position this year. The Indians are again the ninth seed but will play Hempfield in the first round Tuesday at Mt. Lebanon (8 p.m.). A win over the Spartans and top-seeded Butler will await in the quarterfinal.

5. By the numbers

There are some oddities to what has and what could happen this upcoming week in the playoffs. Here are some numbers that stand out.

0 – The number of wins the Chartiers-Houston girls basketball team has against opponents with a winning record.

4 – The number of first-round games Washington has won in a row. The last time the Prexies lost in the first round was in 2015 against Neshannock. They look for more success when meeting the Lancers tonight.

7 – The number of one-possession games South Fayette played in this season. The Lions went 4-3 in those games, but at least coach Dave Mislan won’t blink twice if they face that at any point throughout the playoffs.

40 – The number that has been key to the Monessen girls all season. In games the Greyhounds have scored 40 or more points, they are a perfect 12-0.

McGuffey's Barr eager to get back on the mat

The time between the end of the regular season and the start of the individual tournament can be agonizingly long for wrestlers.

That’s why many coaches do their best to think of ways to make practice more interesting, whether that would be playing a game of dodgeball or holding practice in the swimming pool at the school, if one is available. That can go a long way in keeping wrestlers involved.

At McGuffey High School, Ethan Barr keeps his mind filled with thoughts that will motivate him when the time comes for the tournaments to start.

Well, the time is now and Barr, a talented 160-pound junior for the Highlanders, is ready to make those thoughts reality.

Barr and the rest of his teammates begin the long trek to what they hope will be a PIAA Class AA championship today at Canon-McMillan High School.

That’s where the section and WPIAL championships will be decided over the weekend. Barr is the top seed at 160 pounds in Section 1, so it is unlikely he will have any problems qualifying for Saturday’s WPIAL championships, which also will be held at Canon-McMillan.

Action gets underway today at 3 p.m. with the championships set for 7 p.m.

The top four wrestlers in each weight class will advance to Saturday’s WPIAL event, which gets underway at 10 a.m. The semifinals will be held at 12:20 p.m. and the finals at 5 PM.

The top seven wrestlers in each weight class of the WPIAL event will advance to the Southwest Region Tournament at Indiana University the following weekend.

“I don’t like the break,” said Barr. “I just want to continue with the team if we could. (During that time), we work more on conditioning.”

Barr has had an exceptional year, compiling a record of 36-4. While his path to a section title seems unencumbered, winning a WPIAL championship is going to take a little more work. That’s because two-time PIAA champion Thayne Lawrence of Frazier also is in the weight class. Lawrence wrestles in Section 3.

Lawrence missed a big chunk of the season with an injury but returned in time to go 11-0 and get his wrestling legs back under him. One thing he can be sure of, Barr will not be intimidated.

“He’s just another wrestler and I have to go out and wrestle him,” said Barr. “I just sort of fell into the weight. I thought about 152, but I saw 160 is a good opportunity. So I started lifting weights to get there.”

Barr is ranked No. 2 behind Lawrence in every rating system in the area. His only loss inside the WPIAL came against Oleg Melnyk of Carlynton and Conner Redinger of Quaker Valley. He later avenged the loss to Melnyk, but not Redinger, yet.

“I think Ethan can compete with anyone,” said McGuffey head coach Jared Roberts. “Lawrence is in his weight class and he’s a two-time state champion. But he’s only wrestled 11 times, so you don’t know what type of condition he will be in. So who knows? We have a shot.

“Ethan has a great work ethic. He and Rocco Ferraro have the best work ethic on the team. They are workout partners in the room. I think Ethan can win a medal in Hershey if he wrestles to his fullest potential.”

Bell, Reddick, Custer headline bumper crop of NASCAR rookies

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Christopher Bell started to unzip his firesuit and attach a microphone at a TV session with Fox when Jimmie Johnson popped by and teased the production team.

“With rookies, you have to put it down the leg personally,” Johnson told a staffer.

Bell got a good laugh out of the moment, the seven-time NASCAR champion on the way out of the sport having fun with a rookie touted as one of its brightest future stars.

Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Bell were the Big Three of NASCAR’s No. 2 series, a trio of drivers pegged as future stars who ran roughshod over the field and raced for the championship.

“I’ve raced against them more than I’ve raced against anybody else,” Bell said.

The next time they go head-to-head-to-head will be at the Daytona 500 on Sunday.

Reddick, Custer and Bell combined for 21 wins of 33 Xfinity Series races last season – and won nine straight in one stretch – en route to promotions to the Cup Series.

Checkered flags, bragging rights, the rookie of the year award – and the pressure to keep the high-profile jobs – are all up for grabs. Each hopes to finish at the top of their class.

“I hope I smoke ‘em,” Bell said.

Bell, Reddick and Custer are the linchpins of a rookie field that also include Quin Houff, John Hunter Nemechek and Brennan Poole. It’s NASCAR’s best class in ages and the sport’s next big hope that this youth movement will usher in a new generation of future champions and fan favorites.

NASCAR’s rookie classes have produced few stars the last several years. Daniel Hemric had only two top-10 finishes last season and finished 25th in the standings driving l for Richard Childress Racing to win the top rookie award in an underwhelming class. His reward? He was dumped by RCR and will run a part-time schedule this season in the Xfinity Series.

Where have you gone Brett Moffitt? The 2015 winner has made just seven Cup starts since he won and none since 2017. Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht were among the recent underwhelming winners over the last decade no longer with full-time Cup rides in NASCAR.

Daytona 500 pole winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is a former winner of the rookie award. So are Chase Elliott, Busch Clash winner Erik Jones, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick.

The Xfinity Series championship hasn’t guaranteed much success, either. Daniel Suarez, the 2016 champion, is already on his third team. 2015 champion Chris Buescher has one, rain-shortened Cup victory and 2017 champion William Byron is 0 for 72 starts.

Trevor Bayne was the last driver to win the Daytona 500 in his first start, and he never won again.

Tyler Reddick

The 24-year-old Reddick won the last two Xfinity Series championships and will drive the No. 8 Chevrolet this season for Richard Childress Racing. Reddick has two Cup starts, including a 27th-place finish for RCR in last season’s Daytona 500. He finished ninth in his second race at Kansas.

“You can’t make the mistakes that you can normally get away with with a good team in the Xfinty Series,” Reddick said. “You can be really fast, but it won’t mean you’ll win races.”

Christopher Bell

The 25-year-old Bell won the 2017 Truck Series championship and thrived as a developmental driver for Joe Gibbs Racing. JGR’s loaded lineup of Cup champions Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr., two-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones left Bell without a ride. JGR farmed out Bell, who grew up racing on dirt tracks in Oklahoma, to the No. 95 Toyota and Leavine Family Racing.

“I’m just grateful to be along for the ride,” Bell said. “Hopefully we can go out there and make everyone proud.”

Cole Custer

The 22-year-old Custer took Suarez’s ride in the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing and has won consistently. The son of Stewart-Haas Racing executive Joe Custer was raised around the racetrack. He started racing when he was 5 and quickly rose through the ranks to the Truck Series. He became the youngest winner in a NASCAR national series race at New Hampshire in his seventh career truck start in 2014. He was 16 years, 7 months, 28 days.

He clearly joins the best team of all the rookies, added to a lineup that includes veterans Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer.

“I talked with Kevin a lot through my Xfinity stuff and he’s been extremely helpful and one of the most helpful people I’ve ever talked to,” Custer said. “But even in our post-practice meeting with Clint and Aric, I ask those guys for advice and they’re extremely open also so if I can get advice from any of those guys it’s going to be huge.”

Sticking to script: Bregman, Astros discuss sign stealing

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Alex Bregman spoke for about 30 seconds and said he was sorry, but did not say why. He said he had learned, but did not say what.

On a patch of grass between the Houston Astros’ spring training building and fields, under a sun obscured by clouds, the star third baseman stepped to a microphone at a news conference, becoming the first player Thursday to apologize – without really discussing with any details – for the sign-stealing scheme from the club’s 2017 World Series championship season.

“I am really sorry about the choices that were made by my team, by the organization and by me. I have learned from this and I hope to regain the trust of baseball fans,” Bregman began, before thanking Astros fans and saying he and his teammates “are totally focused on moving forward to the 2020 season.”

And thus the script was set.

The most eyebrow-raising statement came soon thereafter, when Astros owner Jim Crane replied to a question from a reporter by saying: “Our opinion is that this didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series. And we’ll leave it at that.”

Moments later, Crane tried to backtrack, saying, “It’s hard to determine how it impacted the game, if it impacted the game.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred disciplined the Astros after he found the team broke rules by using electronics to steal signs during 2017 and 2018. The investigation found the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to view and decode opposing catchers’ signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve chances of getting a hit.

Manager AJ Hinch and GM Jeff Luhnow were given one-year suspensions by Manfred; Crane then quickly fired both. MLB did not punish any players for the cheating and Crane said he stood by that.

“We’re not going to do anything to the players,” he said.

Crane and players denied that Astros hitters used buzzers to get information about pitches.

The owner repeatedly pointed to MLB’s report instead of directly answering questions and vowed: “This will never happen again on my watch.”

A day earlier, the Astros gathered at their facility, barring media from the grounds, and it was apparent that they mostly agreed on a unified message.

The talking points became clear Thursday before the first official workout of the spring as, one by one, the faces of the franchise spoke to the media in the clubhouse: Bregman, second baseman José Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, outfielder Josh Reddick, pitchers Justin Verlander and Lance McCullers.

The Astros share a Florida complex with the team they lost to in last year’s World Series, the Washington Nationals, and this time, it was the runners-up that drew a lot more attention than the champs as both teams’ camps opened.

“In the long run, some of their actions will speak louder than words and being sorry that you got caught and being sorry for what you did are two different things. It’s not going to go away in one day. This is going to be an ongoing process, unfortunately,” Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle said. “This is something that all of baseball has to reckon with, and we’re all still trying to come to grips with it and process it. So it might take a bit.”

Bregman’s clubhouse session lasted 10 minutes and he stuck to his message. So, generally, did the others.

Bregman, for example, used words like “apologizing” and “remorse,” but made no mention of “signs” or “stealing” or “cheating.”

Some, such as Verlander, said they wished they had “said more” at the time to dissuade the use of the illegal system that helped batters know what pitches were coming from opposing pitchers.

Like Crane, they refrained from offering any sort of apologies to teams or players they had beaten in 2017, specifically the New York Yankees in the AL championship series and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

“I don’t think we feel the need to reach out to those guys,” Reddick said, “or anybody for that matter.”

When asked, inevitably, whether their 2017 title was tainted, they tended to use a variation of, “People have their own opinions,” as Correa did.

Much like Crane and Hinch’s replacement as manager, Dusty Baker, insisted earlier Thursday, the players kept – more hopefully, perhaps, than realistically – insisting they were going to talk about this for one day and then focus on the new season to come.

The most forthcoming and sincere-sounding statements came from Correa, who said the system was not as effective in the postseason because opposing catchers were using multiple signs to tell their pitchers what to throw.

“We feel bad and we don’t want to be remembered as the team that cheated to get a championship,” Correa said.

Unlike some of the rhetoric being offered all around him, Correa used the most basic language to deliver an apology that actually sounded very much like an apology and express remorse that actually sounded rather remorseful.

“What we did in ‘17 was wrong. ... It’s not how we want to be remembered,” Correa said. “I’m going to be honest with you: When we first started doing it, it almost felt like it was an advantage. ... But it was definitely wrong. It was definitely wrong and we should have stopped it at the time.”