The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local Sports

March 1, 2014

Rams hope to end long drought

JOHNSTOWN — Tonight’s District 6 Class AA boys’ basketball championship game at St. Francis University offers a few history lessons – both recent and not-so-recent.

Top-seeded Richland High will attempt to win the school’s first district title in boys’ basketball since 1975 when the Rams meet Central High School at 8:30 p.m. at DeGol Arena.

Yes, that’s the same Central that upset the highly-regarded Richland football team in the 6-AA title game in November.

“I’m sure it doesn’t happen too often that the same teams play for the District 6 championship in football and in basketball in the same year,” Richland coach Greg Burke said, citing the aforementioned recent history.

“Richland hasn’t won a district championship since 1975,” Burke added. “Thirty-nine years later, we have a chance to make history and get our names on a banner.”

The 19-5 Rams defeated No. 4 Penns Valley, 58-29, in the semifinals. Richland beat No. 9 West Branch 73-59 in their opening round.

“The last two regular season games and the two playoff games we’ve focused on a lot of details defensively – boxing out, rebounding and transitioning,”

Burke said: “We are team oriented. Defense has been the reason why we’ve had the success that we’ve had.”

The defense-first approach has paid off because the Rams players fill different roles.

“Matt Shaffer is versatile,” Burke said of the 6-foot-2 senior who also was quarterback on the football team. “Matt can guard a guard or a forward. (Senior) Kyle Flick usually guards the best player on the team.

“Day to day we continue to do defensive breakdown drills. The kids take very well to scouting reports and knowing what the offense does and where they need to be. With our strength and size, rebounding and boxing out, that all plays to our favor.”

Seventh-seeded Central is 17-7 and coming off two close playoff victories.

The Scarlet Dragons edged No. 3 Bald Eagle Area 53-52 in the semifinals, and Central won 36-33 over No. 2 Tyrone in the quarterfinals. The Dragons beat No. 10 Mount Union 60-42 in the first round.

“They’re a team that hustles and gets up and down the court,” Burke said. “They’re aggressive defensively. They’re disciplined on offense. They have good shooters.”

Burke pointed to junior guard Alex Lafferty and senior guard Zach Slagenweit as outside shooting threats, and senior guard Austin Cunningham as a playmaker who can score off the drive or the jumper.

“They’re a disciplined team,” Burke said of the Scarlet Dragons. “They’ll run an offense until they break you down. They work as a unit defensively.”

Richland is an experienced unit led by Shaffer (13.3 points and 6.8 rebounds a game) and Flick (13.1 points and 5.3 assists per game).

Seniors Jacob Lushko, who averages 12 points a game, and Aaron Miller, a 6-4 guard-forward who can shoot the 3, have consistently produced points, while 6-5 sophomore Ryan Ball has emerged as a key inside player.

“Their hard work and dedication and believing in what they need to do to be successful has really made the difference this year,” Burke said.

“This team has always been athletic and can play the game. It is a matter of playing team basketball and not caring about a scorebook or a statistic.”

For Rams players such as Shaffer, Flick and reserve Tanner Solarczyk, seeing Central in the championship game will present a challenge and opportunity they’ve looked forward to since the football season ended in stunning fashion at Mansion Park.

“Since we had the No. 1 seed, our players wanted to know if we’d meet Central in the playoffs,” Burke said. “I told them the only way we’d meet Central would be in the District 6 championship. Our guys are fired up to play them.”

Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.

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