By Matt Popchock
Paul Holzshu knew just what to say before his Titans took the floor against Gateway at the A.J. Palumbo Center Wednesday night.
"We came in here as an underdog, but I left the locker room with this quote: We're no longer the hunted. We're the hunters," he declared.
"When you're the hunters, you whoop it up, you have fun, and you go chase the prey."
The Shaler boys, who skillfully chased the two-time WPIAL champs all over the floor, looked like the predator against what was beginning to look less like Gators and more like an 800-pound grizzly. Their latest capture on this historic trail to the PIAA Class AAAA Quarterfinals had chased down 47 wins in its last 52 attempts.
But they aren't having fun yet.
"They wanted to prove they could be competitive with a Quad-A champion, and they were more than competitive," Holzshu said of his team after Shaler's 62-49 win. "We made a statement to the rest of the state that we have what it takes to get it done all the way."
Okay, to be fair, he also told the boys to enjoy it (well, that takes care of the "whooping it up" part, yes?), and don't think this didn't mean something special to Holzshu either. I mean, this is an inductee into the Gateway Athletic Hall of Fame we're talking about. This guy shares a space with guys named King, Smith, and Antimarino.
After falling short of a WPIAL championship berth, despite carrying a No. 1 seed into its ill-fated semifinal contest against Pittsburgh Central Catholic, he had those kids ready for their biggest challenge of the season. This was a battle of wits between, arguably, the two best Quad-A teams in western Pennsylvania, and the man who has coached Shaler for three-plus seasons outclassed the program he supervised as Gateway's athletic director until nine years ago.
In a game that saw Shaler and Gateway hit one shot after another--some created more deliberately than others--Holzshu's hunters had a few more bullets in their rifle.
Junior guard and Penn State recruit Geno Thorpe was the one chiefly responsible for gashing Gateway in the fourth quarter, be it with a perfectly-placed jumper, or a thunderous and-one dunk Brandon Chambers could've heard from Happy Valley. He finished with 24 points, going 10-of-13 from the field, to go with eight boards and three assists.
Believe it or not, Thorpe, the second-leading scorer in Quad-A with 22 points per WPIAL regular season game, might not be the most important player on the floor when Shaler (25-3) meets District 10 power Erie Cathedral Prep (20-5) at Sharon High School Saturday at 2:00.
Fellow guard Mike Titterington only averages one-third of Thorpe's output. But on Wednesday, with Pitt football recruit and starting forward J.P. Holtz sidelined by a foot injury, Titterington rose to the staggering challenge of covering Barnett Harris, one of Gateway's twin towers. The 6'10" (and that's probably modest), 210-pound Harris scored just four points, his statistically weakest night of the season.
The 6'1", 175-pound senior managed ten, along with four boards, to complement his stellar defensive play.
"If you walked into that locker room, and asked any one of those 15 kids who got the game ball, it's Titterington," Holzshu said. "He played Harris as well as he could play Harris."
The Ramblers don't have a player over 6'3" in their starting lineup, and though that makes life easier for Titterington and Thorpe, they do have a guard-oriented offense that mirrors Shaler's. Junior Sheldon Zablotny averages 17.7 points per game, and dropped a double-double on Erie Strong Vincent in the District 10 title game. Sophomore Matt Harris has averaged 11 a game since February.
Erie Cathedral Prep, as a team, has averaged 63 points per game, just one fewer than the Titans, though the Ramblers are coming off a gritty 50-49 win over Central Catholic that came down to the last possession.
Sound familiar, Coach?
Whether Shaler advances to play either Easton Area or Lower Merion in next Wednesday's state semifinals will probably depend a great deal upon which version of Thorpe we see. Against Central Catholic, he looked tentative against the different defensive looks the Vikings gave. Against Gateway, he looked as confident as he has all year.
The Ramblers have allowed 50 points per game, just one more than Shaler. Either way, Thorpe's supporting cast will have to get involved and stay involved.
"I've said this all year long...what Zach Taylor does for our team doesn't come out on statistical sheets. He's the glue to our team. [Ryan] Mincher brings the toughness, Geno brings the skills, and the athleticism, the Bittners (Sean and Brian) have risen to the challenge. Our whole team has risen to the challenge."
Holzshu knows the challenge that awaits his young hunters. Not even Shaler's 1993-94 squad, which featured a future NBA star, was able to taste PIAA gold.
I don't know much about being a hunter, but I understand these games can be pretty elusive game...
"They're awfully, awfully good. But when you climb the ladder to a state championship, you expect to play those teams. We embrace that challenge."
OTHER PIAA PLAYOFF HIGHLIGHTS:
*Despite New Castle's recent setback, the WPIAL contingent in the boys' Class AAA tournament has remained really impressive. Montour used another Herculean effort on defense to shut down another previously perfect opponent, General McLane, Friday night at Sharon High School. The Spartans' 48-38 win sets the stage for a WPIAL Semifinal rematch next Wednesday, as District 7 runner-up Hampton edged the third-place team from District 12, Archbishop Carroll, 45-44.
*There was an incredible ending to Friday's PIAA Class A Quarterfinal affair: freshman guard Antonio Kellem stole an inbounds pass and converted an easy layup to give Lincoln Park a 47-45 win over West Middlesex, which had beaten Beaver Falls to open its 2011-12 season. Ryan Skovranko had 14 points.
*Speaking of Beaver Falls, the terrific Tigers meet mighty Greensburg Central Catholic at North Allegheny High School Saturday at 3:00. Can the Tigers avenge last year's controversial one-point PIAA playoff loss to the Centurions?
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)
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