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PUNXSUTAWNEY â€” In a sports-rich area like western Pa., playing for a district title is never a given, and the Punxsy boys' basketball team, which will do just that against the Bradford Owls at 4 p.m. today at Clarion University, isn't taking the opportunity for granted.
"We really recognize how special this is," Punxsy head coach Dirk Neal said Friday. "During practice over the past few weeks, we'd even stop and take a look at our banner to remind the players that in the last 18 years, they're only the second Punxsy team that's been over to Clarion to play for the District IX title. The last team that made it there was in 2005, and they won it. So, we just wanted to remind them that it's special to be there."
The Chucks dropped their final game of the regular season this year to the Owls â€” in fact, Bradford has picked up wins in each of the last three games between the squads dating back to last year's playoffs, where the Owls needed overtime to knock the Chucks out.
The Chucks have been idle for just over two weeks now since that 53-38 loss to the Owls in Bradford concluded their regular season. Punxsy's record entering the Feb. 17 game was good enough to clinch the No. 1 seed and a bye to the D-IX finals, but Neal says he doesn't expect any signs of rust from his polished, experienced squad after a lenghty break.
"It has been two weeks since we played, but we had two good scrimmages over that time," Neal said. "We matched up with DuBois and Brookville last week, and then this week, we went over to Brookville. Two good scrimmages mixed with two good weeks of practice, and I think these guys will be ready. We gave them a couple days off last week to reflect back on everything, and we started hitting it hard again this week."
Punxsy fell to the Owls, 50-42, Jan. 20 in Punxsu-tawney, one of just two home losses for the Chucks this season.
While it makes a good story line, Neal said his squad doesn't need vengeance over Bradford as a motivating factor to want this game, as its been a season-long goal to win the D-IX title.
"Yeah, they did come down and beat us in overtime to knock us out of last year's playoffs after we'd beaten them up there," Neal said. "But just the fact that we haven't been there since 2005 is motivation enough for these guys. They're just really excited to be a part of this group and have the opportunity to play for the D-IX title."
Punxsy is led by a solid, seven-man senior corps, including four seniors who have consistently seen the starting lineup in point guard Daniel Triponey, shooting guard Alex Fedigan and big men Luke Janocha and Ian Miller.
Triponey fre-quently found himself atop the Chucks' scoresheet and ran the offense, while Fedigan's defense and three-point shot from the corner stood out.
Miller and Janocha proved to be forces on both ends of the court, as well, with Miller taking the ball to the hoop with authority every chance he saw and Janocha being a strong physical presence against other teams' bigs.
Fellow seniors Tim Pearce, Jesse Venturini and Michael Rosenberger have also filled in at important times off the bench throughout the season.
One junior and one sophomore were also regulars in the starting lineup.
Junior forward Garrett Zimmerman and sharp-shooting sophomore Brandon Mancuso were frequent contributors to the Chucks' style on both ends of the court. Zimmerman's rebounding on both ends of the court and Mancuso's deep threat added to the Chucks' potent, two-sided attack all season.
The Chucks' bench goes far beyond the seven or eight players who consistently saw time this season, though.
A JV squad that consisted almost entirely of sophomores finished the season with just one loss, and Neal said having that kind of competition from his younger players at practice "keeps the varsity guys on their toes and helps keep them sharp."
Neal also gave credit to his assistant coach, Darrin Kriebel, who Neal praised after the season's final home game for being another set of eyes to see the things Neal misses in the heat of the moment.
Over the past two weeks, the Chucks have been sticking to the basics in practice and trying to learn from the season's mistakes.
"We worked on being patient on offense," Neal said. "We kind of reflected back on the season. We started with looking back on what we did well that helped us be successful. Then, we looked back on the Bradford games and refelcted on what we had to work on and tried to change some things up. Hopefully, we're ready."
Win or lose, Punxsy's season won't end with today's game.
While it is the playoff round for District IX, the top two seeds are guaranteed another game in the PIAA playoffs, which will begin Tuesday with three play-in games in the preliminary round.
The loser of today's contest will be forced to play its way into the round of 32, while the winner will advance to the full bracket and play Friday.
While Neal said the thought of competing at the state level is an exciting prospect, he also said the team's one and only focus entering today's game is the goal it set from Day 1: Earning the District IX title.
"Anything beyond this is icing on the cake," Neal said. "But obviously, our first priority is to add another ball on the banner. What these kids are really hungry for is the district championship. So, anything beyond that is a bonus."View more articles in: