PUNXSUTAWNEY — The second half of the Punxsy boys' basketball team's last trip to the District IX Class AAA playoffs was disastrous.
The Chucks were outscored 46-19 during the final two quarters of a 74-42 loss to St. Marys Feb. 24, 2009, after they trailed 28-23 at halftime.
Under first-year head coach Dirk Neal, this season has provided a new outlook for the Chucks. Behind the high-scoring guard duo of Logan Weaver (16.5 ppg) and Daniel Triponey (13.4), and defense that has kept the team in many games, Punxsy's in search of its first postseason victory since 2006 at 7 p.m. tonight against Bradford.
Punxsy (9-13) will play host to a playoff game for the first time in more than a decade, as until recently, the District IX Class AAA playoffs have been contested at a neutral site. Tonight, the Chucks feel home-court advantage will be vital to their success against the Owls (6-16), considering it's a two-plus-hour drive from Bradford to Punxsutawney.
"Home court is definitely a major component. It's a lot more convenient playing here," Weaver said. "Hopefully, we get a good crowd, and it's loud."
Home court appeared to be important while the two teams split their two meetings this season. The Owls won in Bradford, 44-27, Jan. 21, and Punxsy was victorious at home, 61-42, last Friday.
The Owls have struggled mightily on the road this season. They finished the regular season with a 1-11 mark on the road, with their only victory coming over Burrell Dec. 29, 2010, at the Freeport Tournament, 43-41. Burrell finished the year with a 4-18 record in the WPIAL.
There's not much playoff experience to go around between the two teams' players, though a number of this year's Owls watched a loaded senior class advance to the PIAA Second Round after winning the district crown last year. When accounting for the players on this year's roster, junior Colton Holzwarth played the most minutes — eight — in that district championship game.
Still, the Owls have history on their side, having won eight of the last 10 district titles. With that in mind, Punxsy senior forward Jordan Mesoraco isn't questioning how prepared his team is for this game, citing the fact that the Chucks' No. 1 goal at the outset of the season was to reach the playoffs.
"We should be ready," Mesoraco said. "Nobody has any playoff experience on this team, and it's about time we had some experience. We're ready for it."
Punxsy's program may not have the same pedigree as Bradford, but Neal said that it doesn't matter if the Owls had won 10 of the last 10 district titles. Tonight's game is based on this season, and this season only, he said.
"Each year, everything is different. I think it's wide open," Neal said. "Both teams are going to play hard, and with what's a stake, I think you can throw out the records. It's a one game showdown, and that's what's riding on it."
What's riding on it is more than just a berth in the district title game against top-seeded St. Marys or No. 4 Clearfield. The winner automatically clinches a state playoff game or state play-in game, even if it loses in the district championship.
"It's going to be a big game. Neither team wants to go home," Neal said. "High school kids just compete until the bitter end, and I'm sure that's what it's going to be. It's going to go down to the end."
Punxsy played one of its best games all season when it beat the Owls last Friday. Led by 48 combined points from Weaver (25 points) and Triponey (23), the Chucks earned their largest home victory of the year.
The Chucks have been careful to not let the large victory get in their heads.
"I don't think we're overconfident, because we already lost to these guys once," Triponey said. "The win was good, but I think we're still going into it with the mindset that it's anybody's game. We just have to play our best."
Neal said that it's not like the Chucks are a 20-win team. One win over Bradford shouldn't give them any reason to be overconfident.
"We knew that we have to work to earn victories, and we're not going to come in with a big head," Neal said. "We know it's going to be a barn-burner, and we'll have to do all the little things and try to counter all the stops that Bradford brings out against us."
Punxsy couldn't do much on the offensive end when it played Jan. 21 at Bradford. The Owls led 18-17 at halftime before Punxsy managed just 12 second-half points during a 17-point loss.
Weaver scored 17 points in that game, including 12 by halftime. The rest of the Chucks mustered just 10.
Last Friday, Punxsy never trailed against the Owls, racing out to an 8-0 lead. After they led 28-19 at halftime, the Chucks were ahead by double digits the rest of the way.
"I think we're definitely a different team than what we were earlier in the season when we went up there," Weaver said. "Still, they're going to come ready to play, and we have to match their intensity and play good defense."
The Chucks have worked for this moment since the season began.
Now is their shot at defending home court and reaching the district championship game.
"Nothing's given to us, and everything is earned," Neal said. "I feel we earned our right to be where we're at right now, and the kids are really excited to be in this atmosphere, especially playing at home."