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Mirror Photo by Patrick Waksmunski Penn Cambria’s Zach Grove is knocked off the ball.

By Michel Boytim

Penn Cambria and Deer Lakes met in the first round of last year’s PIAA Class 4A playoffs at Central Cambria High School, and the Panthers came away with a 66-63 win.

But both teams came out of the gym that day better than when they came in.

Tonight, they will face off in the PIAA semi-finals for the first time in either school’s history.

“It was a goal to win a state playoff game, and once we did that, for this team this year, we said we could go further,” the Penn Cambria coach said. , Jim Ronan. “We wanted to make history. It’s created a ton of confidence for this team this year. They have participated in many great matches in all sports. It’s a combination of everything. They’re just tough kids, and they’ve learned from some of our losses we’ve had in the past, but this win (against Deer Lakes) gave them the confidence heading into the state playoffs this year that we were as good as anyone if we play our style and execute.

The winner of tonight’s Class 3A PIAA Semifinals at Hempfield Area High School in Greensburg will face either District 12 Champion West Catholic or District 3 Champion Trinity in Saturday’s State Championship game at Hershey at 2 p.m.

The victory last March was the start of the road to get there.

“(Beating Deer Lakes) kind of got us over the edge,” Penn Cambria senior Garrett Harrold said. “The program wasn’t the best at the time, so just getting that win kind of gave us confidence that we could get out of our conference and compete with teams across the state and in the WPIAL.”

The Panthers followed up their Class 4A District 6 championship with a 3A this year when Harrold’s field goal with three seconds left lifted them over top-seeded Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic.

Harrold has been in tears ever since with clutch baskets against Yough, Steel Valley and the go-ahead 3-pointer in Saturday’s win over Franklin in the PIAA quarterfinals.

Deer Lakes had an equally impressive run.

The Lancers were the No. 5 seed in the WPIAL playoffs, but upset top-seeded Mohawk and Steel Valley before passing Notre Dame du Sacre-Coeur by one point in the Finals. Deer Lakes hangs its hat on its depth after the top two scorers from last year’s game against Penn Cambria graduated.

“That’s probably the most important thing for our team,” Deer Lakes coach Albie Fletcher said. “It allows us to play at a fairly quick pace and really put pressure on the ball defensively. These are things that a lot of teams would love to do, and I’ve always loved doing that, but it’s hard to do without the depth that we have. Its very important for us.

Fletcher’s side had to pull themselves together after a half-time deficit against Neshannock on Saturday and did so using a triangle and two defense.

Ronan isn’t sure Penn Cambria will see the same defensive approach tonight.

“The triangle and two, the box and one, however you want to go about it, with the type of basketball we play, you have to pick your poison,” Ronan said. “Yes, Garrett is fantastic, and he makes us so good, but the other kids around him are also special. We do a lot of dribble-drive stuff that takes away how box-and-one and triangle-and -two work well, because we don’t run a system where you have to go to a certain place. When you break down the dribble defenses, you can get a lot of open shooters. Garrett is such a good player that even if he’s not scoring, he’ll find a way to put us in a good position to make easy buckets.

Penn Cambria made a lot of easy field goals during his run and got used to making double-digit 3-pointers every game.

“If they bring me a double or a game against me and Vinny (Chirdon), we have other guys who can step in,” Harrold said. “We have a group of shooters in the team, so if they do, we trust our teammates to knock down the shots. Our experience and trust help separate us.

Fletcher was an assistant coach for the Deer Lakes team last year, but remembered the loss to Penn Cambria and said it also gave his team a boost.

“It was a tough loss,” Fletcher said. “We started big early, I think until 17 in the first half. We took the lead in the second half, and it came down to the last possession. It was a great game, and a lot of those same players are back for Penn Cambria. Our guys are looking forward to a rematch against these guys.

Deer Lakes’ top scorer is Bryce Robson, who scored 15 points in last year’s contest, but whether it’s Bishop Guilfoyle’s Patrick and Jude Haigh or Steel Valley’s Mekhai Valentine, Penn Cambria has done a good job to make things difficult on opposing stars. lately.

“Most of the year we’ve been playing all men and we’ve been very successful,” Ronan said. “Coming into the playoffs, starting against Westmont, they were beating us from the dribble and getting to the edge and getting easy offloads. We turned into a confrontation zone that gave Westmont all kinds of crises. Against BG we knew we had to do something different because the Haigh brothers (Patrick and Jude) are great so we come into different matchups. There is no science in that. We just rotate, go box-and-one, triangle-and-two, 3-2 matchup, half-court press just to give these teams a lot of different looks. It drops their offenses, and I’m very proud of that, because the boys will do anything we ask of them. Against Deer Lakes we could do something completely different, and that’s a credit to the boys because they’re very smart and know the game.”

Fletcher rushed to Armstrong High School to watch Penn Cambria win over Franklin on Saturday following his own team’s victory over Neshannock and was impressed with the support Penn Cambria had behind it. He said Deer Lakes also has a big following.

“It’s a great feeling,” Fletcher said. “In 2019, my first year on the team, we made it to the state quarterfinals. Since then, when we had such great support from our community and had such a great journey, I knew that if we could somehow return to the United States, the support of our community would be fantastic, and it certainly has been. It’s a dream come true for our team and our community.

Either Deer Lakes or Penn Cambria will earn their first-ever ticket to the state championship game tonight, and the Panthers leader is confident his team can continue to make history.

“We have to play hard like we have been,” Harrold said. “I think it’s going to be a physical game. They like to pick on defense and get you out of what you’re doing offensively. But I think if we stay true to our game and don’t let it shake us, if we’re fundamentally sound, we can come out with a win. We have to keep shooting like we did in attack, but I’m pretty confident about our game.

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