PIAA hoops: District 1 champ Penncrest starts states quest vs. Hershey

It’s a special magic that only the PIAA tournament can conjure this time of year – Hershey, toting a 13-13 record, the 15th seed in the second-largest class of District 3, playing for in a state tourney Friday when they visit District 1 champion Penncrest in the first round of the PIAA Class 5A tournament (7:30 p.m., Marple Newtown).

The Trojans are an intriguing case, having snuck into the 16-team district tournament with an 11-11 mark yet battled their way to states. A season ago, the Trojans didn’t even make districts – not states, but districts – despite having 6-foot-10, 240-pound, Villanova-bound Dylan Painter on the team. Writing that sentence still boggles the mind.

This year’s team lost in the first round of districts to Mechanicsburg, but the ludicrously expanded PIAA brackets that require a preponderance of teams to full those abundant lines means they got a chance to play back for the 10th seed.

The Trojans don’t carry a ton of experience into this meeting, and they come off a loss to New Oxford in the 10th-place game. They are a young team with decent size. Jake Wilson, a 6-foot-2 guard, is among the top scorers. Size in the post is provided by Nick Hines and Drew Painter, Dylan’s younger brother and a Division I football prospect.

Penncrest (20-7) should be the prohibitive favorite, fresh off its first District 1 crown in 48 years last Saturday. The Lions have proven an ability to cope with larger teams, as the 6-foot-5 and up frontline of Upper Merion they conquered will attest. They’ll have the best player on the floor in Tyler Norwood, who scored 100 of the team’s 191 points in the four District 1 playoff games. And not that they needed the reinforcement, but the 39-37 win over Upper Merion affirms the team aspect, particularly on defense with the undersized but tenacious frontline of Manny Ruffin, Chris Mills and Mike Mallon.

With the Xs and Os squared away, perhaps the most pertinent challenge for Mike Doyle’s team Friday will be the psychological. The emotional release after such a profound triumph as last Saturday’s at Villanova takes a toll. The effort expounded to win four games by single-digit margins – one in overtime, the last in sensational come-from-behind fashion – is considerable. And there’s no doubt that Penncrest, perched atop the bracket, will have noticed that the winner of its game gets Milton Hershey or Chester in the second round.

In coach cliché, that’s the dual trap of the emotional letdown and the look ahead, both of which the Lions must avoid.

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