Motivation and focus are not issues this week for the Indiana Indians.
There is only one thought in the Indians’ locker room and practice field as they get ready for Friday night’s game at Hollidaysburg.
“This is do or die,” said Indiana coach Mark Zilinskas, “and the kids want this one real bad.”
It really is this simple for the Indians (3-5): In order to earn a WPIAL Class AAA playoff berth, they need to beat Hollidaysburg (3-5). Technically, Indiana could still get to the playoffs if it loses, but that includes some variables Zilinskas doesn’t want to have to deal with.
So the best way to approach it for Indiana is just simply to win.
“This is a huge game,” Zilinskas said. “I’m not going to lie to (the players), but there are a lot of scenarios where if we lose this game that we could still get in. But that depends on what everyone else does, and we don’t have control over that. So this is a golden opportunity for us. We control our own destiny. We don’t need anyone’s help.”
There are three conferences in Class AAA, with the top five in each getting playoff spots. The 16th spot goes to the best team remaining, in terms of record.
The Indians are in a four-way tie for fourth place, along with Hampton, Hollidaysburg and Greensburg Salem, in the Greater Allegheny Conference. The top five teams after Friday night’s games earn playoff spots, and Indiana would be alone in fourth place if it beats the Tigers, regardless of the outcome of the other games.
If the Indians lose, they could fall as far as seventh place and be left out of the playoffs.
“This time of year, it’s a matter of toughness,” Zilinskas said. “Who wants it more? Who wants to play a week longer? I know these guys are tired from doing the same routine over and over, but this a great opportunity for us.”
This is a scenario reminiscent of last season, when Indiana played host to Hollidaysburg knowing a win would help get the Indians in the playoffs. As it turned out, the Indians won that night, but not by enough points, and they were left out because they were involved in the complex tiebreaker system that fleshed out the 16th postseason team.
This time around, things are not so complex. A win puts the Indians in, regardless of the final score.
But winning Friday night won’t be easy — the Tigers have been competitive in most of their games. But Zilinskas feels good about his team’s chances because of the way it has been playing lately. Indiana beat Knoch last week, 28-7, without much difficulty. The week before that, the Indians lost 21-14 to undefeated West Mifflin, which has outscored its seven opponents this season by an average of 29 points per game.
“We are definitely moving in the right direction,” Zilinskas said. “We are at the point where guys are developing and we’re getting some consistency in some positions. I think defensively, last week we played as well as we have all year. I really do think we’re starting to catch our stride.”
But the catch is this: Hollidaysburg can also get to the playoffs with a win. So it’s not like the Indians can hope to catch the Tigers unprepared or distracted.
So although the playoffs don’t technically begin until next Friday night, the Indians find themselves in a playoff-like scenario. A win means the season goes on. A loss means things are likely over.
“We feel like we match up well with this team,” Zilinskas said. “We’re going to their field and we’re expecting a battle.”