The Homer-Center Wildcats finished atop the Heritage Conference six out of eight years, from 2009 to 2016, under head coach Bob Rado.
On Friday night, the Wildcats played in the championship game for the first time since the conference implemented a playoff format to decide the champion in 2017, but the Wildcats were unable to give Rado a victory in this, his final season as a high school coach.
Ligonier Valley defeated Homer-Center, 64-47, at the Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex, giving the Rams a third straight championship in this, their final season in the Heritage Conference.
But, typical of Rado, he was already looking forward to the team’s next challenge — a non-conference regular-season finale with implications.
“This was not the end of the road for us yet,” said Rado, who is retiring after 36 years of coaching with Marion Center, Indiana and Homer-Center. “I really don’t want it to end yet. A game like this builds you up for districts and states. You want to play against tough teams. We played hard and showed a lot of character. We just have to get ready to go against Punxs’y on Tuesday. If we win, it puts us in the third seed (of District 6 Class 2A).”
As the team prepares for Tuesday, Rado might stress a strong start to the second half against Punxsutawney. A sputtering start to the second half against Ligonier Valley proved the difference. The Rams outscored the Wildcats 17-10 in the third quarter after going to halftime with just a 32-27 advantage.
Homer-Center opened the second half with turnovers on its first four possessions and missed a shot in the fifth possession. The
Wildcats lost an opportunity to take the lead, as the Rams scored just four points in their first five possessions.
A 10-2 run later in the third quarter, highlighted by a pair of 3-pointers by Rams sophomore Matthew Marinchak from the corner in front of the Rams’ bench, put Ligonier Valley permanently into a double-digit lead, 46-32.
Ligonier Valley senior Michael Marinchak scored 11 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, including six points in the pivotal third quarter. The older Marinchak was called for a pair of charges in the fourth quarter, just two of the Rams’ four offensive fouls in the second half. He fouled out with 2:06 remaining in the game, but his style of play set the tone.
“That was our game plan coming in,” Michael Marinchak said. “Drive the ball to the hoop … drive the lane. I think on the bigger floor, we had the advantage with all five, six, seven guys driving the ball to the hole. We create mismatches and we go from there.
“We always seem to start off slow, but we know defense is going to win the game. (Starting the second half) we said no inside easy buckets. We stopped their inside game.”
Jaden Evanick, one of Homer-Center’s best inside threats, led the Wildcats with 12 points, but he fouled out with 4:08 left to play in the fourth quarter.
Homer-Center turned over 13 second-half possessions in all and ended with 19, compared to 12 for Ligonier Valley.
The Wildcats held their last lead late in the first quarter when senior Jon Gearhart hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 2:30 remaining to make it 14-11.
Ligonier Valley took the lead for keeps when Michael Marinchak shoveled an inbounds pass to junior Isaac Neidbalson under the hoop for an easy layup that gave the Rams an 18-16 lead one minute into the second quarter.
Rams senior Kyle Silk played in the next-to-last basketball game of his high school career. He transferred from United at the end of the 2018-2019 school year and was ruled ineligible to play football for the Rams. Silk was permitted to play basketball through the regular season with Ligonier Valley, but he was also ruled ineligible to play in the District 6 playoffs.
Silk, who will finish his one season with the Rams against Berlin next Saturday, scored 13 points against the Wildcats, including nine points during the second-half surge.
“One of the main reasons they wanted to (win this game) was for Kyle,” Ligonier Valley coach John Berger said. “And they wanted to three-peat, because it’s going to be a long time before someone can do that again.”
Ligonier Valley has played in all four championship games since the conference went to the playoff format. The Rams lost to Saltsburg in 2017, but they came back with victories over Purchase Line in 2018 and West Shamokin last year.
The victory was the third for Ligonier Valley against Homer-Center this year. The Rams entered the conference playoff bracket as the top seed out of the South section.
Homer-Center, the second seed out of the South, fell to 14-7. Ligonier Valley will begin the District 6 Class 3A playoffs as the top seed with a 21-2 record.