Stiffer competition readies teams for playoffs

Matt Shoemaker, who was a basketball guy long before he became Mifflin County’s athletic director, said before the District 6 Class AAAA tournament began that he was concerned about State College and two close finishes between its boys and the Huskies in the regular season.

After Monday’s game, in which the Little Lions shocked Mifflin County by ending its season prematurely, Shoemaker’s worries seem more than justified. Undoubtedly, Aaron Gingrich – who had every reason to believe his team would be in the district final, if not the state tournament – will spend the next six or seven months analyzing film from the game, trying to figure out how underdog State College was able to build a substantial lead in the first half.

And then, one presumes, he will try to capitalize on whatever propelled his team in the back side of the game, a nearly successful comeback proving the Huskies earned their standing in the tournament.

You could say that State College proved it deserves to be in the playoffs because it knocked off the No. 4 and No. 1 seeds in consecutive games. Or you could recognize this as another shining example of why the PIAA needs to impose a mandatory guideline on its 12 districts, demanding that the district tournaments be organized with some semblance of legitimacy.

And I’m sorry, but a team that ended the season with two wins in 22 tries is not a legitimate playoff team. When the State High boys coach said he wanted to enter, the school administration should have told him to jump in a lake.

So, headed to the final, the Little Lions now have four victories – winning less than 17 percent of their games – while one of the only two teams that should have been allowed to compete is done.

District 6 should be ashamed.

The fact that a team of that caliber is at least able to contend with a better squad – and an upset that eliminated what, on paper, was the district’s best large-school team from state contention – offers a glimpse at the positive side of playing in a tough conference.

It makes you ready to play in the tough setting that is the postseason.

In the case of Mifflin County and State College – both members of the Mid-Penn Conference’s largest division by school size, the Commonwealth – the grueling regular season tests the teams and makes them ready to perform when it counts. State College, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been in the district tournament because of its pitiful record, did win those two games to advance to the championship.

And Mifflin County, as a .500 team, looked a lot better when it stormed back after a difficult start and nearly won the game.

Down river a bit, Juniata’s girls team breezed through the Tri-Valley League campaign, but stumbled twice, both against opponents who play a more comprehensive slate.

The first was back at Christmas, against Emmaus of the Lehigh Valley Conference – a team that has represented its league well in playoff situations, winning more state titles across all sports than any other LVC school. And toward the end of the season, it was another Mid-Penn school, nearby West Perry, that made the Indians miserable for a night.

To be fair, Juniata did win one against a Mid-Penn school, one from the Commonwealth no less – but it was the second to worst in the division, while the Mustangs ended second in the Capital.

Down Route 35 a bit more, the East Juniata boys saw their best-in-school-history season come to an unpleasant end at the hands of Southern Columbia, which had to win a play-in game just to get a shot at the No. 1 team in District 4 Class AA. But again, it’s a Tri-Valley League team – and one that played a lot of weaker non-league opponents – that rose to the top thanks to District 4’s incredibly inaccurate seeding method that is based only on record, with no reference to strength of schedule.

This year marked the second time – the last was in 2012 – that the meeting between two sets of Tigers went to the ones wearing black and gold and playing from the bottom side of the bracket.

Is it because Southern Columbia plays in the Heartland Conference? Maybe not. But the fact they it had to play what most would consider a more difficult schedule certainly gives pause for consideration.

Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at