The two teams might be separated by about 40 miles, but Pittston Area and Hazleton Area have played five times over the past two seasons. A sixth time will determine a district champion.
The top-seeded Cougars will take on the third-seeded Patriots at 6 p.m. on Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena for the District 2 Class 4A championship. A win will also guarantee a spot in the state tournament, which begins on March 4.
Last year, Hazleton Area knocked off Pittston Area to win the Wyoming Valley Conference Division 1 title. Two weeks later, however, the Patriots won the district championship.
As of late, it’s been Hazleton Area who has had the upper hand in the series. The Cougars have posted two wins over the Patriots in the last month and a half. On Jan. 14, Hazleton Area won 57-48. Most recently, on Feb. 5, the Cougars controlled Pittston area, 52-39.
In those wins, the Cougars used the triple-threat attack of Mackenzie Yori, Kendra Pfeil and Maddie Mrochko to take care of the Patriots. The trio has scored 80 of Hazleton Area’s 109 points in the two contests. Yori was recently named the Wyoming Valley Conference Division 1 Most Valuable Player, while Pfeil was named a first-team all-star.
Yori averaged 19.4 points per game for the Cougars, who are on a 14-game winning streak after a loss to Dallas in the regular season opener. She helped lead the Cougars to a 20-3 mark.
Pittston Area head coach Kathy Healey said the key to the game might be slowing down Yori and her counterparts.
“I’m not sure if you can actually slow them down,” Healey said. “They are very good. The whole team is good. If someone has a bad game for them someone else steps up.”
The Patriots tailed Hazleton Area for most of the season in the Wyoming Valley Conference Division 1, eventually finishing second to the Cougars. A win will give the Patriots back-to-back district titles. Last year’s title was the team’s first in school history.
“We’ve been practicing hard and we hope we’re prepared for everything that comes our way,” Healey said. “We’re excited to play at Mohegan Sun. It’s exciting for everyone.”
The Patriots come into the game with an 18-6 overall record and an 11-3 in this year’s conference slate. Leading the way for Pittston Area this season is senior forward Marley O’Brien and junior Taryn Ashby. Both players were named to the Wyoming Valley Conference all-star teams.
Those players are key for the Patriots both offensively and defensively. Pittston Area is holding teams to just 41 points per game.
“It’s going to be interesting,” said Hazleton Area coach Joe Gavio, who was named the WVC Division 1 Coach of the Year this season. “We have no illusions that this will be easy. It will be a toss-up game. How is the arena going to affect you? it will be lots of fun for sure.”
Hazleton Area’s road to the district title game was a short one. The Cougars, after receiving a bye in the first round, polished off Wyoming Valley West in the semifinals, 60-49. The Patriots had to get past a stout Williamsport team in the quarterfinals before taking care of Wallenpaupack, 47-40, in the semifinals.
Prior to reaching the finals last season, Hazleton Area was last in the finals when it beat Wyoming Valley West, 45-40, in 2010. Beating a team like Pittston Area three times in one season will be a tall task, Gavio said.
“That keeps coming up,” Gavio said. “I would say it gives the other team motivation. This year has been a fun year and we didn’t expect to be here. It will be a lot more fun to win this.”
Both Pittston Area and Hazleton Area coaches have stamped their marks on the Wyoming Valley. With his most recent win over the Patriots, Gavio earned his 400th career win. Healey got her 300th career win last season.
Healey, who is a former coach at Seton Catholic, said she’s been getting wishes of good luck from the Greater Pittston community all week. The Patriots expect to have a large following at the arena.
“You can’t even describe it,” Healey said. “I wish every coach and player would be in that situation. This is the fun part of basketball — almost March Madness.”
Reach Nick Wagner at 570-991-6406 or on Twitter @Dispatch_Nick