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Seals on upswing after a few down seasons

Mar. 12—Pacing the sideline Friday night, Selinsgrove coach Justin Keiser knew his Seals had nearly wrapped up a first-round victory in the PIAA Class 5A boys basketball playoffs.

Not willing to jinx what was in front of him, he fought the smile that was creeping across his face.

Finally when Xaivier Jackson's foul shot with four seconds left gave Selinsgrove a three-possession lead, he finally lost the battle, and he beamed.

And who can blame him, it's been a long time since the Selinsgrove gym was filled and sounded like it did in the second half of the 57-49 win over Muhlenberg.

"This has been something special," senior Ries Naugle, who more than doubled his scoring average from 10.8 points as a junior to 21.8 points per game as a senior, said. "It's a goal I've worked for my entire life. We came up short every other year. I knew I had to lock in because it was the most important season of my life."

Friday's win was Selinsgrove's first state playoff victory in 23 years, and some of the members of the team were in attendance — Selinsgrove assistant Ethan Hummel and former coach Ray Moyer. Both said it was the loudest the Selinsgrove gymnasium since that season, and I agree — I was there in 2001, too. The 2001 team finished second in the district, capping a three-year run in which Selinsgrove won a league championship and a district championship along with its state playoff victory.

Selinsgrove finished over .500 last season, the first year under Keiser — the youngest son of former Selinsgrove field hockey coach Cathy — and improved to 9-1 in the Heartland Athletic Conference-Division I, and won the District 4-6 Class 5A championship, the school's first boys basketball title since a District 4 Class 3A title in 2008.

The Seals' rise this season has been twofold. As the season has progressed the Seals' 2-3 zone has become one of the top defenses in the area. Naugle and the freshman Jackson at the top of the zone harass guards into turnover — Naugle and Jackson get a lot of fast break baskets as a result.

"We both have really good length, and can get in the passing lanes," Jackson, who tied his career high on Friday night with 21 points, said. "We try to intimidate with defense, and really try and steal the ball on the first pass."

To combat the modern reliance on the 3-point shot, the Seals play their 2-3 a bit differently with the wings — Jace Diehl and Gavin Bastian — playing the shooters, while Naugle and Jackson are aggressive at the top.

Naugle's been the focal point of the offense — he picked up Heartland Athletic Conference Division I player of the year honors earlier this week — and had four 30-point games in the final month of the regular season. However, the Seals didn't get to the second round of the PIAA playoffs on the strength of one player.

Bastian — a wide receiver on the Seals' PIAA semifinal football team — and Jackson give Selinsgrove reliable options on offense when teams key on Naugle, while Diehl can knock down a 3-pointer and is a good passer. Senior Luke Piecuch has become such a reliable passer out of the post, he draws double teams. All of those were factors in the win over the Muhls.

Now on to a bigger challenge tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Altoona High School. Selinsgrove (18-7) faces WPIAL runner-up Franklin Regional (24-3) with the Seals' first-ever berth in the boys basketball quarterfinals. The last two times Selinsgrove won a state playoff game in — 1984 and 2001— both lost second-round games — to Allentown Central Catholic and Steelton-Highspire, respectively.

The Seals will have to figure out a way to stop the Panthers' fast break led by its two top scorers. Six-foot-5 swing player Cam Rowell averages 19 points per game, while point guard Cooper Rankin averages 17 points per game. Franklin Regional beat Warwick, 68-53, in the first round.

The winner of tonight's game will face the winner of the opener at Altoona High School — District 3 champion Mechanicsburg and WPIAL third-place Shaler — in Friday's quarterfinals.