Get ready for a fun, wild ride during the final week of the regular season in the Southern Tier Athletic Conference West Division.
The Elmira boys basketball team (8-5, 8-3 STAC) enters the weekend with a one-game lead over Horseheads (7-6, 7-4). Ithaca (5-8, 5-6) also still has faint hopes at the division title with three league games remaining for each team.
Coming up Monday night is a highly anticipated rematch between Elmira and Horseheads at Horseheads Middle School. But this weekend has its own obstaces for both teams, with Horseheads at Corning at 7:45 p.m. Friday and Elmira on the road Saturday for a 4:30 p.m. game against Ithaca.
“We’re just focused on Ithaca,” said Elmira head coach Ryan Johnson, whose team held on for a 74-71 home win over the Little Red on Dec. 20 after leading by 18. “We can’t control what Horseheads does. We’ve known for a long time they’ve been breathing down our neck.”
Horseheads coach Jeff Limoncelli said a loss to a Corning team that usually gets a big boost from its home environment could make Monday’s game far less meaningful. Horseheads beat Corning, 58-43, at home Dec. 20.
“As far as looking ahead or anything like that, our kids aren’t thinking about it,” he said. “They know going to Corning is going to be a tossup.”
Elmira and Horseheads have both already clinched berths in the Section 4 Class AA tournament.
The Express has followed a five-game losing streak that started with a 68-62 loss to Horseheads in the Josh Palmer Fund Elmira Holiday Inn Tournament with four consecutive victories. Johnson said the turnaround came down to returning to its pressure defense, which creates turnovers that turn into easy buckets.
The Express has also tuned out distractions.
“We kind of went back to basics and started talking about things we can control in games,” Johnson said. “We can’t control the other team, we can’t control the officials, we can’t control the crowd. We just went back to controlling what we can control ourselves: our preparation, our intensity, our execution, our defense and everything like that.”
Since its losing streak, Elmira has victories against Maine-Endwell (67-66), Vestal (90-74), Binghamton (63-62) and Corning (83-64).
“We’re just happy to put ourselves in position to have this opportunity,” Johnson said. “We can’t control our schedule and what happens with Horseheads. We have to play one game at a time and keep trying to put ourselves in good situations and see what happens.”
Despite a four-game losing streak of its own that started with competitive losses to Jamestown and Manhasset St. Mary’s at the Palmer tournament, Limoncelli said his team has remained at an even keel all season.
“We’re focused on one game at a time,” he said. “We’re happy we’re in sectionals and we’re preparing for that. But we always have goals. You have to have goals each year as far as the Christmas tournamnet, the league, all the way down.”
Defense has keyed Horseheads’ success, though Limoncelli said the Raiders have shown offensive improvement in areas such as setting screens and cutting to the basket.
He said the focus of his players from the first day of practice until now has been impressive.
“These kids pay attention in the film room, they work very hard in practice,” Limoncelli said. “I can honestly say these last three months I haven’t had to try to motivate them in a practice situation. They come to work, they enjoy each other. They bring notebooks to the film room, they take notes, they want to learn.”
Wrestling titles at stake
Watkins Glen High School will host the Interscholastic Athletic Conference Wrestling Championships on Saturday, starting at 9:30 a.m. Finals are expected to begin by 7 p.m.
Competing are defending champion Newark Valley, Candor, Dryden, Groton, Lansing, Marathon, Odessa-Montour, Southern Cayuga, Spencer-Van Etten, Thomas A. Edison, Tioga, Trumansburg, Watkins Glen, Waverly and Whitney Point.
The Southern Tier Athletic Conference Wrestling Championships will be held today and Saturday at Union-Endicott High School. Wrestling starts at 5 p.m. Friday and resumes at 10 a.m. Saturday. Admission is $5 each day.
Teams are defending champion Johnson City, Binghamton, Chenango Forks, Chenango Valley, Corning, Elmira, Horseheads, Ithaca, Maine-Endwell, Norwich, Oneonta, Owego Free Academy, Susquehanna Valley, U-E, Vestal and Windsor.
Girls hoops showdown
For the sixth time this season, the Horseheads girls basketball team will face a state-ranked team when it plays Cicero-North Syracuse at 7:45 p.m. Friday at SRC Arena at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse. The game will follow a boys contest between C-NS and Baldwinsville.
C-NS is ranked 12th in Class AA by the New York State Sportswriters Association. Horseheads is 19th in AA.
Horseheads is 3-2 against ranked teams. The Blue Raiders beat Penfield, which is ranked 20th in Class AA; won twice against No. 14 Class A Vestal, and lost twice to No. 10 Class A Maine-Endwell.