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Deer Lakes boys team confident but not satisfied

| Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, 5:46 p.m.
Valley News Dispatch
Deer Lakes' Cody Keenan looks to drive on Burrell's Jake Prefling during their Section 1-AA game on Tuesday January 15, 2013. Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Valley News Dispatch
Deer Lakes J.J. Kowalkowski tries to get by Burrell's Ryan Puchak on his way to the hoop during second half action at Burrell High School on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013. Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch

Hold the applause, and, while you're at it, keep the pats on the back to a minimum.

Deer Lakes' boys basketball team may be in first place in Section 1-AA — the rumors are true — but the team knows the winter is long and there's probably more snow on the way.

“Last time I checked, there was never a T-shirt made up or banner given out for first place halfway through the season,” Lancers' first-year coach Jon McKay said. “The coaches and the guys are well aware this thing isn't close to being over.”

Still, the Lancers are enjoying their lead over the big dogs in Section 1. They're the tail-wagging puppy that can't wait to go for its next walk.

Deer Lakes already has more wins (nine) than it had in the past two seasons combined. The Lancers (9-5) were 8-36 across the last two years.

Now 4-1 in Section 1-AA, just ahead of Burrell and Apollo-Ridge, they have the entire second half of their section schedule to validate their standing.

“At one point we lost two in a row, and we just sat in the locker room and looked at each other,” senior guard Tim Jaczesko said. “We gotta step it up.”

Deer Lakes has had just two winning seasons since 2003 with only one playoff appearance. But after a head-turning Section 1-AA win over Burrell, the Lancers are asking to be taken seriously.

Jaczesko said Burrell is the signature win of his high school career — so far.

“We went in there, and no one gave us a chance,” he said.

The Lancers went 12-8 in 2010. Led by Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year Ryan Stanko, they made the WPIAL playoffs after tying for fourth in Section 1. But that was in Class AAA, where they lived for the last four years. And that did not include a first-place visit.

Realignment moved them back to Class AA, where they last played in 2008.

“I think the drop down and the commitment from our guys has led to this,” McKay said. “This is why we got out of bed at 8 a.m. in July.”

McKay was an assistant last season to Joe Lewandowski, who resigned for personal reasons.

“A lot of this is Joe's doing,” McKay said. “He put a lot of this in place. I have added a few wrinkles.”

Jaczesko has been the team's leading scorer in 10 of 14 games, including a school-record 45 points against Aquinas Academy. But that was pre-junk defense.

Stumped by gimmick defenses — face-guarding triangle-and-2s and box-and-1s — Jaczesko (23.4 ppg) has become more the quarterback than the tailback.

Lately, scoring has been more balanced.

Senior forward J.J. Kowalkowski has led the Lancers in scoring in three of the past four games.

“It's not by design,” McKay said. “We never go into a game thinking that if Tim doesn't get 25 or 30 we're going to lose. Tim knows we have other skilled offensive players. He's comfortable distributing, too.

“He has to be the most unselfish 20-point-a-game guy I have seen. Point guard is not his natural position.”

Jaczesko doesn't mind fewer shots.

“I was getting keyed on,” Jaczesko said. “We have had other guys play great. J.J. is one of the most skilled big guys I have ever seen. Zach Bryner's been solid running the point, too, and Cody Keenan has shot the lights out. Tim Cresta has played great defense.”

Deer Lakes is winning without size. Its tallest player is the 6-foot Kowalkowski.

“We call him our big guy, but it's by position only,” McKay said. “J.J. has surpassed what everybody thought his potential was.”

This is a team that has the perfect marriage of depth and experience. All eight players in the rotation are seniors.

“They all trust each other,” McKay said. “But they'll also get on each other to make sure no one takes a night off at practice.”

McKay's job now is to keep an already self-assured team grounded.

“We have a saying up in the locker room,” the coach said. “Confidence is the food of the wise man and the liquor of the fool. The last thing we want is overconfidence.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is the Local Sports Editor of the Valley News Dispatch. He can be reached at bbeckner@tribweb.com.

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