Mars basketball team embracing clean slate
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The Planets have almost an entirely new look this season.
Mars graduated four starters and four top reserves from last year's squad that won a WPIAL Section 1-AAA title, advanced to the WPIAL semifinals and PIAA tournament.
Senior guard Owen Nearhoof is the only returning starter back this season. But, don't count out the Planets. They proved that when they claimed their Scott Lang Memorial Tournament to start the season.
“We had some talented guys in the wings waiting for their opportunity play. Last year, our freshman group was as talented as we have had at Mars. We're excited about it,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said. “We lost some terrific players, leaders and kids. I think the guys have bought into playing hard. They're trying to play smart and we're growing. I like how we came together.
“You take for granted the first couple days of practice. This year we were trying to re-teach things. Last year, we had group that had been together for three years — on the second day of practice we thought we could find a game to play.”
It didn't seem to faze Mars. The Planets produced a pair of two-point victories against playoff squads. They beat Shady Side Academy, 69-67, in the first game and followed with a thrilling 60-58 triumph over Seneca Valley on Nearhoof's buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“Both games had kind of a playoff atmosphere because of the way they ended. It was definitely not a playoff atmosphere because of the quality of play. We have a long way to go,” Carmody said. “Being able to look back over the course of two days and know how our young and inexperienced guys found a way to win close games right off the bat really speaks volumes for our toughness.”
Sophomore John Castello scored 27 points against Shady Side Academy in his first varsity start. However, starter Alex Gruber, a sophomore, broke his ankle in the game and is sidelined indefinitely.
With Castello in foul trouble against Seneca Valley, Nearhoof stepped up and tallied 30 points to lead the Planets to the victory over the Raiders, who were a WPIAL Class AAAA semifinalist last season.
“John was in foul trouble and we lost another guy to foul trouble. Basically, three guys who started the night before weren't playing against the WPIAL semifinalists and we found a way to win,” Carmody said. “We were down big in the first half, 26-12. We didn't panic or quit. We kept chipping away. We had the lead late in the fourth and gave it away and then executed well enough to get a shot and we made it.
“By no means was it the most aesthetically pleasing game we'll play, but the guys displayed great toughness and stepped up. That's the kind of stuff your program is built on because players will graduate.”
Senior Ethan Lewis joined sophomore Christian Schmitt, Castello and Nearhoof in the starting lineup. Gruber was the fifth starter, but Nick DeCamp, Austin Fetsko, Brett Kloc, Brent Ashbaugh, Nate Sablowski will compete for that spot.
“They definitely want to learn. All fall, I think they have worked as hard as any group we've had. The success we've had over the last few years, it's been such a nice thing for our community,” Carmody said. “These guys are very hungry and have worked very hard. We have a great group of shooters.
“The flip side is there is not a lot of experience. So, many times it'll be the first time we do this or the first time we do that. We'll have some growing pains. We've experienced some of it in practice and in games with our decisions. We lose our poise, at times. The only way you get that is to play, though.”
The Planets experienced some growing pains in an 85-57 loss to Class AAAA powerhouse Hampton on Tuesday. It doesn't get any easier. They have a tough nonsection schedule, including games against Pine-Richland, Montour, Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic and North Hills.
“It's a pretty aggressive schedule,” Carmody said. “When discussing it with my coaches, for these guys to get where we think they can be, they have to play the best competition and we'll find out what we have.”
Joe Sager is a freelance writer.