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Butler basketball team experiencing growing pains

| Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 7:16 p.m.
Matt Konieczny
Butler's Nick Patten controls the play in the frontcourt during a recent game against Seneca Valley
Matt Konieczny
Nick Patten looks to drive to the basket
Matt Konieczny
Butler's Mark Gross defends the lane during a game against Seneca Valley

Butler faced the best WPIAL Section 3-AAAA boys basketball had to offer.

The Golden Tornado came away impressed.

New Castle, the defending WPIAL champ, beat Butler, 74-56, to open section play, and Hampton, the WPIAL runner-up, followed with an 80-52 triumph over the Tornado.

It was quite the daunting start for Butler in the section. But coach Matt Clement knows it will make his team better.

“I like it that way. It makes you get tougher from the get-go,” he said. “We had a tough game against New Castle. They are in midseason form, and we're in the process of getting everybody going together. It was a bad combination. I think we learned a lot. The practice coming off that I thought was one of the best we've had.

“One thing is, it will make you mentally tough. You'll go through ups and downs, but the question is how do you respond? If you want to be a playoff team, you have to respond. You really have to keep a mental focus and your head down and grind away in our section and try to win every game you can and see where you are at the end.”

The Tornado have a young squad. The team has two seniors — Rich Marnic and Cory Wheeler — who did not play basketball last season. Large junior and sophomore classes return from last year's 6-15 squad, Clement's first sub-.500 team in his five-year tenure.

“It puts us behind the 8-ball because having experienced seniors is so important to any team,” Clement said. “With how daunting our section is, it puts you in a tougher situation. Fortunately — or unfortunately — for us, a lot of young guys got a chance to play last year. A lot of sophomores got a chance to play, but it was in a losing environment.”

Butler opened this season with a victory over Slippery Rock, but dropped a 91-85 shootout to Class A power Vincentian. Butler rebounded for a 65-54 win over Perry Traditional Academy before beginning section play against Class AAAA's top-ranked squads.

“The biggest hurdle for me is to get us over the hump and learn how to win as a group and a team,” Clement said. “I am not happy with any losses. Have we seen some potential progress out of some players? Yeah. We just haven't been able to put it together.

“I have a very nice junior class. We're about 10 players deep. The big hurdle for us is to get a majority of the players to play well on the same night. We have had a lot of games where three or four play really well and three or four play OK and three or four play not so well. For us to be successful, especially being so young, we have to have a majority of our players come out and play consistently.”

Nick Patten, Arum Krause, Keenan Krause, Mark Gross, Justice Lewandowski, Eric Hindman and Andrew Paterno are some of the juniors who have logged a lot of minutes. Freshman Tyler Frederick has made an impact off the bench as well.

“It's exciting because we have a lot of young players who will be here and leave their mark on the program,” Clement said. “It puts it on me as the coach to find out the right combination to make it work.”

Clement knows his team faces a daunting task in the section, which produced all four WPIAL semifinalists last year — New Castle, Hampton, Seneca Valley and North Allegheny. He's quick to rattle off that, in the past three years, eight of the 12 WPIAL semifinalists have come from the section — including Butler in 2011 and '12.

“It's fun grinding every night. You just have to know what you're in for,” Clement said. “In the long run, I think it'll help these kids as basketball players and students. Nothing is taken for granted. The kids in this section work really hard and the coaches put together solid programs. I like to compete with people like that.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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