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Mars boys rebounding from offseason losses, average start

| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Disp
Mars defender Nick DeCamp (right) tries to block Knoch's David Gallagher during a basketball game at Mars High School on Tuesday, January 14, 2014.

The Mars boys basketball team is starting to raise some eyebrows.

And that includes head coach Rob Carmody's.

The Planets graduated eight players from last year's squad that reached the WPIAL Class AAA semifinals and PIAA tournament. The team lost another key player early in the season when Alex Gruber broke his ankle. As a result, Mars went 4-4 in its first eight games.

The team, however, has found a new gear lately. After a 71-66 home loss to Indiana on Jan. 8, the Planets produced three key Section 1-AAA wins in a four-day span by beating Knoch, Highlands and Valley.

“If you would have offered me before the season that, with losing eight guys, having one letterman back, losing a projected starter and playing the schedule we do, that we'd be 9-5 overall and 6-1 in the section (through our first 14 games), I would have signed that deal right then and there,” Carmody said. “It really speaks volumes about the kids in our program and their ability to buy into everything. All the credit goes to them and their belief in each other.”

The team's strong week began with a thrilling 40-38 win over rival Knoch on Jan. 14. Austin Fetsko scored five late points to give Mars the win in front of a packed gym. It was the Knights' first section loss as well.

“It was a weird game because the game was played at a pace that had not benefited us. We had been doing a little more going up and down the floor, but Knoch got the pace they wanted. Our guys fought through it,” Carmody said. “When Mars and Knoch play, it doesn't matter what the records are or who is on the floor. The kids know each other well and they'll get after it. If Knoch would have won, there would have been people leaving scratching their heads the same way people left the gym scratching their heads that we won.”

The celebration was cut short because the Planets had to go on the road to Highlands the next night. They pulled out a 67-49 victory.

“I personally was scared to death of going to Highlands,” Carmody said. “They are really playing well. They have good athletes and can shoot the ball. They compete on offense and get after it. Playing Knoch in front of a full house the night before, our guys were just spent. I expected a little bit of a letdown. Highlands played a three-overtime game the night before as well, so I didn't know what to expect.”

It was Carmody's 200th career win in his 16 years as a head coach. He was not aware of the milestone until an assistant coach announced it to the team after the game.

“I don't worry about that stuff. It just means I have coached a long time and been fortunate enough to have good kids,” Carmody said. “I haven't scored a basket in any of those games, so I don't take credit for any of it.”

The program experienced another milestone two nights later in a 74-47 home win over Valley. Senior guard Owen Nearhoof became the sixth Planet to reach 1,000 career points.

“It was nice because Owen got it on Youth Night and there were a lot of our younger players in the stands watching and they want to be the next Owen Nearhoof,” Carmody said. “Owen got his points through hard work, intensity and commitment. He embodies everything we want the kids in our program to be about.”

Starters John Castello and Ethan Lewis are averaging double figures in points and are starting to take some of the scoring burden off Nearhoof. Nick DeCamp, who guards the opponents' top scorers most nights, and point guard Christian Schmitt are getting better, according to Carmody.

Gruber's potential return could give Mars a boost for the stretch run of section play.

“He could be our big free-agent acquisition at trade deadline,” Carmody said. “He's a very versatile player. It'll be exciting for us to get him back, if the doctors believe he's able. We want to make sure he is healthy and not at risk for further injury. That decision is out of my hands.

“Either way, we can't sit around and pat ourselves on the back. We have to get right back into it.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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