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Sewickley Academy boys using section title chase as prep for postseason

| Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Kristina Serafini I Sewickley Herald
Sewickley Academy's Keenan Hickton goes for a layup as Eden Christian Academy's Drew Helon tries to block the shot during a game on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at Eden Christian.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Sewickley Academy's Anthony Muscato tries to get through Eden Christian Academy players during a game on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at Eden Christian.
Sewickley Academy's JP Bowell looks to make a pass during a game against Eden Christian Academy on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at Eden Christian.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Sewickley Academy's Ty Roberts makes a pass around Eden Christian Academy's Drew Helon during a game on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at Eden Christian.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Sewickley Academy's Steven Munn and Eden Christian Academy's Ryan Koenig go after a loose ball during a game on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at Eden Christian.
Kristina Serafini | Sewickley Herald
Sewickley Academy's JP Bowell (4) and Luke Vith (32) and Eden Christian Academy's Jeff Schmidt wait for a rebound during a game on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014, at Eden Christian.

Win Palmer has a simple formula to judge how the Sewickley Academy boys basketball team will perform in the postseason: If the Panthers are competing for a section title entering the final weeks of the regular season, the team is likely going to have an extended run. If not, the players will be hanging their jerseys up by the end of February.

“I never coached a team who went on an extended playoff run that didn't compete for a section championship,” Palmer said. “You have to be in the midst of the hunt and deal with the pressure of those games. Whether you win it or not is not as important as people think.

“All three of our WPIAL championship teams did win section championships, and the state playoff teams competed for section championships. It's not a coincidence.”

If history repeats itself, Sewickley Academy will need to prepare for an extended season as the Panthers (12-5, 7-1) ended last week in second place in Section 2-A, one game behind leader Vincentian Academy (8-0).

The season has been a return to form for Sewickley Academy basketball. After capturing three WPIAL titles and a PIAA crown between 2004 and '10, the three seasons heading into this season had limited success. The Panthers made the WPIAL playoffs each season — and the state playoffs once — but won only one postseason game during the run and each year yielded a losing record.

But a roster filled with eight seniors has brought new life as the close-knit group came into the year focused on challenging for a section title.

“Our team's cohesiveness is a lot better,” senior forward Ty Roberts said. “By this point as seniors, we all know each other so well and how to play well with each other. We're very close with the younger guys, too. We don't see them as another grade. We're just one team.”

With a highly experienced squad, the Sewickley Academy coaching staff decided to change the team's style of play. The deep bench allowed the Panthers to increase the tempo of play on offense and defense.

“The team has embraced that,” Palmer said. “We have a lot of veterans, and we are running a new system on offense and playing much faster on defense. I give them all the credit in the world because of their flexibility.”

The change in style of play has yielded positive results. After averaging 49.5 points on offense and 49 points on defense, the Panthers are now scoring 61.8 points per game and giving up only 48.6 — behind only Lincoln Park's 48.1 and Carmichaels' 48.5 in Class A.

In addition to the new style of play, the team added Luke Vith.

The 6-foot-5 senior forward has increased the Panthers' presence in the paint and — with 6-2 junior Drew Johnson and 6-1 senior Roberts — has helped Sewickley Academy improve its rebounding.

“(Vith) gave a us a big advantage in rebounding,” senior guard JP Bowell said. “That has been a huge difference from previous years. And with (Johnson) and (Roberts), we are getting a lot of second-chance points.”

Not only do the veteran players bring experience to the court but also the knowledge of how to be successful. The members of the squad have found success in variety of sports during their high school careers — from soccer to golf, from baseball to tennis.

Entering the season, the Panthers' focus became bringing that success back to the basketball program.

“It is something we talked about at the beginning of the year,” senior guard Keenan Hickton said. “We have all been so successful in other sports, and we all walked about how we wanted to end basketball with a big senior year.”

While many are looking at Lincoln Park as the favorite to win the WPIAL Class A crown, Palmer said the class is loaded and mentioned Monessen, Carmichaels, Wilkinsburg, Western Beaver, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart and even Section 2-A rivals Vincentian Academy and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic as teams who have a chance to make it to Palumbo Center.

And while he didn't want to make a guarantee, Palmer is confident the build of Sewickley Academy bodes well for the postseason and the Panthers have as good a chance as anyone.

“The No. 1 thing in playoffs is you have to rebound, and I think we are a good rebounding team,” Palmer said. “The No. 2 thing is you have to have that will to survive. I think earlier in the year we didn't have that, but the losses on the road early in the year taught us it's not enough to want to win but you need that will. No. 3 you need the guys who are willing to make key offensive plays late in the game.

“The last couple years we wondered who would make those plays. This year we have four or five guys who can.”

Sewickley Academy hosted Vincentian Academy on Tuesday night, but results were unavailable at press time. The Panthers travel to Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic on Friday for a 7:30 p.m. start.

Nathan Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at nsmith@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NSmith_Trib.

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