Mars basketball team has solid foundation for future

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 3:04 p.m.

For the Mars boys basketball team, the next wave is here.

And, it made some strong ripples this season.

The Planets, hit hard by graduation from last year's successful run to the Section 1 championship, WPIAL Class AAA semifinals and PIAA playoffs, reloaded for another strong showing this winter. With a bevy of sophomores and four new starters, Mars defended its section crown, advanced to the WPIAL quarterfinals and got back to the PIAA playoffs.

“We had some senior guys who had not played and a lot of sophomores. To be among the final 32 Class AAA teams in the state and the final six in the WPIAL, it's a credit to our kids,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said. “This is my 20th season coaching and 16th at Mars, and I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a team. I am not sure many outside our locker room thought we could win a section title, win a WPIAL game and make the state playoffs. The kids bought into what our program has been about and are working hard and pushing the envelope to get us back there.”

Owen Nearhoof set the stage for the Planets. The senior three-time captain wrapped up his career with 1,233 points to rank second in program history behind Christian Locker's 1,288. Nearhoof set the program record with 185 3-pointers, including 73 this season. He set a program record with 135 free throws made. His 491 points this season ranked second in program single-season points.

“In his four years, our teams won 72 games. That's the number he is most proud of,” Carmody said. “Owen could score a basketball from time he was in third grade. Points are awesome, but they are also a product of your teammates getting you the ball, running the offense and playing defense. He set such a great example. Three years in a row, he was voted captain by his teammates.

“I can count on one hand the number of sprints he lost. We've never had anybody like him with his competitiveness; it's been a pleasure to have him.”

Nearhoof averaged 19.6 points per game. But Mars will have to replace much more than that.

“For all the things Owen did, his leadership was probably as important as anything. You can replace points, but can you replace the leadership and unselfishness our seniors brought? Can you remain a team?” Carmody said. “We have a lot of good young players, but we can only play five at a time. When it's someone else's night, can the guys stay loyal? There are a lot of things that make up a great team. We will have some talented kids back. We have a lot of guys who can do different things, but can they do the little things? Can we be a tough team? Where does leadership come from?

“We have a lot of promise for the future. But, are our guys going to put the work in? If they do, the opportunities for them to have success will be there. If they are not willing to do work, potential and talent don't mean a lot because everyone else is working hard.”

John Castello is one of the sophomores who emerged for Mars. The 6-foot-4 center burst onto the scene to average 16.8 points and 15.6 rebounds. He was the first sophomore in program history to surpass 400 points in a season (402).

“He has a real shot at 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career,” Carmody said. “That's impressive. Those are pretty striking numbers.”

Carmody was happy with how the young Planets developed over the season, especially in the playoffs and the two weeks of practice they had between their loss to Chartiers Valley in the WPIAL tournament and their game against Central Valley in the PIAA playoffs.

“For large stretches, we had one senior and four sophomores on the floor against Central Valley. Seven or eight sophomores played in that game. Really, the whole experience of getting to the state playoffs helped us,” he said. “After our loss to Char Valley, we had two weeks to get back in the gym and get our efforts refocused and used it as a time to learn and get better.

“Those two weeks were invaluable.”

Castello said the returning Mars players are eager to get back to work.

“We have a strong sophomore and junior class. The freshman class is good, too. We are excited,” he said. “We think we can make a strong run next year and we expect to. We expect to win WPIAL games and advance to states. We're excited. We know we're just going to have to work hard.”

Joe Sager is a freelance writer.

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