Upper St. Clair basketball team streaks toward playoffs

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 10:54 p.m.

Danny Holzer has been Upper St. Clair's head basketball coach for 18 years, and in that time he's witnessed two notable winning streaks similar to what his team is in the midst of right now.

In 1996, Upper St. Clair won 16 in a row en route to a WPIAL title. And in 2005, behind current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee, the Panthers won 14 in a row and captured another WPIAL title.

Fast forward to 2012-13, and the Panthers are at it again, riding an 11-game winning streak heading into Friday night's Section 4-AAAA game against Peters Township.

This week, the Panthers (14-3, 9-1) defeated Baldwin, 56-49, in a section matchup Tuesday and Gateway, 59-56, in Sunday's Pittsburgh Basketball Club Classic at La Roche College.

The Upper St. Clair basketball team is the focus of this week's Trib Total Media/WPXI High School Sports Award feature. The impressive winning streak is the primary reason why Upper St. Clair High School is in third place in the Class AAAA standings.

Holzer isn't ready to clear out space in the school's trophy case just yet. Heading into the season, his main priority was getting the Panthers back into the playoffs after failing to qualify for the first time in 11 years last season. That goal has been accomplished, as USC has clinched a playoff berth.

“We feel like we've developed a lot of pride for our program. And the kids love the tradition and reputation that we've had for the last few years as a Quad-A powerhouse,” Holzer said. “They were really disappointed and didn't want that to happen again, and they really wanted to let people know that last year was an aberration.”

The Panthers are paced by a balanced eight-man rotation featuring three double-digit scorers: senior Jordan Grabowski (16.8 points per game), junior J.J. Conn (14.2 ppg) and senior Joel Klein (10 ppg). Seniors Pete Coughlin and John Duffy round out Holzer's normal starting rotation.

“They all are very team-oriented and know their roles,” Holzer said. “Offensively, they all share the ball. Their chemistry is so good, and I think that's why they are playing well together.”

Juniors Will Ross, Conor Gallagher and Nick Staley are the first players off the bench, and Holzer said he has no reservations about getting them involved early. The three have shown no drop-off in production when they enter the game, Holzer said.

USC plays a balanced game with emphasis on tight man-to-man defense. The Panthers look to capitalize on fast-break chances and stay true to Holzer's mantra of grinding it out on defense, then wait for a good, high-percentage shot.

“We feed off one another,” Holzer said. “Our team has great chemistry, and we just find ways to win. We like to think that it starts with playing solid, full-court defense.

“That's our identity with our defense, and by pressing the other team, it just sets us up nice offensively.”

USC may lack the star power of some other Class AAAA contenders, Holzer finds peace in knowing his entire lineup will give him 110 percent each night. The goal of simply making it back to the playoffs has been attained, and now it's time to set higher playoff aspirations.

“They've exceeded my expectations as far as how gritty and tough we are,” he said. “Most of our games have been close games, and we've found ways to win them. This team just goes out and wins together.”

Brian Graham is a freelance writer.

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