United Lions hope for better start this season
ARMAGH — No one needs to tell Bill Clevenger about the importance of getting off to a good start.
Or even just avoiding a terrible one.
Clevenger's United squad entered last season with high aspirations because of a talented, eight-man senior class that appeared to be capable of at least leading the Lions to a third straight playoff appearance.
There was no reason to expect anything else after the Lions opened up with a win against a strong Penns Manor squad in the Ford City tip-off event. But then, everything just imploded.
United went on to lose its next nine games -- most of them by single digits -- and the season was effectively over for the Lions by the middle of January.
Despite that bad start, however, United still almost qualified for the postseason when they started to pick up their play after snapping the streak. After the 1-9 start, the Lions went 6-4 the rest of the way to finish the season with a 7-13 mark.
"It was a horrible start," Clevenger said. "We beat Penns Manor the first game, then we lost in overtime to Westmont, had some injuries, and then we lose nine games in a row. Before we knew it, the season had really escaped us. By the time we got it together, it was too late. By the end, we were probably a playoff-caliber team."
The Lions might have qualified for the postseason if some late-season winnable games had not been cancelled because of weather, leaving the Lions with a record that wasn't strong enough for playoff participation. Still, it was ultimately the poor start and not the weather that kept the Lions out of the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
The Lions will certainly attempt to avoid another slow start this year.
"We've talked about that this year," Clevenger said. "We need to get off to a start that'll keep us in the hunt. We can't wait until the end of January to say we need to get going. But, every year is different. There are different challenges, different possibilities and hopefully this year it'll be a little bit different. After making the playoffs the last couple years, not being in the playoffs -- it stung -- and hopefully we can qualify for that this year."
Unfortunately for the Lions, if they wish to get off to a better start they will have to develop some replacements in a hurry for last year's departed seniors. Included in those graduated seniors were three double-digit-per-game scorers and the team's top rebounder.
There were some encouraging signs for United early in the offseason when the Lions finished second place in the annual Indiana Optimist Club underclassmen tournament. United's tournament run included a win over Homer-Center before the Lions' lost in overtime against Harmony in the championship game.
Still, Clevenger said that strong performance doesn't necessarily reveal where the Lions are now.
"I was encouraged by that performance, but again, that was at the end of March, and this is December now," Clevenger said. "I?don't put too much importance in that other than I?always want to win, but I don't know how much value that has.
"We lost probably seven of our first 10 players to graduation, so replacing all of them and moving people into those positions takes a little time, but I like this team. I like the makeup of it. I like the work ethic and the chemistry they bring, and I'm encouraged by the possibilities."
The Lions return just one full-time starter, senior Tim Ofman. The forward averaged 6.6 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season.
A second part-time starter, senior Brent Bloom, will also be back. Bloom was inserted as the starting point guard about halfway through last year, and that was part of the reason for the Lions' second-half surge.
"He can shoot the ball, and he understands what needs to be done, which of course is a luxury," Clevenger said. "I?think he ought to have a good year. I think how he develops and helps distribute the ball will determine a lot about how we do."
As for the new starters, there will be a familiar name down in the post where Stefan Moreau will take over a spot in the lineup. The junior is the brother of former United star Ross Moreau, who averaged 18.2 points and 11.9 rebounds per game for the Lions in 2008-09.
Stefan Moreau was a top bench player for the Lions last year, and Clevenger is hoping he can have a breakout junior campaign just like his brother did. At 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, Stefan already has a similar build to his brother.
"There are a lot of similarities. Ross was a little bigger, and Stefan's probably a little quicker, but both good solid players," Clevenger said. "Stefan's probably a little further ahead starting his junior year than Ross was at the same point. The upside is there, you just hope it develops."
At the wings, senior Rob Bailey has solidified his spot in the starting lineup while the other opening is still up for grabs. Juniors Justin Blankenship and Cody Trabert and senior Tyler Dipofi are battling for that starting spot, but Clevenger said all of them will see extensive playing time.
Dipofi averaged 6.1 points per game last season as a starter for Laurel Valley but transferred to United for his senior year after Laurel Valley Middle/High School was closed in the summer.
Rounding out the regular rotation is senior Raymond Ofman, who will be the top reserve at forward.
Clevenger said one of the team's greatest strengths may turn out to be its balance as he doesn't expect one player to emerge as the "go-to" guy.
"I?think we have any one of six or seven people that can be the leading scorer on any given night," Clevenger said. "I?think the strength of this team is that they play well together, and they're unselfish. When you have those two attributes, that's really something you can build upon."
The Lions will try to get off to their desired fast start next Friday when they take on host Ford City in a tip-off tournament. United opens Heritage Conference play Dec. 15 at Saltsburg.