A few years ago, Panther Valley boys basketball coach Pat Crampsie might not have been able to stay as upbeat and positive.

That's because the Panther program was a lot more fragile back then.

Panther Valley was in the midst of a streak that saw it go eight consecutive years without qualifying for the District 11 playoffs. At that point in the program's development, an injury, a difficult schedule, or a few key graduation losses would derail any momentum that was building.

After qualifying for Districts in two of the last three seasons, Crampsie said that isn't the case anymore.

"At this point, we feel Districts are a realistic goal regardless of the circumstances that we are facing," said Crampsie.

This year, those "circumstances" include the graduation of last year's leading scorer Zach Stanko, the absence of inside force Brock Mitchell for at least the first month of the season, and what Crampsie calls "a brutal" schedule.

Districts are still a realistic goal, however, thanks to four returning letter winners and some talented varsity newcomers.

Heading the list of returnees is Nate Mathewson, a 6-5 front line player who averaged 11.7 ppg. a year ago. He will be joined in the starting line-up by point guard Thad Ogozalek (3.2 ppg.) and guard/forward hybrids Nick McArdle (4.8 ppg.) and Joe Dalessio. All four of the players are seniors who started last year, although Dalessio didn't break in the lineup until late in the season.

"We have some nice experience returning," said Crampsie. "We might not be as tall as we have been in recent seasons, but we will be quicker and more athletic.

"Nate (Mathewson) will give us a nice presence in the post to build around. Thad (Ogozalek) does a good job handling the ball and can also give us some outside shooting. Nick (McArdle) and Joe (Dalessio) are tough, aggressive defensive players who we feel can also score points for us."

Crampsie said junior Steve Romanchick and sophomore Jake Szczecina are battling for the remaining spot in the starting lineup. Also expected to see quality playing time are senior Zack King and sophomore Luke Stano.

Rounding out the opening night varsity roster are sophomore guards Jake Kusko, Pat Owens and Kyle Ferryman.

The Panthers also have three players who won't be ready for the start of the season. Jesse Mathewson and Kevin Dunn are battling injuries. Mathewson is expected to return around the holidays while Dunn is probably out until at least late January. The availability of Brock Mitchell, a starter a year ago before an injury ended his season, will depend on how he recovers from a recent surgery and he handles some off-court issues.

"I like our kids and our team," said Crampsie. "Because of how difficult our schedule is, there might be times when we are outmanned. But I expect us to compete hard and be focused every time we step on the court.

"One of the keys for us will be how we respond to bad plays, bad quarters and bad nights because there are going to be some of them during the season. If we can bounce back and not let them have a lingering effect, I think we will have some success."

A fragile team probably couldn't do that.

A strong program can.

Crampsie believes that's exactly what Panther Valley now has.