Just three games into the season, Panther Valley's Brock Mitchell suffered a serious leg injury in an ATV accident and was lost for the year.
With their leading scorer and rebounder out of the lineup, the Panthers also appeared lost.
Five straight setbacks followed the injury to Mitchell.
"Brock's injury was devastating for a number of reasons," explained Panther Valley coach Pat Crampsie. "First and foremost because the entire team and coaching staff was concerned about his injuries and his health. We were all pretty shaken up in the days following the accident.
"Basketball-wise, it was devastating because we had spent so much time planning and installing our offense and defense around Brock and his talents that we had to make some major adjustments to how we were going to play."
With a 2-6 record and the heart of a tough Schuylkill League Division I schedule still awaiting, Panther Valley's season was on the brink. All the positive momentum gained from two straight appearances in the District 11 playoffs was about to be buried under a mountain of lopsided losses.
But Crampsie and his staff never lost faith and more importantly, they made sure the players didn't either.
"It might sound crazy, but even when we were 2-6 we believed there were wins out there and that we could put a run together and get back into district contention," said Crampsie. "Our kids deserve a lot of credit because they bought into it and kept working hard despite the losses.
"We were finally able to break through and get a couple of wins without Brock and once we did, you could see our confidence build. Both individually and as a team our kids started playing better and better as they experienced some success."
The Panthers won five of their next six games, including four straight, to battle back to the .500 mark.
Crampsie said a lot of players have contributed to the Panthers' recent success, but he signaled out senior guard Zach Stanko as a key to the turnaround.
"Zach has started for us and been a leader since his sophomore year," said Crampsie. "No one works harder in practice and no one plays with more intensity.
"When the team was struggling, Zach never eased up or got down. As a mater of fact, he probably worked even harder. When the other kids on the team see his work ethic, it can't help but push them to try and work just as hard."
Stanko's contributions haven't just been by his example at practice, however. He's is the team's leading scorer, leading three-point shooter, among their best rebounders and a top assist man. He has also hit double figures in scoring in all but two games he's played since Mitchell's injury.
"Brock was one of the top three of four players in the Schuylkill League and probably's the league's top big man," said Crampsie. "When you lose a player of that caliber, no one person is going to be able to step in and replace his points and rebounds.
"But the great thing our kids have done is that no one is trying to do it all. Everyone has stepped up their game a little bit and everyone is contributing."
Crampsie mentioned sophomore Nate Mathewson as one of those players. Mathewson moved from forward to center when Mitchell was hurt. He has responded by becoming the team's second leading scorer and top rebounder.
Others contributors have been guards Thad Ogozalek, Joe Revell and Nick McArdle. Ogozalek is the team's primary ballhandler. Revell has been a consistent scorer and three-point threat, and had the Panthers most dramatic play so far this season when his steal and buzzer-beater edged North Schuylkill on Friday night. McArdle moved into the starting lineup when Mitchell was injured and has had several double-figure scoring games in recent weeks.
"Our kids have done a great job of finding ways to win," said Crampsie. "We've toughed out wins even when we haven't played very well offensively.
"We've put ourselves in position to qualifying for the District playoffs. We have a tough schedule remaining, but the kids are playing well and having fun. We believe that we can do it."
With an 8-9 record and five games remaining, Panther Valley needs three more wins to qualify for districts. The remaining schedule includes games against Blue Mountain (11-6), Marian (15-4), Tamaqua (4-14) and a pair with Pine Grove (14-3).
If Crampsie and the Panthers can somehow pull it off, it will be one of the most impressive turnarounds and coaching jobs in recent memory.
ANOTHER TICKET PUNCHED .... After missing out on the district playoffs last year for the first time in 15 years, the Pleasant Valley girls' basketball team is back in the postseason once again.
Last Thursday, the Bears posted a 59-32 Mountain Valley Conference win over Lehighton to secure their district playoff berth.
Pleasant Valley is the sixth girls basketball team in the TIMES NEWS area to make the postseason. Jim Thorpe, Marian, Northern Lehigh, Palmerton and Tamaqua have already qualified. Marian is the only area boys teams that has currently qualified for districts.
ON THE BUBBLE ..... In addition to the Panther Valley boys, five other area basketball teams are still alive for the District 11 playoffs.
Both the Northern Lehigh and Pleasant Valley boys appear to be in very good shape as they both need just one more win to qualify. The Bulldogs have six games remaining while the Bears have five games left.
The Northwestern girls have a 5-7 mark in the Colonial League and four league games left on their schedule. The Tigers need to win three of those games. It will be a tough task for the Tigers who have league games left with Palmerton (10-2 CL), Northern Lehigh (9-2 CL), Bangor (9-3 CL) and Catasauqua (0-11 CL).
The Palmerton boys' (6-11 overall) and the Weatherly girls' (5-11 overall) are both mathematically alive as well. But the Bombers and Lady Wreckers have no room for error as they must both win out.
FILLIES "PINK OUT" ..... The Marian Fillies girls' basketball team will hold "PINK OUT 2011" during one of its upcoming games.
The 'PINK OUT' is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 8 during the Fillies' Schuylkill League contest against Shenandoah Valley.
Both teams' junior varisty and varsity will wear pink tank tops in memory of the late Eleanor Brutto, Marian coach Paul Brutto's mom.
Brutto, who is now in his 20th year as Marian's head coach, also served as Shenandoah's head coach prior to taking over the Fillies' program.
Shirts are being sold to help raise money for Relay for Life and the Cancer Fund. Shirts can be ordered by calling Marian High School 570-467-3335 or by calling Bernard Bruni at 570-773-3966. Shirt orders must be placed this week.
MVC GAME BENEFITS CANCER ..... The proceeds from last Thursday's Lehighton at Pleasant Valley girls basketball game went to the Lucy Fund. The fund raises money and awareness to combat mestastatic breast cancer, a disease that currently has no cure.
The players wore green shoelaces in honor of the event.
PANTHERS ALL-TIME COACHING LEADER ..... Last Friday against North Schuylkill, Pat Crampsie passed Phil Rader for most games coached at Panther Valley.
Crampsie has now been at the helm for 208 games. Rader coached the Panthers for 206 games from 1971-72 through the 1978-79 season.
"I'm really lucky," said Crampsie. "I've had a ton of support from the school board administration, the coaching staff and the players that have come through the program. I feel very fortunate to have been given this opportunity."
Other Panther Valley coaches who have coached 100 or more games include Ted Gauronsky (194), Rob Kovac (162) and John Harkins (147). Both Gauronsky and Kovac coached the girls team while Harkins coached the boys.
CYO NIGHTS AT MARIAN ..... The Marian Colts and Fillies basketball teams will honor elementary school students who participate in Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball at upcoming games.
"CYO Night" for area girls will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 8 when the Fillies host Shenandoah. The boys CYO teams will be recognized on Thursday, Feb. 10 when the Colts host the Nativity.
Area CYO players and their coaches are invited to attend these games free of charge. The youths should wear their basketball jerseys and will be recognized at halftime.