Two years ago the Pleasant Valley boys' basketball team lost in the Mountain Valley Conference semi-finals, but still managed to qualify for the District 11 playoffs.
Last season the Bears took it a step further in the conference playoffs, as they made it to the MVC title game for the first time in quite some time.
This year Pleasant Valley wants to take the third and final step. That progression would include winning the conference championship.
The Bears' road to the MVC title game won't be easy though, as the team returns just three players that saw major varsity minutes last year. Not only will the new members have to be prepared for the speed of the varsity game, but they will have to develop the aggressiveness needed to compete at the highest level.
"We have to quickly develop that killer instinct," said head coach Ken Piontkowski. "That's not something you can teach. You just have to hope at some point your players get tired of getting pushed around and start to do something about it.
"We also have to play more consistently and with maximum effort at all times. We aren't the type of team that can take plays off and rely on our athleticism or skill sets to cover for us. We have to bust our butts all over the court and make up for some things with hard work."
Pleasant Valley lost its top two scorers in Nick Stanovick and Selwyn Wright from last year's district team. While 6-1 senior forward Devon Howard (4.5 points-per-game in 20 games) will be looked upon to fill most of the voided perimeter scoring, he will have some help. However, none of his help has any varsity experience.
Senior Dan Hrbek (5-11, G) has come back out for the team after sitting out a few years. Juniors Jarius Hosier (5-10, Jr., PG), Zach Deegan (5-10, Jr., G) and Lance Robinson (5-10, Jr., G), along with sophomore Bryan Sharpe (6-1, G), will rotate at the guard positions. Hrbek and Sharpe figure to be the best bets to offer Howard some scoring assistance.
"We'd like to play great defense and use the guards to pressure," said Piontkowski. "The problem is they don't always put that effort in playing defense. What will probably happen is two or three of the above guys will emerge because of their effort and the others will only see spot duty."
The Bears go-to-guy on the block will be 6-4 junior center Marquis Brown. Brown averaged a double-double last year (ten points, ten rebounds), but was somehow left off the all-conference teams. Senior Sekou Jones (6-3, F), who averaged 1.6 points-per-game last year, also returns to the starting lineup. Backups Chris Skutnik (6-0, Sr., F), Dakota Neubert (6-3, Jr., F) and Jon Pazienza (6-8, Jr., C) will combined to make the Bears rather big and formidable up front.
"We will try to throw the ball inside and give touches, but some of the advantage will have to come from them rebounding the ball," Piontkowki said. "Teams may use the Lehighton approach and put five guys in the paint and dare us to shoot. Even with a size advantage, we have to have a balance of inside, outside and transition."
A few other players who are on junior varsity may be moved up from time to time, but Piontkowski has yet to determine who and when that will be.
The thing that worries Piontkowski the most, besides the fact that his team is young and will make mistakes, is his players' reaction to losing. Some of his past teams didn't seem to be bothered by losing. He is hoping that his three returning starters, along with his new breed of underclassmen, will not let that be a problem this season.
"We need to develop some leadership and demand intensity from each other," said Piontkowski. "It remains to be seen if we have the fire and savvy necessary to be a great team.
"Does it hurt them to lose? If the answer is no, which unfortunately may be the case, then it will be difficult to be very good. We can be good, but not great."