What a difference a year can make
Bob Ford /times news The Indians huddle up before a game earlier this season against the Marian Colts. Lehighton is off to a solid start currently sitting at 4-3.
A new season brings with it a renewed sense of hope for most sports teams.
It doesn't matter whether a team went undefeated or winless the year before, the start of a new schedule gives a team a clean slate from which to start engraving its latest journey.
A few local boys' basketball teams are taking their clean slates and making the most of them.
Only at the Christmas break, Lehighton, Northwestern and Tamaqua have already won as many or more games than they did all of last season. Weatherly is close to duplicating last year's win total as well and seems poised to do so within its next few games. It is something that can only be looked at as a good thing for the TIMES NEWS area.
Lehighton has probably given local basketball enthusiasts the biggest surprise so far this season, however most should have seen an improvement coming with a decorated coach like Rich Oertner at the helm. The Indians won a total of two games in three years from 2008-09 to 2010-11. Last year they went 3-19 in Oertner's first year.
This year Lehighton jumped out to a 4-1 start and currently sit at 4-3. Its 2-1 Mountain Valley Conference record is good for second - one game behind Pocono Mountain West. The Indians also posted their first three-game winning streak since January of 2007.
Oertner thinks the biggest reason for his team's development hasn't come from what they have done during the season, but what they did before the season.
"I think the biggest reason is that we did more work in the off-season," said Oertner. "Last year I had two guys come out a week before the season started. This summer and fall we dedicated two days to basketball. Tuesday mornings were a practice and Wednesday evenings were games. We still have a long way to go to get to the level that I want us to be at, but we are getting better.
"One of the big things has been the kids' confidence. They know they can win games now, whereas the last few years maybe they thought they were going to end up losing them. After we won our first two leagues games we figured we might have a chance at this. We had hoped to win between eight and ten games this year, but our goals have probably increased a little with the early-season success."
Tamaqua has seen a similar turnaround in this early basketball season. A program that has averaged five wins over the last ten years, and went 5-17 last season, has begun this season with five wins and one loss. The Raiders' only loss came to Blue Mountain on Dec. 20.
Second-year coach Caszy Kosciolek credits the switch from being offensive-minded to defensive-minded.
"We are getting a contribution from a lot of kids on offense," said Kosciolek. "I think we have three guys averaging more than or close to ten points. But it has been our defense that has gotten a lot better. The kids are starting to pay attention to it.
"We have been trying to develop a defensive personality the last two years. The kids have seen how North Schuylkill, Blue Mountain and Pottsville play defense against us and realize that if we want to be competitive then we have to do the same."
As one would expect, the wins have made practice and crunch-time situations a lot easier to handle.
"I saw Northwestern a few times last year, and I know Lehighton had a few games like this, but we were in a lot of games in the second half last year and just could never finish. Those experiences from last year are now turning losses in wins this year. I always tell the kids that they are only as good as their last possession, but they are learning how to finish games."
The Tigers have already matched last season's win total as well. They won just three games all of last year, but have accomplished the same feat this year in just seven games.
Northwestern is fighting early on in the Colonial League. The Tigers are currently tied for third in the CL North with a record of 2-2. Their only league losses have come to Bangor (4-0) and Northern Lehigh (2-2).
The Wreckers are also on track to best their record from last year. Weatherly (4-1) finished 6-16 a year ago, but have lost just one game so far this season. The schedule has been friendly to Wreckers so far, but it looks as if it is only a matter of time before they win their sixth and seventh games.
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE ... When the Tamaqua boys suffered their initial loss of the season on Friday night against Blue Mountain, it left the Northwestern girls are the only remaining undefeated team in the coverage area.
Northwestern had a couple of big Colonial League tests last week and passed them with flying colors. The Lady Tigers opened the week with a double digit victory over Palmerton and then added a victory against powerful Bangor a couple nights later.
Northwestern is now 6-0 overall and 4-0 in CL play. It will play host to Whitehall on Friday.
CLOSING IN .... Speaking of the Northwestern girls, senior standout Sarah Jones is closing in on a milestone.
Jones currently has 975 career points.
Jones is looking to become just the sixth girl in Northwestern history to reach the 1,000-point mark.
Other Tigers who have reached the plateau are: Dana Stellar (1,110); Melissa Miller (1,063); Ali Horn (1,038); Sherry Vadimsky (1,006); and Caitlin Miller (1,003).