Are Bears ready to take the next step?
ron gower/times news Members of Pleasant Valley boys basketball team are, front row, from left, Nyeim Nevarez, Lance Robinson, Kevin Wisser, Jarius Hosier, Zach Deegan, Eric Mikulski, Shai-Quan Alder. Back row, coach Tony Chupa, Ferrell Fludd, Dakota Neubert, Pierce Roden, Marquis Brown, Ron Moore, Bryan Sharpe, Aaron Raughley, coach Bob Madsen, and head coach Ken Piotkowski.
The disappointment of losing in the Mountain Valley Conference championship game for the second consecutive season didn't last long for coach Ken Piontkowski, who looked at the abundance of players coming back and envisioned even more success this year.
"We only return two starters, but a number of the guys coming back played a lot of minutes last year," said Piontkowski, who is entering his 19th season as head coach. "And they played significant minutes last year. So from that standpoint, it's not like we're a rookie squad. We definitely have some experience."
With a core group of 10 players that are expected to contribute this season, depth will no doubt be one of the Bears' strengths. Piontkowski knows that last year's playoff experience, which also included an appearance in the District 11 AAAA tournament, will pay dividends for a roster that is comprised of eight juniors and eight seniors.
"No matter how good the player is, it's hard to be a top-level performer in your first year until you get that varsity experience under your belt," Piontkowski said. "Even if they don't succeed or experience a lot of success that first year, the next time (through) they do a lot better.
"So I'm expecting guys like Lance Robinson (5-10, Sr. G), Jarius Hosier (5-10, Sr. G), (Dakota) Neubert (6-3, Sr. F) and (Zach) Deegan (5-10, Sr. G), guys that have played before, to find it a lot easier to do things this year."
Neubert, Hosier and Eric Mikulski (6-0, Jr. G) look to have locked down spots in the starting rotation with returning starters Bryan Sharpe (6-1, Jr. G) and Marquis Brown (6-5, Sr. F), who can be dominant, but has been injury prone in the past.
If the Bears can take advantage of their depth and also get steady play from a variety of role players Pleasant Valley will certainly have a chance to win. The Bears will still need to tighten up a few areas of their game to improve on last season's 13-12 record.
"I think winning battles, whether it's getting loose balls or rebounds, just comes with toughness, and we're trying to be mentally tougher," Piontkowski said. "I think if we can get a couple of guys to become that kind of player, sometimes it's contagious, and then the rest of the team starts to play like that.
"We've been a little timid at times, going for loose balls or getting rebounds. But if we're going to be successful, big picture, we're going to have to clean that up."
The Bears certainly have an asset when it comes to winning the battle in the paint with Brown, who was one of the MVC's top big men a year ago.
"Getting rebounds is the most important thing to me," said Brown, who averaged 12.3 points-per-game a year ago. "I could care less about scoring, as long as we win and I get rebounds. That's part of my game I've really worked on because I know it will give us a better chance to win."
With opening night against Northampton just around the corner, the wait and see period for the Bears is almost over.
"Sometimes things that you think are going to be strengths aren't and things that you think are going to be weaknesses really aren't as bad as you thought," Piontkowski said. "Hopefully they're ready to take the next step."