Last season presented a challenging situation for the Riverview boys basketball team.
Soon after the Raiders jumped out to an 8-3 start, which included a five-game winning streak that began during the Christmas break, all-section senior guard Cory Bickert sustained a season-ending knee injury.
With a 1,000-plus career point scorer sidelined, Riverview still qualified for the WPIAL playoffs but struggled down the stretch, losing nine of its last 10 games, including a stretch of seven consecutive defeats.
"Cory was as good a 'big-impact player' as we had and he was averaging about 26 points a game when he got hurt," said 11th-year coach Kevin Krajca, whose team finished 9-12 last season after losing to Frazier in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. "It was hard to flip around during that second half of the season and we had to put the ball in other kids' hands.
"But the kids still embraced everything and guys stepped up. Even though we were retooling our game and strategy, guys never quit and continued to work hard.
"I give them a lot of credit. They never backed down."
Krajca hopes that attitude rolled over into this season.
"We have room to grow," Krajca said. "This is a young team, as far as experience goes, so we're going to try to build from there. We'll need to build our younger guys up."
Sam Gonzowski, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, is the Raiders' lone returning starter and leads a core of seven players Krajca will rely on this year.
Junior guards Jason Anthony and Zach Lesnick both started at times during their sophomore seasons and each are expected to take on a bigger role this year. With senior Shaine Scott and junior Nick DiBucci slated to run the point guard position, junior guard Dom Conte and sophomore forward Danny Milberger also are likely to play contributing roles for Riverview.
"We're hoping some of our younger guys step up," Krajca said. "We hope one or two more guys can step in, but we're still investigating those younger guys who don't have much experience."
The Raiders opened their season last weekend at Kittanning's tipoff tournament. Riverview (1-2) began the two-day event last Friday with a 58-43 loss to Cambria Heights of District 6 before knocking out Purchase Line, also of District 6, the next night, 57-23. They lost to West Shamokin, 51-35, Tuesday.
"We're going to need some time to get experience and confidence," Krajca said. "We definitely took some steps in that direction over the weekend. We weren't sure how we would perform, but once we got out there and got a nice lead [against Purchase Line] we were able to continue to play well throughout the game."
Gonzowski scored a team-high 13 points against Purchase Line. Lesnick scored 11 points in each game and was named to the all-tournament team.
"Most of the guys played pretty well defensively and we moved the ball well," Krajca said. "We have to take things from practice and bring those to the games, and we were able to do that during the tournament. We just have to continue to see that happen."
Krajca also is anxious to see how his team adjusts to playing in a new section this season. Thanks to re-alignment within the WPIAL, Riverview was shifted from Section 1-AA to Section 3-AA and will compete against Greensburg Central Catholic, Jeannette, Serra Catholic, Shady Side Academy, South Allegheny and Springdale.
"This is going to be a new experience for us," Krajca said. "It's going to be a challenge, for sure. Our kids are excited about playing new teams and excited about the challenge."
The Raiders jump into section play Friday when they play host to Serra Catholic. Riverview follows up by facing No. 2 Jeannette on Tuesday night.
"We're not a tall team but we are athletic," Krajca said. "We have guys with some skills and speed. If we can use that to our advantage and not get into a banging match where we're fighting on the boards, we'll be OK."