Hempfield Area High School coach Jim Nesser harbored much optimism about his Spartans as they headed into last Friday night's Section 1-AAAA opener at Norwin.
The heady feelings fueled by a 3-0 start soon evaporated as the Spartans dropped a 48-45 decision to the host Knights.
"Our execution [on Friday night] was terrible," said Nesser, a 29-year head coach now in his fourth season with Hempfield. "I just don't know if we're mentally tough right now, and it's something we need to work on."
If Nesser's mood was eased by the Spartans' 61-23 victory at Greensburg Salem on Saturday afternoon, it did not show.
"I'm happy with the way we responded [on Saturday], but after that game, we came back and watched the tape [of the Norwin game]," the coach said. "We're still trying to figure out what went wrong, try to get better and move on."
This is a busy week for the Spartans (5-1 overall, 1-1 in section play). After defeating Albert Gallatin, 73-34, on Tuesday, Hempfield visits Connellsville Friday and Shaler Saturday afternoon.
After a five-day holiday break, the Spartans take on Fox Chapel and Montour on Dec. 27 and Dec. 28 in the latter school's holiday tournament.
"Right now, [his team's progress] is a day-to-day process," Nesser said. "We need to see what kind of team we have when we get into a fourth-quarter situation. The games we have coming up will tell us a lot, and by New Year's Day, I think we'll know what kind of team we have. But that's why we scheduled the teams we're playing because we want to challenge them."
Nesser's biggest complaint: the Spartans offense.
"We shot 31 percent against Norwin," he said. "I think you have to give Norwin some credit, but we did not execute. If we can improve in that area, I think we'll be OK."
Defensively, the veteran coach has no complaints. Through five games, Hempfield is surrendering just 39.8 points per game while scoring 64.8 points a game, which is the best scoring average in Section 1-AAAA through Tuesday's games.
"We're playing well defensively, and we do rebound," Nesser said. "Those things we're doing well. I'm just not happy about one of the other tangibles, which is our offensive execution.
"We have challenged them, and we want them to get better. But this is a process, and we're still learning about our team and trying to get them to play with a little more mental toughness. I'm hoping we can learn from the things we've done and go in the right direction."
Nesser hopes the Spartans defensive prowess will spark the team's offense.
"We like to press the whole game for 32 minutes," he said. "That defense allows us to push the ball offensively. We like the up-tempo game and get up and down the floor."
Plenty of talent is evident on the Spartans squad.
Nesser is most pleased with Kason Harrell, a 6-foot-3 sophomore forward who is averaging about 17 points a game.
"He's a two-year starter who has improved a lot since his freshman year," the coach said. "He's a gym rat who just loves the game, and we anticipate he will continue to improve."
Two other players -- Tyler Handlan (5-10, sr., guard) and Tony Pilato (6-7, soph., center) -- are averaging about 10 points a game.
The other Hempfield starters are Mike Naumann, a 6-3 junior forward, and Arnie Cuttrelle, a 6-0 senior guard.
"Harrell, Cuttrelle and Handlan all started last year," Nesser said. "Mike Naumann started as a freshman, but he didn't play last year because he got hurt. Tony Pilato is a new starter."
If there is reason for Nesser to regain his optimism, it's because of what his team gives him and the other coaches in practice.
"I may be frustrated about [last Friday night], but overall I feel good about this team," Nesser said. "They work real hard in practice, and I feel good about their dedication to the team. All of them give good effort in practice and during the games.
"I think we had a bump in the road [last Friday], but we are going to have to be ready to come out and play hard [in the next few games]."