The first week of the season presented quite the challenge for the Sto-Rox boys basketball team.
Soon after beating Propel Andrew Street in the Midland tip-off tournament, the Vikings continued their non-section schedule against three ranked opponents from three different classifications. They first played Lincoln Park (No. 4 in Class A) before facing Beaver Area (No. 2 in Class AAA) and then met Greensburg Central Catholic (No. 3 in Class AA).
Sto-Rox, however, chalked up three consecutive losses during that stretch.
"My philosophy is you play those types of games because of the coaches you'll be playing against," Vikings coach Bill Minear said. "These are good coaches and they'll expose what you need to work on.
"We understand what we need to work on to get better and that's what we're trying to do before February and March. We're at the point where we're learning from our mistakes."
Sto-Rox bounced back by winning its next three games and after defeating Carlynton, 71-47, Tuesday has a 7-5 overall record and a 5-1 mark in Section 6-AA good for first place.
"This season is definitely a work in progress," Minear said. "We have a lot of good athletes, but we have inexperienced athletes who still need to learn the game a little better. This is still a great group of kids to coach."
Seven of Minear's 11-man roster also played football and only had a two-week transition period to prepare for basketball season. Sto-Rox football team advanced to the WPIAL Class A championship game, which was played Nov. 23.
"Honestly, I think we got a late start because of football," Minear said. "There's no excuse because we know we should be a better team than what we are right now.
"Still, we didn't get the time we needed to work on a rotation or work on adjustments. We threw ourselves right in there at the beginning of the season and were battling for our lives against good teams. We took some early lumps because we were adjusting to stay in games."
The Sto-Rox football team finished its season 11-2 after losing to Clairton in the WPIAL Class A championship game.
"Playing football definitely brings out the competitiveness in these guys," Minear said. "Once we get the basketball aspect together, that competitiveness will help us improve. These guys know what it takes to win, and hopefully they can parlay that success."
Last basketball season, Minear's group went 10-0 and captured the Section 5-AA title before finishing with a 23-4 overall record. Sto-Rox lost to Beaver Falls in the WPIAL semifinals and then fell to Quaker Valley during the second round of the state tournament.
The Vikings, however, graduated all-section players Dontez Ford and Marzett Geter, and also lost LeMonte Harrison, who transferred to Montour for his senior year.
Senior guard Tonyea Curry, 6-foot-6 junior forward Makil Allen and junior guard Lenny Williams are three returning veterans and have remained staples in the Vikings' starting lineup.
Senior guard Tony Franzley, junior guard Brendan Blair, senior guard Ben Shackleford, junior forward Elisha Bonner, senior forward Jason Rippole and sophomore guard Craig Johnson also have rotated in as starters at times this season.
"We still need to solidify our lineup and come down with a rotation we're comfortable with," Minear said. "We haven't had the same lineup for more than two games in a row.
"Once we start to emphasize the value of ball control while still not playing tentative and cut out the turnovers, we'll be OK."
Sto-Rox picked up a 59-39 section win against Freedom Area on Friday. Curry and Allen paced the Vikings with 15 points each, while Williams added 12 against the Bulldogs. According to Minear, Allen has consistently led the team in points and rebounds during the first 11 games.
As for the second half of the season, Sto-Rox will play its Section 6-AA opponents for a second time starting Tuesday against Quaker Valley. The Vikings earned a 57-54 win against the Quakers on Dec. 18.
"This section is very balanced," Minear said. "Anybody can take down anybody on any given night. That's what makes it a little different from in years past. We're seeing good, closer games every night.
"Expectations are always high at Sto-Rox. We expect to be good, but we haven't been able to overcome playing against good competition and ranked teams. That will come with experience.
"On the bright side, we are getting better."