The last week of January was a trying stretch for the Beaver Area boys basketball team.
The Bobcats were just 10 days removed from suffering their first loss of the season against Blackhawk when they suffered yet another Class AAA Section 2 matchup on the road against Central Valley. Three days after losing a 74-53 decision against the Warriors, Beaver dropped a 97-74 non-league contest against District 10's West Middlesex.
"Those teams played well against us," senior center Aaron Barlow said. "They were both good opponents and came right at us.
"We know we have a target on our back, and we know what we need to do to get better. We're going to learn from those losses and fix what we need to during practice. We now know what we need to do to win games."
Ranked the Post-Gazette's No. 2 team in Class AAA behind Mars (15-3), Beaver takes a 16-3 overall record, 9-2 in Section 2-AAA into tonight's regular-season and section finale at Blackhawk. The Bobcats are tied for the section lead with Central Valley (15-6, 9-2), a game ahead of Blackhawk (12-8, 8-3). Central Valley defeated Blackhawk, 66-56, Tuesday.
If the Bobcats can defeat Blackhawk Friday, they will win at least a share of their first section crown since 1978.
"That's what we've been playing for," Barlow said. "We're ready to regroup from those losses, win a section title and great ready for the playoffs."
Behind Barlow, Beaver has already clinched a spot in the WPIAL's Class AAA playoff bracket.
Barlow, a sturdy 6-foot-5 center, has been a catalyst for the Bobcats by averaging a double-double this season, scoring an average of 20.9 points while grabbing 10 rebounds a game.
"Aaron has brought a lot of consistency," third-year coach Andy Podbielski said. "His efforts are directed toward scoring and rebounding. He goes at the hoop on the offensive end and is always on the attack."
Against West Middlesex, Barlow scored 26 points and gathered 13 rebounds. He also had 12 points and 12 boards against Central Valley, and even scored an impressive 37 points in a 77-62 win against West Allegheny on Jan. 22.
"He's just a power player down on the blocks," Podbielski said. "He's a strong kid and a dominant force. He's tough to stop."
Barlow, who lives in Midland, transferred from New Brighton after his freshman year and was forced to sit out his sophomore basketball season because of WPIAL and PIAA eligibility rules.
"Aaron has overcome a lot and really worked hard to get to the level he's at right now," Podbielski said. "He's really improved his game and that's a credit to him. He keeps going and never quits.
"Even last year, when his minutes got cut, he continued to work to get better and worked hard through the summer.
"That all paid off and he's having a tremendous year."
Last season, Barlow came off the bench and helped the Bobcats qualify for the WPIAL playoffs and post their first winning record since 1998. After advancing to the WPIAL semifinals and second round of the PIAA tournament, Beaver finished with a 19-8 overall record.
"We're a much better team this year," Barlow said. "Last year, we were more of a one-player driven team with Christian Herstine. This season, we have a strong starting five. Everyone plays their role and if one guy has a down night, the rest pick them up.
"When all five of us play on the same page we're tough to beat."
Besides Barlow, Podbielski also has relied on senior forward Corey Nesmith, senior guard Austin Logan, senior guard Anthony DiNuzzo and junior forward Alex Rowse. Senior guard Malik Hardin and sophomore guard Austin Saal have added depth off the bench.
"Aaron has really matured," Podbielski said. "He's now grown up and has figured things out and knows his role. He's grown into someone who wants to be a good player and someone who wants to keep getting better.
"He wants to play at the college level and I'm really proud of the hard work he has done to become the player he is right now and how far he has come."