The first half of the season wasn't too kind to the Riverside boys basketball team.
Struggling out of the gate in Class AA Section 2, the Panthers were just 1-4 against section opponents and owned a 3-6 overall record by the end of December.
"The start of the season was rough," 6-foot-5 senior forward Tyler Falk said. "There was a point early on when our coach [John Rorick] pulled us aside and told us that we needed to pick it up with defensive pressure and cause more turnovers.
"Since then, we've meshed together, and our defense and intensity has helped us win."
Riverside quickly regrouped in January and went on to win 10 of its next 12 games. Finishing its section schedule with four consecutive victories, including a 45-44 overtime win at New Brighton last Friday, the Panthers (14-8) ended up 9-5 in Section 2-AA, tied with Neshannock for second place behind Beaver Falls and clinched a berth into the WPIAL Class AA playoffs.
The Panthers will play West Shamokin (11-10, 5-5), which tied for third place in Section 1, in a preliminary-round game Saturday at Highlands in Natrona Heights.
"This group had every reason to quit, but they didn't quit. They battled," Rorick said. "These guys are finding a way to win every time they step on the floor. This is a close group of guys. They work well together on the court and off the court.
"This is a special group of kids. We want to make sure this run lasts as long as it can because it's going to be tough when the season is over and we realize this group is gone."
With a senior-loaded lineup, Rorick has relied on a starting five consisting of 6-foot point guard Brent Mulneix, 5-9 guard Bob Gould, 6-1 guard Dom Vetica, 6-5 forward Gig Jewell and Falk.
Reserves Damian Cicchinelli, Dylan Jones and Evan Williams, all seniors, as well as junior Austin Sheridan and sophomore guard Zach Gould, a younger brother of Bob Gould, also have contributed valuable minutes.
"We've definitely executed more by making our shots and playing much better defense," Rorick said. "We've been able to hold teams in the 40s, and for whatever reason we weren't able to do that earlier in the year.
"This senior group of guys has been around. They never panicked. They never packed it in, either. They decided they wanted to work harder, made the adjustments and it worked."
The lowest point of Riverside's season came during Christmas break. After a 78-57 section loss against top-ranked Beaver Falls, the Panthers participated in Shady Side Academy's holiday tournament and suffered losses to Bethel Park and Obama Academy. At the time, Bethel Park was ranked one of the best Class AAAA teams in the WPIAL, while Obama Academy has remained the Pittsburgh City League's top team all season.
"We wanted to play the best and we knew we would be challenged in our tough section," Rorick said. "Shady Side has always been a big tournament for us over the years. For whatever reason, we always seem to get through that tournament much better as a team even if we lose those games."
Falk has paced the Panthers' offensive attack with an average of 15.5 points and eight rebounds a game. Jewell has followed with an average of 13 points and nine rebounds.
"A turning point in our season came against Laurel [a 47-24 win on Jan. 11]," said Falk, who lives in Fombell and also is a star baseball player at Riverside. "Ever since that game, we've stepped up our game and played better."
"It's paid off in the second half [of the season]."
Both Falk and Rorick hope Riverside's second-half surge helps the Panthers continue to roll in the postseason.
"Right now it's about playing well and executing on both sides of the ball," said Rorick, whose team finished 14-10 last year after losing to Monessen in the first round of the WPIAL playoffs. "We have to find a way to win."