Leaving the gym on the night of Dec. 18, the Upper St. Clair boys' basketball team was a .500 squad, having lost back-to-back games to bring its record to 3-3 on the season. But over the greater part of the next two months, the Panthers have transformed themselves into one of the best teams in the WPIAL by playing perfect basketball -- quite literally. Since that aforementioned start, Upper St. Clair has been the hottest team in the WPIAL this side of New Castle, having won 16 consecutive games entering the Class AAAA playoffs. It hasn't been a dominant run, as only five of those 16 victories came by double digits, but the Panthers keep finding ways to win behind a stout defense that has allowed opponents to score more than 60 points just twice in the 16-game run (on the season, Upper St. Clair is giving up 47 points per game). "We've played really, really well as a team," coach Danny Holzer said. "We've shared the ball a lot and this team really likes each other. It's made for a very balanced offensive attack. Everyone's making key contributions."
LEARNING FROM DEFEAT
The Panthers' current run began after a 38-17 setback at Bethel Park on Dec. 18. As Upper St. Clair's offensive output might indicate, it was a game in which the team was without leading scorer Jordan Grabowski and forward John Duffy, another one of the team's key contributors, was back for his first game of the season. Though the loss stung, the team made sure that it would improve immediately. "When that was over, our team got together and wanted to make a statement that we were going to turn things around and continue the tradition of Upper St. Clair being one of the top Quad-A teams."
A COACHING IDOL
Holzer has been an area coach for some time, having served as an assistant coach at Duquesne from 1991-95 under then-Dukes coach John Carroll before taking over the reins at Upper St. Clair, where he is now in his 18th season. Like many in his profession, Holzer grew up admiring the work of several top coaches, with none having a bigger impact on him than Pat Riley. He developed an interest in him while watching the "Showtime" Lakers of the 1980s and has followed his career since, one which has included coaching stints with the Lakers and Heat. It's a level of respect that even goes as far as Holzer naming his son Riley.
Local teams will sometimes leave the area early in the season to play in tournaments, with the Panthers being one of those squads. In four of the past five years, Upper St. Clair has gone to the KSA Classic in Orlando, Fla., in mid-December. This season, the team went 2-1 in the round-robin tournament, with the lone loss coming to Elevation Academy (Fla.). While Holzer said that one benefit of such tournaments is the chance to play against top competition from other parts of the country, the team camaraderie that develops on the trip is much more important to him. "We like to go away because it helps build team chemistry," he said. "It helps you bond and gives you a different perspective of things."
SOME ADDED GRIT
Of the names on the Panthers' roster, guard Pete Coughlin (pictured at right) stands out because of his role as the quarterback of the school's football team, one which he helped lead to a 10-2 record and a berth in the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals. Holzer, who is friends with longtime football coach Jim Render, said that he often has a football player or two on his teams, something which he feels gives his team an advantage. "They bring a toughness and a competitiveness that mixes in well with our basketball guys," Holzer said. "That's been invaluable to our program."
Craig Meyer: email@example.com First Published February 15, 2013 5:00 AM