A new precedent was set last year for the Beaver Area boys basketball program.
After struggling for more than a decade, the Bobcats qualified for the playoffs and posted their first winning record since 1998. After a 7-5 showing in Section 2-AAA, Beaver made it as far as the WPIAL semifinals and advanced to the second round of the PIAA tournament before finishing last season with a 19-8 overall record.
"[This season] we knew we had guys coming back who could play," third-year coach Andy Podbielski said. "We knew we would be able to compete and we knew we had guys who play with pride.
"Having those type of expectations are awfully high, but our guys got a taste for success last season and were ready to do it again this year."
The Bobcats haven't slowed up this season, either, and are on pace to lock down the program's first section title since 1978.
Entering this week as the Post-Gazette's No. 3 Class AAA boys basketball team, Beaver owned a 9-0 overall record and knocked off its first three section opponents -- Hopewell, West Allegheny and Ambridge -- to take the lead in the Section 3-AAA standings.
"We have to be pleased at this point," Podbielski said. "We've been playing pretty good basketball. We're playing well inside, and from the outside we're shooting well.
"This is still a work in progress, but we're pretty pleased with how we've been playing."
Missing from last season's lineup has been Christian Herstine and Darian Bradley. Herstine led the Bobcats in scoring with an average of 15 points a game but graduated last spring. Bradley, a senior guard and three-year starter, sustained a torn ACL in his knee during football season and will be unable to return to the basketball court this year.
Behind lone returning starter Corey Nesmith, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, Podbielski's starting five also consists of 6-5 senior center Aaron Barlow, senior guard Austin Logan, senior guard Anthony DiNuzzo and junior forward Alex Rowse. Senior guard Malik Hardin and sophomore guard Austin Saal also have added depth off the bench.
"Different guys have been stepping up on different nights," Podbielski said. "Just about every night it's one guy or another coming up with a big game. It's not just one guy. We have four different guys who can lead us any given game.
"If someone is having a bad game someone else is able to answer the bell. It's been a total team effort."
Barlow, however, has been a consistent scoring leader for Beaver. He turned in a 29-point effort in the Bobcats' 59-46 win against McGuffey on Dec. 27 in Mohawk's holiday tournament. Barlow followed up with 24 points the next night against host Mohawk in the championship game.
"Last year, we had to rely on Christian Herstine for points, so this is nice to have so many guys who can score," Podbielski said. "In our section, we're playing at a level where opposing coaches can key on one guy and take them out of a game.
"Trying to take out four guys is pretty difficult."
Beaver returns to section play Friday when it hosts Central Valley. The Bobcats will then face Ellwood City and Blackhawk before a second go-around against section opponents.
"There are no nights off," Podbielski said. "When you look at teams from our section that make the playoffs they usually do well. There are no gimmes in this section. We know it's going to be a grind."
Last season, Beaver thrived during the month of January and won a season-high seven consecutive games.
"We have to be ready to play every night in this section," Podbielski said. "Every team is well coached. But at this point, you don't want to be playing your best in December. You want to be playing your best in February."
Podbielski also believes fundamentals will help his team improve down the stretch.
"We have to keep growing," Podbielski said. "We have to keep getting better on defense and keep shooting well. If we follow that, we're going to be tough to handle."hsbasketball