If the Montour Spartans boys basketball team is going to make it back to the WPIAL Class AAA championship game this year, the path is going to be drastically different and probably a lot more difficult.
The Spartans defeated section 5 rival Chartiers Valley, 47-40, in last year's WPIAL title game on their way to a championship and a run that took them all the way to the PIAA semifinals.
The centerpiece of last year's success was the senior class led by Post-Gazette Player of the Year Devin Wilson.
"It is a lot different," said Adam Kaufman, who is in his sixth year as head coach for the Spartans and a Montour alumnus. "For four years we had a kid who made every adjustment and played in big games. Now we are searching for someone like that. Devin always had the ball in his hands. He was the primary decision-maker. We are searching for that.
"We aren't worried as much about [replacing his] numbers as we are about the intangibles. He was such a great leader."
Just to put into perspective on how big of a loss he is, Wilson is now the starting point guard as a freshman for Virginia Tech. He is averaging 6.9 points per game and leads the team with 55 assists through 10 games.
"No, I'm not surprised at all," Kaufman said about Wilson's success. "One of the things that made Devin so special was his attitude toward the game. He is the guy who can initiate the offense and was a very good defender with his size."
The Spartans will also have to fill the void of sharpshooter Kevin Sciulli. In his career at Montour, Sciulli made 275 3-pointers, ranking him in the top 10 in the state.
So Kaufman knows he has his work cut out for him but still believes he has the pieces to make it back to the A.J. Palumbo Center in March.
"We have changed it a lot," Kaufman said about his coaching tactics. "We kind of feel like you have to get the ball in the best players' hands. I don't think that is something you can walk into practice and say, 'OK, this is going to be our guy.' I can't predict it, but hopefully someone steps up."
The Spartans coach has a few guys in mind who were key role players in last year's success and who may need to step into that playmaker's role.
Senior Kyle Kutchman started every game for the Spartans last year and Dustin Sleva is in the starting lineup after playing a lot of minutes last year off the bench.
"We are expecting more out of them," Kaufman said.
Montour was one of nine teams in the WPIAL that elected not to play in a tip-off tournament this past weekend to open the season --in fact, they didn't play at all -- a tactic that can be considered an advantage or disadvantage, depending on one's perspective.
"We typically try not to," Kaufman said. "We did last year. The reason I don't like to do it is because we have all our coaches going to different venues and scouting and getting more [video] on future opponents. I think it benefits our coaches a little bit. Some people like to get those games in and we like to scout."
The Spartans defeated Moon Area, 54-51, in their season opener on Tuesday. Now the team is eager to play its section opener tonight at home against Waynesburg Central.
"The whole thing about that is that we have a new gym," Kaufman said. "A $20-million facility they finished in March. I am not sure what the school district has planned, but it should be a good weekend."
The excitement and anticipation of what is to come this season goes far beyond one weekend. Yes, the Spartans have the title of defending WPIAL champions and have the feeling that teams will be pointing for them, but there is one team he knows he will have to get through to get back to WPIAL glory.
Chartiers Valley, who is ranked No. 1 in Class AAA by the Post-Gazette, is the favorite to win the section and the WPIAL title.
"They are going to be really good," Kaufman said. "One of the challenges is: How are we going to handle pressure? We are going to find out a lot about ourselves.
"I am not going to put a lot into the regular-season game. We haven't won the section title the past two times we won the WPIAL championship."
Ultimately, Kaufman knows it would be nice to be crowned as section champs, but as long as his team is the one still standing late in March, that's all that matters to him.
"We really think we have a chance to win it all again this year," Kaufman said. "There are a lot of very good teams out there that we have to beat.
"We still have good players. As long as we are playing our best in March, that is what matters."