Through the first month of the boys basketball season, Class AAAA Section 2 has proved to be one of the stingiest sections from top to bottom. It includes two teams in the Post-Gazette’s top five in Gateway and Fox Chapel. There also is Central Catholic, which is 3-0 in the section and Plum, which is 8-1 to start the season.
With four teams in the section eligible to make the playoffs, it would seem like those four have established themselves as front-runners. But there is one more team that has started strong.
Franklin Regional is coming off a 12-10 season and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
“There is never a chance to take a night off,” fifth-year coach Brad Midgely said. “You have to continue to play well to beat everyone. There are only four spots for the playoffs. We need to make sure we aren’t scoreboard watching and taking care of our own business.
“Every team has started off on a good foot in non-section play. We will see how it all unfolds once we get into the next couple of months.”
The Panthers are 6-3 and tied with Plum and Fox Chapel in the section with a 2-1 mark. Central Catholic and Gateway are at the top with 3-0 records.
“I think anytime you come into a season, there is uncertainty,” Midgely said. “We had to play well and we have been more consistent than I hoped we would be so it has been good.”
Besides the two wins in the section, the Panthers took advantage of the luxury of playing in early-season tournaments, picking up four wins in three tournaments.
“I think sometimes when you are in section play, you know the teams so well,” Midgely said about the importance of playing in tournaments. “The playoffs aren’t like that. The tournaments give you a chance to play a team on the move and pick up things on the go and it gives you more of a playoff feel.”
The Panthers began the season at the Upper St. Clair tournament. They went 1-1 with a win against Monessen.
A few days later, they held their annual Mike Rettger Tournament in honor of a former player who died 12 years ago.
“We raise money and get scholarship for the district for the kids,” Midgely said. “It is a nice chance to get a couple extra home games after the tipoff tournament. His family does so much for us. They give scholarship money to the program for us. We like it to be after the tipoff tournaments to give it a chance to stand alone away. It is for a good cause and we hope to continue to do it.”
In honor of Rettger, the Panthers came away with the championship with wins against Westinghouse and Norwin.
The Panthers just finished their third and final tournament of the season Saturday, going 1-1 in the Montour Showcase. The Panthers picked up a win against Montour, 72-58, before losing in the final to Class AAAA Section 1 favorite Hempfield, 59-54.
Much of the Panthers’ success is due to the fact that they have mostly come up together. All but four players on the roster are seniors and this group believes it is finally their turn to restore winning in the program.
“I think the senior group feels that way,” Midgely said. “They have been building toward this. They treated last year as the stepping stone in the right direction for this year.”
Some of the key pieces to the puzzle are two senior captains, 5-foot-10 guard Matt Renzi and 6-5 forward Matt Fisch.
“We have been extremely balanced,” Midgely said. “We go as many as nine deep but are led by our seniors. Renzi and Fisch do so much on the floor for us.”
They are two of three Panthers who are averaging double figures in points so far this season. Renzi leads the team with 17 points per game. Fisch is one of two players averaging 11 points. Todd Summers is a 6-4 sophomore scoring 11 per game, as well.
Another leader is three-year starter and star quarterback of the football team Charan Singh.
“He keeps us composed on the floor,” Midgely said. “Each night we try to find the right mix and so far it has worked out. Playing time can change and it is not based on their performance, but on the matchup.”
The Panthers found the right matchups Dec. 17, handing Fox Chapel its only loss of the season, 66-63. Not only did it prove to be a monumental win for the program based on opponent, a loss would have set them back to 0-2 in the section after a narrow defeat against Central Catholic.
“Every section win is going to be important,” Midgely said. “Fox Chapel got a lot of notoriety in the early part of the season. For us to play an early section team of that caliber helps boost our confidence. At the same time, we can’t get too excited about it. All that small stuff adds up to the bigger picture.”
What’s the bigger picture for the Panthers? For one, they would love to end their two-year hiatus in the playoffs but competing for the section title has not been ruled out.
“This team has put a lot of effort in and a lot of effort in the offseason,” Midgely said. “They are very focused and self-motivated. Each day we have to prepare ourselves for the next opponent. We don’t want to put our fate in anyone else’s hands.
“By the end of the year we want a chance to compete in the section. That is something that we have worked toward. In the playoffs, anything can happen based on matchups. We have seen most of the AAAA teams. If we put ourselves in a position to make a run for it, I would consider it a successful season.”