South Xtra: Upper St. Clair continues its on-court success

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Upper St. Clair's boys basketball team lost four starters, including leading scorer Jordan Grabowski, from last season's 20-4 team that won 17 games in a row before losing in the WPIAL Class AAAA semifinals to Seneca Valley.

But as the program is wont to do, the Panthers (7-3, 3-0) have reloaded this season and were atop the Class AAAA Section 4 standings before Wednesday.

"We had a great senior class [last year]," Upper St. Clair coach Danny Holzer said. "But I've been here 19 years and we've always prided ourselves in the fact that whether we have a few seniors or a lot of seniors leave, the next class steps up.

"It's a program thing."

Over the past 10 seasons, the Panthers have qualified for the postseason nine times, averaged almost 18 wins a season and won a WPIAL title in 2005.

This season's team looks to be on the right path to make it 10 of 11 years in the playoffs, as the Panthers headed into Wednesday night's game with Peters Township.

Leading the way is the team's lone returning starter, J.J. Conn. A 6-foot-3 senior forward, he is a starting linebacker on the Panthers football team and was the basketball team's second-leading scorer last season and leads the team in that category this season.

"J.J. is a strong kid," Holzer said. "He plays really good, physical defense and can score in a lot of ways, both outside and inside. He's just a tough, hard-nosed physical kid."

Will Ross and twins Zach and Nick Staley, all seniors, join Conn in the Panthers' frontcourt rotation. They have nice size with Ross at 6-3, Zach Staley at 6-6 and Nick at 6-5.

Senior Conor Gallagher, who started a few games last season, is the team's point guard and is averaging double figures in scoring so far this season.

He has two talented shooters to pass to on the wings in 5-11 senior Thomas Steve, who is also one of the top golfers in the WPIAL and will be attending the University of Notre Dame to play that sport, and 6-1 sophomore Andrew Wheeler. Steve had a career-high 17 points, hitting five 3-pointers, in Upper St. Clair's 48-46 victory against Baldwin last Friday.

"We know what we're going to get from Conor and J.J.," Holzer said. "But a different guy from the rest of the group steps up every game."

Heading into Wednesday's game, Upper St. Clair was still unbeaten this season against WPIAL teams. The Panthers three losses are to the City League's Obama Academy, Cheyenne (Nev.) High School, and San Bernardino (Calif.) High School.

The defeats to Cheyenne and San Bernardino were at the Tarkanian Classic in Las Vegas right before the holiday break. The Panthers went 2-2 in that event.

"We saw four teams we've never seen before and they were good, athletic teams," Holzer said. "I think the nature of the teams help us from a competitive standpoint as we prepare for the rest of the season."

The win against Baldwin was the first of 11 consecutive section games the Panthers have before closing the season with a non-section game against Class AAA power Chartiers Valley.

Although Section 4 may not have the top-heaviness of Section 3, which has New Castle, Hampton and North Allegheny, it is very balanced. Six of the eight teams in the section entered the week with a .500 or better section record and the seventh-place team, Baldwin, just pushed the conference leader to the brink.

Holzer knows his team needs to work on some things if it wants to win another section title.

"We need to improve upon our consistency, take care of the ball better and take better shots," Holzer said. "We're also focusing on playing better team defense, which is very important because our league is so balanced.

"You look at the scores from Friday and the differences were eight, five, three and two points. Every team in the section provides a difficult game every night."

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