The normal assumption for a high school athletic team is that team chemistry is often based on the amount of time spent together.
Athletes grow up through the system together and finish together as seniors.
That couldn't be further from the truth for the Northgate boys basketball team. The Flames have made the playoffs each of the past three seasons but don't count on playoff experience to play a factor in their final stretch run of the regular season.
Out of the five seniors on the team, only one has been through it all from start to finish. Mark Lodge has experienced the ups and downs with the Flames and is the only one who can relate to the Flames postseason run the past three years.
Two other seniors, Alex Marusic and Ti'rae Bernard, both 6-foot-1 guards, started out at Northgate but haven't played there or been enrolled at the school since their freshman year.
"Alex is a strong kid," Flames coach Perry Harrop said. "Ti'rae moved [back] into the district as a senior. He has never played high school basketball before. He is giving us some energy and confidence."
The rest of the players receiving quality minutes are either underclassmen or transfers.
There top scorer, Taymon Russell, another 6-1 guard, started out at Perry and is now averaging 17 points per game for the Flames.
"He didn't play basketball his first two years," Harrop said. "This is his second year with us. He is our point guard. He gets to the basket and gets a lot of layups. He can finish inside."
Also making a difference is Oliver transfer Darrell Barron, a 6-3 forward.
"This is his second year," Harrop said. "He is our post guy but is more of a high post. He is our tallest guy. He has been helping us out on defense with blocked shots and is our rim protector."
As for how this group of young men performed together in a short amount of time, they have been good enough to get them in the conversation for a fourth consecutive WPIAL playoff appearance.
"We are not in a good position," Harrop said. "We have to win some games. Right now we still control our own destiny but we could be in a better position."
With three section games remaining after Wednesday's scheduled game against Carlynton, the Flames (6-11) were in fourth place in Class AA Section 6 with a 4-4 record. They're preparing for one of the biggest games of the season Friday at Sto-Rox.
"It is an important game but everyone is important," Harrop said. "The next game is always the most important."
Sto-Rox (6-11, 3-5) was just a game behind the Flames for the fourth and final playoff spot. In their first meeting this year, the Flames beat the Vikings on Jan. 8, 78-73.
But only a half game separating them and South Side Beaver, the Flames still have a chance to better their playoff seed by finishing third in the section.
As for what will get them in, Harrop believes six section wins is the magic number.
"I think six wins will get us in," Harrop said. "The way the section plays out we would feel comfortable with that. We could [qualify] with five but then we would have to rely on someone [beating another contender] and I don't like doing that."
Through 17 games thus far, the Flames are breaking even in the points scored per game and points allowed per game department, recording 58 points each.
"We like to play fast and some games our defense isn't there," Harrop said. "We are not a consistent shooting team. We have it some nights and some nights we don't. It is my responsibility to get my guys to play defense."
As for the team's overall losing record, Harrop doesn't believe it reflects his teams play. The Flames put together a tough non-section schedule, which included games against Vincentian, Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart.
"We play a challenging schedule," Harrop said. "For us to get better we need to play good teams. It might affect our record but in the long run it will help us out."
The Flames recorded their biggest margin of victory of the season last Friday at Freedom Area, a 70-27 win, and it was before that game that Harrop challenged his players to treat every game like a playoff game from here on out.
"I challenged the guys and said that every game is a playoff game," Harrop said. "I want them to show that they care."