This time last season, Mars Area was playing its best basketball of the season.
The Planets could be finding their groove at the same time one year later.
Going into Wednesday's game against Kittanning, Mars had won four Class AAA Section 1 games in a row. The surge improved the Fighting Planets to 10-6 overall and has them tied with Indiana for the section lead with a 7-1 record.
"We're not trying to peak, but we're trying to steadily improve," said 6-foot senior guard Owen Nearhoof. "It's an exciting time to be playing basketball right now. Closing in on the playoffs. Being able to maybe win a section [title]. And then see if you can keep it rolling into the playoffs."
Mars experienced more success last season than it ever had. The Planets finished 21-5, went undefeated in the section and advanced to the WPIAL semifinals. They won eight games in a row from late January to late February.
Defensively, this year's squad has not been on par with its predecessor, but a sharp improvement recently has led to better overall play. Mars allowed 48.8 points per game last season, the top mark in the section and third best in Class AAA. This season, the Planets are surrendering 60.4 per game, which is last in the section. Over their past four section games, however, the Planets are giving up only 44 per game.
"In the beginning of this year, our defense wasn't as good," said Nearhoof, who scored his 1,000th career point on Jan. 17. "Coach [Rob Carmody] was always getting on us at practice. Then there was this one practice where we worked real hard defensively. We just decided from there on it's got to come to a stop. We're scoring a lot of points, but you obviously can't give up more than you score."
Mars tops the section in scoring with 66.8 points per game. The Planets have one of the better scoring tandems in the WPIAL in Nearhoof (20 ppg) and 6-4 sophomore center John Castello (17 ppg).
"We always joke that we're not only the best scoring duo, but also the best looking duo in the WPIAL," Nearhoof said, laughing.
The Planets have a huge game Friday at Indiana. Depending on last night's results, first place could be on the line. Indiana handed Mars its only section loss, 71-66, on Jan. 8.
In her first high school game, Sam Breen scored 18 points against Bishop Canevin, the defending WPIAL and PIAA Class AA champions.
That was just a sign of things to come.
Breen, a 6-foot-1 forward for Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic, has been arguably the WPIAL's top freshman in girls basketball this season. No ninth grader has scored more points than Breen, who is averaging a double-double of 18 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
"She was a difference maker right from the get-go. She is one of the top freshmen we've had come through since I've been here," said North Catholic coach Molly Rottmann, who is in her 16th season.
Breen has helped ease the departure of 2013 graduate Lauren Wolosik, who was fourth in the WPIAL in scoring last season with 26 points per game.
Breen's great freshman season included her scoring a career-high 29 points in a win against Imani Christian last Thursday.
North Catholic is 12-5 overall and in second place in Class A Section 2 with an 8-1 record. The Trojanettes once again have the look of a team that could make a deep playoff run, and their fabulous freshman is leading the way.
"She's had a great year," Rottmann said. "She's come in and exceeded expectations. As a freshman, she's had some huge games.
"She's one of the reasons we're hanging in there and still looking like a team that can go far."
Here is a top boys game to keep an eye on this week:
Hampton at North Allegheny, 7:30 p.m. Friday -- Hampton used the "other" Luther to edge North Allegheny, 62-61, in overtime when these teams met on Jan. 8. Collin Luther's basket with less than a minute remaining in regulation time gave the Talbots the thrilling win. The more heralded Luther twin -- Ryan, a Pitt recruit -- did not play in that game because of an ankle injury, but he has since returned and was outstanding over the weekend in a win against Central Valley. To defeat the Talbots in the rematch, North Allegheny must shoot the ball well from the perimeter and get a strong performance from Elijah Zeise, who made a big impact in the first meeting with his defense and rebounding.
Shady Side Academy at Serra Catholic, 7:30 p.m. Friday -- These Section 3-AA rivals are battling for the fourth and final playoff spot. Shady Side won the first meeting, 57-41.