On Dec. 17, a team guided by its third coach in as many seasons and with a pair of starters battling health issues lost yet again to drop to 0-5.
Abandon ship, right?
Well, for Shady Side Academy, all the crew members stayed aboard and continued to stay the course, and a month and a half later, that ship has long since been righted and is now headed for another WPIAL playoff appearance.
Winners of six games in a row, Shady Side Academy (12-8, 8-4) has gone 11-3 since its early struggles and last week clinched a playoff berth for the 11th consecutive season. The Indians, along with section champion Greensburg Central Catholic, South Allegheny and Jeannette qualified for the postseason out of Class AA Section 3.
It's been a big turnaround for a team that was understandably disappointed by its rocky start.
"We tried to get the guys to realize that even though we haven't won, it's going to make us better," first-year coach David Vadnais said. "When they got back out there and got healthy, we started winning. I'm their third coach in three seasons. They were trying to pick up my system. I think between injuries and having a new coach, it took a while for everything to fall into place."
Vadnais was the head girls coach at The Ellis School the previous five seasons. He also coached girls soccer at the school. This is his first season coaching boys basketball since he moved to Pittsburgh from Vermont a decade ago. Vadnais is a math teacher at Shady Side Academy Middle School.
A little math shows why Shady Side Academy keeps adding checks to the win column. During their 0-5 start, the Indians allowed 69 points per game. Since then, that number has dipped to 49. They are giving up 51 points per game in section play. The Indians like to press a lot and then primarily fall back into a man-to-man defense in the half court.
With good play has come good health. Dan Marous, a 5-foot-9 senior guard, and 6-4 sophomore guard-forward Mike Ware missed time early on, but have since returned to the starting lineup. They're joined by 6-2 senior guard Kyle Olander, 6-0 junior guard Jackson Fitzgerald and 5-10 junior guard Tyler Demchak.
The top contributors off the bench have been 6-2 senior guard-forward T-Jay Cleveland, 6-2 senior center Cam Dively, 6-2 junior guard Dylan Groff and 6-3 senior center Matt O'Conner.
With Olander, the Indians have one of the top scoring threats in Class AA. He's third in the class with an average of 20.6 points per game.
"He's an all-around player," Vadnais said. "He's about 6-2 and has a very pure shot. He can shoot it, but he can also finish at and above the rim. He's more athletic than people might think.
"He's a tough matchup. If you put a taller guy on him, he can go by him. If you put a smaller guy on him, he can shoot over him. The nice thing is: He lets the game come to him."
Next on Shady Side Academy's agenda is continuing its strong play in the postseason. The Indians will try to extend their streak of winning at least one playoff game to eight seasons.
"We just have to continue to get better," Vadnais said. "We have to eliminate some small errors and make a run in the playoffs. We started off slowly, but a lot of things have improved since. The history of this program is you make the playoffs and then make a run. That hasn't changed."
Graham Court grand finale
One of the most storied venues in the WPIAL is playing host to its final two games this week.
Don Graham Court at Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic High School will have its swan song tonight and Friday. The gymnasium has been North Catholic's home since the school opened in 1939. When what was until then an all-boys school merged with all-girls Domenec High School in 1973, the girls team began using the facility. The Trojanettes have won 15 WPIAL championships since.
North Catholic will play its home games in a new gym next season, as the school moves from its Troy Hill campus to Cranberry Township.
The North Catholic girls play host to arch-rival Vincentian tonight. The boys will welcome Sewickley Academy tomorrow. Both games are scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m.
There promises to be a lot of emotions flowing and some damp eyes in the building. Many alumni are planning to attend. That includes North Catholic's two head coaches. Boys coach Dave Long is a 1970 graduate. Girls coach Molly Rottmann graduated in 1989.