Grinding through a lengthy, challenging basketball season is nothing new for the Beaver Falls boys basketball team.
A perennial Class AA basketball power, the Tigers seem to do their best prowling in the playoffs. They enter this season as two-time WPIAL title winners as well as the defending PIAA champs.
Still, Beaver Falls coach Doug Biega knows that his team hasn't earned anything yet this season and will need to put in a lot of work in order to have his team ready come playoff time.
"We have to stay healthy and get better every day," said Biega, who was named Pennsylvania's Class AA coach of the year last season by the Associated Press. "Whether it's while we're stretching before practice or before a game, we're always talking about getting better.
"We want to win but there's more to it than just winning. We have to do everything right now in order to try to win games come February and March."
The Post-Gazette's top-ranked team in Class AA this week, Beaver Falls jumped out to a 4-0 start as well as picked up its first Section 2-AA victory last Friday night against Shenango, then defeated Laurel, 75-59, Tuesday. The Tigers outscored those first four opponents -- Union, Ellwood City, Shenango and Laurel -- by an average of 74.8-51.3.
"We're still a work in progress, but so far so good," Biega said. "If anyone tells you they figured everything out in December, they're pretty full of themselves. We have a lot to get better at. We have a lot of young and inexperienced players we're trying to blend with our veterans.
"We're working out the kinks and getting ready for February."
Beaver Falls won its sixth consecutive section title last season before capturing its second WPIAL title in a row. The Tigers, who finished their season with an 18-game winning streak, secured the program's second state championship since 2005 with a 28-3 overall record.
"We always have high expectations and we always want to make sure we have enough pieces in order to make a run toward our goals," Biega said. "Those goals are obviously a WPIAL championship and state championship. Are we good enough to compete in those tournaments tomorrow? No.
"We have a lot of time to get moving in the right direction in order to compete."
Elijah Cottrill, a 6-foot-3 senior guard/forward who was a Post-Gazette Fab 5 selection last season and a University of Akron football recruit, as well as 6-3 senior guard/forward Dan Stratton are two key returning starters from last year's lineup.
Branden Thomas, a 5-11 senior guard, 6-3 senior guard/forward Keyan Gibson and 5-10 junior guard Javon Turner round out Biega's starting five.
Biega also plans to mix in three freshmen, including a pair of 6-foot-5 forwards -- Josh Creach and Donovan Jeter -- as well as 5-8 guard Neshaud Akins.
"We're a very fast team and a very unselfish team," Biega said. "Last year's team set the tone for that. We do have three freshmen who are playing at a high level. These young guys are going to be starters or close to starters by next year, so it's nice to get them ready."
Beaver Falls blew out Shenango, 80-45, last Friday for its first section victory. Stratton and Thomas both scored 15 points, while Cottrill and Turner each chipped in with 12 points.
Before jumping back into section play after the holidays, the Tigers will compete against Canon-McMillan (Class AAAA) and Blackhawk (Class AAA) in the PBC Holiday Festival Saturday and Monday at Aliquippa. They will also participate in the C.J. Betters Tournament after Christmas.
"We always want to schedule heavy exhibition games to prepare for the playoffs," Biega said. "We're also playing teams such as New Castle and Hopewell later in the season.
"We're not worried about wins and losses as much as wanting to be tested against good opponents."
Playing against teams from a higher classification is nothing out of the ordinary for Beaver Falls. Actually, the Tigers petitioned the PIAA a few weeks ago and requested a transition to play "up" in Class AAA next season.
"We looked at the teams we've played from higher classifications in the past 10 years and we were 35-9 against those teams," Biega said. "We've already proven that we can play at that level. Those 44 games were against elite teams from quality sections.
"We want to challenge ourselves and we believe we've proven that we're capable of playing at that level."