The giant hill that ascends from Fourth Street to Williamsport High School can be daunting even when driving up it. Running up it is enough to make an out of shape person cry.
But the Williamsport boys basketball players became quite familiar with that hill after last season ended. During that time, they started owning the hill, conquering it time after time in impressive fashion. And when they were not running up that hill they often could be found lifting weights together below the high school gym.
Williamsport won five games last year and, with just about all those players, back again they have been committed to being the group that turns things around. While the Millionaires are 3-4, they are on the verge of just doing that. Williamsport pounded Central Mountain in its home opener, 72-34 last Thursday and is a few plays from being 6-1.
They paid the price in the offseason and now the Millionaires are close to reaping the benefits.
"All those guys put in a lot of work in the weight room and on the track, running the hill and doing different conditioning things that I could think of," Williamsport coach Allen Taylor said. "Those guys worked hard together, they went through the grind together. It's fun seeing those guys putting in all that work and seeing that stuff pay off, but now we have to get ready for (tonight's opponent) George Washington."
The record does not show it yet, but Williamsport is making strides. It defeated Reading in its season opener, rallied in the fourth quarter to beat Crestwood and lost three games by 11 combined points. Yes, Williamsport expects to win those close games but remember that this is still a work in process. Remember that most of these players are still underclassmen and most are only playing varsity basketball for the second season and it makes more sense.
Also remember that Williamsport played sloppy in those close losses, including when it had 22 turnovers in a buzzer-beating defeat at State College. If the Millionaires cut down on the mistakes, learn from them, and keep improving they could be tough to beat.
"We should have a better record," forward Jahad Thomas said. "It's just crunch time situations where we're still growing as a team. We'll get better in that field and do better. It is looking good right now. We're trying to switch our attitude. We know who our leaders are and everybody knows their role so we're becoming successful as a team."
Thursday was a good start as Williamsport dominated all facets against a team that beat it last year. Thomas, who has bulked up and become a potential force inside, scored 20 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, Isaiah Washington scored 19 points and made five steals and DeAndre Kaough and Herb Stelly ignited a tenacious defense. Williamsport moved the ball well, had plenty of highlight-type plays, did the little things right and played well together in front of a large, loud crowd.
Williamsport endured six straight road games, often having to make those trips with just one off day in between, but made the home opener count. The Millionaires have experienced some bad times, but they are confident more good times like Thursday's game are ahead. Whatever the future holds, Millionaire fans can rest assure their team will be working hard to make it a bright one.
"I feel like we're a good team. I think this (Thursday) game helped us get back on track," Stelly said. "We all have been playing together since we were little. The program we've had at Williamsport since then has helped us prepare for this moment we're at right now."
GOOD KNIGHT: The 2010-2011 season is a distant memory at St. John Neumann. The Knights are 5-0 a year after going 2-18 and are starting to look like a serious District 4 Class A title contender. Neumann continued its outstanding start last week, thumping Muncy, 73-55 and North Penn, 74-41 in a three-night span.
Both Muncy and North Penn have solid teams and could be playoff qualifiers this season. The way Neumann played against those teams, receiving strong contributions throughout the roster, bodes well for its chances to build on this strong start.
"The hard work in practice is paying off, it really is," said sophomore forward Alize Johnson after playing a dazzling game against Muncy. "Everybody plays good team basketball. I think we can go a long way if we keep working hard."
Johnson was a starter on last year's team as was guard Conor Flynn and both are playing well. The Knights also have received a huge lift from players who were not there last year, like center Mike Wenner and forward Tyree Vidal. Point guard Jordan Cole also has emerged and is doing a good job running the offense. Put it together and Neumann has been getting better every game and also has handed Bucktail (6-1) its only loss.
There is something else pushing Neumann as well. Asked what the team's attitude was entering the fourth-quarter of a one-point game against Muncy, Johnson said, "angry." The Knights are playing with a chip on their shoulder and are eager to prove that last year was a fluke and that they are once again a major Class A player. Neumann then went out and played a near flawless fourth quarter, hitting 11 of 12 shots, dominating the boards and pulling away for a big road victory.
"That's probably the best we've played together," Wenner said after the game. "Only time will tell how much better we have gotten."
That is true, but for now, looking at how far Neumann has come since last season is quite impressive.
STEP FORWARD: Hughesville picked up a much-needed win Friday when it defeated Jersey Shore, 73-68. The Spartans (2-4) snapped their second two-game losing streak and held off a rally in a game it had to win with a tough schedule on deck. Although the Spartans have lost four of their six games, two of them were by two points to big-school teams and the potential is there to be a dangerous team.
Forward John Poust and guard Tristan Jeffreys have had some big games and once the first-time players gain more experience good times could be ahead. This is a team that traditionally gets better as the season progresses and it still thinks it has what it takes to win a third straight district title.
"We want to be district champions again and we definitely think we can do it if we keep getting better and play to our potential," Jeffreys said. "We have a good team and if we play to our full potential when the time comes I think we'll be a team that nobody wants to play. We have all the pieces, we just have to put it all together."
Dr. Masse's Top Five
1. Loyalsock (4-0): The more Loyalsock plays the more it looks like the teams that won five straight district championships from 2001-2005. Those teams were deep and balanced, throwing different players out throughout the game that could wear down an opponent. It looked like that Wednesday when Loyalsock turned a one-point, third-quarter deficit into a 72-43 win at two-time defending district champion Hughesville. The Lancers have owned the second half in all four games and anyone coach Ron Insinger uses is capable of doing damage. The more this team jells together the better it could become too.
2. Williamsport (3-4): Taylor has been emphasizing to his players how close they are to a big breakthrough. The Millionaires are loaded with talent and are a hungry team that can be a force if it builds off Thursday's performance and keeps bonding together.
"The more patient we can become at making teams play defense and giving them opportunities to make mistakes the better this team will become," he said. "To lose by one and not execute, turn the ball over 20 times and have a chance in the end against State College says a lot about the potential if you go out and do what you need to do. If we can continue to improve the areas we need to the sky is the limit."
3. Lewisburg (3-1): The Green Dragons long have been able to beat teams in a variety of ways. Sometimes they can muck and grind and win games in the 30s. They have showed this year too that they have no problem lighting it up and flourishing in an up-tempo game. Lewisburg has topped 70 points in its last two games and recorded an impressive 74-55 win over South Williamsport as the bench produced 29 points. Both teams look like district title contenders and the balance Lewisburg is showing inside and outside has them looking like one of the front runners early in the season.
4. Sullivan County (4-0): Dalton Molyneux does not generate a lot of headlines. He just consistently delivers strong performances and is a big reason the Griffins are 23-7 the last two seasons. Molyneux scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a 50-19 win over Benton and is adept at doing the little things that often go unnoticed but that mean so much to a team's success. That is ditto for point guard Kelby Mullen who sparks the defense and had five assists, along with five steals against Benton.
5. Wellsboro (3-0): Neumann is pushing Wellsboro for this spot but the Green Hornets cannot be penalized for not playing last week. Wellsboro is 25-2 the last two seasons and has played well early for a team that has replaced four starters. The Hornets return to action at their Christmas Tournament tonight, their first game in 12 nights.
Player of the Week
Mike Wenner, St. John Neumann: The senior center has been outstanding early this season and did a little bit of everything last week. In addition to scoring 49 points in two wins he also grabbed 19 rebounds and blocked six shots against Muncy.
of the Week
Montoursville Tournament: What's not to like about Thursday's and Friday's tournament that features four Lycoming County teams? Loyalsock meets Jersey Shore in the first game before Montoursville faces Muncy. The first game is a rematch of a good season-opening game won by Loyalsock while the second is an intriguing matchup between a Montoursville team that could be really dangerous when it returns to full-strength and a Muncy squad that can fill up the basket in a hurry.