Muncy coach Jason Gresh actually can take his eyes off the court briefly this season. He can look at his bench and feel confident.
It is a new kind of feeling, but is one he is enjoying.
The last two years, Muncy mostly played ironman basketball and/or relied on a six-man rotation. It served the Indians well too as they reached consecutive PIAA Class A tournaments. After losing three strong starters from those teams, though, it is now all hands on deck and Muncy is suddenly showing more depth than it has in years.
Players like Dalton Smith, Eli Warnick and freshman Jeff Fry are coming on strong and helped Muncy (6-3, 4-1 HAC-III) win three straight games entering Monday's contest against Bucktail. Those three combined for 24 points and seven steals in last Tuesday's 74-56 win over Bloomsburg and are preventing Gresh from worrying when he goes to the bench.
"We're deeper than we've ever been. Jeff coming along is huge and Eli comes in and gives us good minutes, Dalton comes in and runs the court and takes charge out there," Gresh said. "It's a nice luxury to have that off the bench."
It also is making Muncy a more dangerous team. Nick Ring and Ted Clark are the only starters and significant varsity contributors back from last year's state qualifier. The Indians lost their entire backcourt and, on paper, looked like they might struggle unless some of the first-time starters and contributors did not quickly learn and excel.
Those newcomers, though, are playing well and Muncy has really experienced little drop-off. First-time starters Anthony Barberio, Derek Sellers and Leone Ghezzi have consistently been getting better and have had some nice games. Ring and Clark have been outstanding too, building off what they did last year.
The key is meshing those two with the newcomers and building a bench. It really is a chemistry lesson in progress but the results are solid so far. If the Bloomsburg game is any indication, they could only grow better as the season progresses too.
"This helps a lot. This teaches them. It teaches the younger players that the time is coming and you have to step up soon," Clark said after his 20-point performance in that win. "Everybody has to step up and be ready to play at all times. That's we're working toward."
Muncy is 6-1 when it is at full strength, losing two games when Ring, Smith and Warnick were out. Ghezzi scored 25 points in a come-from-behind 64-56 win over Benton Friday while Barberio added eight points and 11 rebounds. Sellers and Smith are versatile guards and Fry is quickly coming on. A year ago, one could pretty much pencil in who would have Muncy's big performances. Not anymore.
"The nice thing about this team is you never know who it's going to be," Gresh said. "I said that the last few years but you had a feel. This year, I don't know."
Ring and Clark are the leaders and both are having strong seasons. Ring is a double-double machine and Clark is averaging 15 points per game while being one of the area's premier hustlers. Still, Muncy would not be having success if not for the emergence of the other players, including its deeper bench.
Even more encouraging for Muncy is that it still is a work in progress. The Indians have started well for having so many new contributors and the best may be yet to come.
"They're getting better. They're understanding each other better," Gresh said. "The chemistry is getting better which is a real benefit. We haven't even come close to where we can go yet. I think we can do some good things."
SHOWDOWNS: One might as well call tonight "Showdown Tuesday." Lewisburg meets Loyalsock and South Williamsport faces St. John Neumann in games for first place in the HAC-II and HAC-III, respectively. More on the Lewisburg-Loyalsock game later, but the South-Neumann game should be a dandy. Both are 4-0 in the HAC-III and have been long-time rivals, often playing entertaining and spirited games.
Tonight should be more of the same. South (7-2, 4-0) is having a breakout season and already has eclipsed last season's win total. Neumann (10-0) is one of the district's two remaining undefeated teams and is trying to repeat as both league and District 4 Class A champion. South is out to make a statement and Neumann is out to try and show the road to the championship still goes through it.
As far as regular-season games go, they do not get a whole lot better than the ones tonight. The only down side? They are being played at the same time.
PUTBACKS: Don't look now, but Sullivan County is again emerging as a District 4 Class A title contender. Despite losing four quality starters to graduation, the Griffins are 8-3 and were a play from handing defending district champion St. John Neumann its first loss eight nights ago. Sullivan has won four of its last five games and Conner Wylie scored 18 points in a 58-41 over Montgomery while emerging Adam Szklanka added 16 ... Defending District 4 Class AAA champion Milton also is coming on strong. The Black Panthers (6-4) lost a lot from last year's team but have won four straight and pounded Shikellamy 68-45 in a rematch of last year's final. Former Penn College coach Gene Bruno has helped establish a balanced and dangerous offense ... Mike Pietropola scored a season-high 24 points in Wellsboro's 56-43 win over Athens. Teammate Joe Doganiero has reached double figures in 10 of his team's 11 games ... Dakota Shadle scored 24 points and nearly helped Galeton hand Cameron County its first loss before the Tigers lost, 51-48 last Thursday.
Dr. Masse's area top five
1. Loyalsock (8-1): The Lancers desperately needed to get a game in before playing Lewisburg and received it last Friday, defeating rival Montoursville, 58-42. Loyalsock had not played in two weeks prior to that game and might have shaken off some rust which was imperative entering tonight. Junior guard Mike Pastore is having a strong season following last year's breakout campaign. He was especially big against Lewisburg last year and has reached double figures six straight games.
2. St. John Neumann (10-0): Alize Johnson is not just one of the state's best Class A centers, but also one of its most versatile. Johnson often has dominated inside this season but the all-stater also showed how dangerous he can be outside too Friday when he hit seven 3-pointers and scored a career-high 32 points in a 61-32 win over Bloomsburg. Four nights earlier it was Cody Forsburg's clutch shooting that proved pivotal in a thrilling 45-42 win at Sullivan County. Neumann and Sullivan have met in two straight district finals and reached the state tournament's second round the last two seasons. There isn't a much better rivalry around.
3. Lewisburg (11-0): The Green Dragons became the first District 4 team to clinch a playoff berth, routing Warrior Run and Selinsgrove on back-to-back nights last weekend. Lewisburg recorded its best win earlier in the week, holding off a challenge from Central Columbia and winning 60-56 while handing it only its second loss. Sam Allen scored 26 points in that game and is one of the district's premier post players. Three Dragons are scoring in double figures and Jesse Flannery is doing a nice job running the offense.
4. Williamsport (5-5): The Millionaires have made a nice turnaround since starting the season 1-4. They have won four of their last five and defeated Bethlehem Freedom in dramatic fashion Saturday, winning 42-40 in overtime on Isaiah Washington's buzzer-beating layup. Washington has topped 20 points in five straight games and sophomore guard Nyric Gosley has been making some nice strides. The Millionaires have held opponents to 40 points or fewer in their last two wins. Williamsport has a chance to move above .500 for the first time this season when it hosts Hollidaysburg Wednesday.
5. South Williamsport (7-2): Senior Billy Rummings is having a big season and has been instrumental to the team's big turnaround. The versatile forward is playing well in all facets and scored a career-high 24 points in Friday's 81-47 win over Millville. The Mounties are showing some explosiveness this season and have topped 25 points in a quarter in each of their last two games. Brock Jones is emerging as a solid threat inside and is one of three quality big men for South, joining Cody Nelson and Tyler Schonewolf.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
Ted Clark, Muncy: The senior guard is doing a little bit of everything to spark Muncy while also developing into a quality leader. He averaged 17 points in two wins last week while also providing solid rebounding, passing and defense. Clark also plays with as much energy as just about anyone around.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Lewisburg at Loyalsock: Regular season games do not get much better than tonight's showdown. It is the No. 4 vs. No. 5 Class AA teams in the state as well as undefeated HAC-II teams and the two teams to beat in the District 4 title chase. Loyalsock handed Lewisburg four of its five losses last year and each game was exciting. Lewisburg is out for revenge and Loyalsock is out to defend its court. This one should be awesome.