With a new schedule of opponents this year, the Sewickley Academy boys basketball team will face a new set of challenges.
For the past several years, Sewickley Academy had regularly contended for the Section 2-A title along with schools like Vincentian Academy and Cardinal Wuerl North Catholic.
But due to WPIAL realignment, the Panthers are now a part of Section 1-A, where they will compete against Cornell, Eden Christian, Quigley Catholic, Rochester, Union and Western Beaver.
Even in the early goings of the season, Sewickley Academy coach Win Palmer knows his team doesn’t have the physical size or team-wide athleticism to match up with section front-runners Cornell and Union, so it will just have to play with an intellect and polished skill set that its opponents can’t match, he said.
One of the biggest ways he can help the Panthers do that is by teaching them to play at a faster pace, something they began instituting last season, Palmer said.
“With our depth, we feel (playing fast) is an advantage over a lot of teams we play,” he said. “We believe we’ve got some guys who are scorers out there, but on a given night it could be anyone who has a hot hand.”
Sewickley Academy scored 51.1 points per game while allowing 50.1 per game in 45 contests across the 2012 and 2013 seasons. By switching to a more up-tempo offense last season, the Panthers increased their scoring output to 60.2 points per game without suffering on defense, still allowing just 49.9 points per game.
The Panthers will be counting on a lot of new faces this year as they return just four players with prior varsity experience — seniors Anthony Muscato, Chris Johnson and Drew Johnson and sophomore Justin Pryor.
Palmer will be counting on Muscato and Drew Johnson — his top returning scorers from last season — to continue their progress and more consistently shoulder the burden offensively.
“They can’t let things bother them,” Palmer said. “When you’re in that role, it’s just got to be water off the back. The guys that can do that the most then become comfortable, and that’s the game experience. They realize, ‘Hey, I might not get 25 every night, but if I get 15 and do all the other things, we’re in good shape.’”
A few different responsibilities will fall into the “other things” category this year for the Panthers, most notably trapping in the half court and boxing out.
With just one player on the roster listed at over 6-foot-2 — junior forward Daniel Salter-Voltz is 6-4 — the Panthers will be faced with a distinct rebounding disadvantage against some of the taller teams in the section. Palmer hopes that forcing opponents to play at a faster pace will help to minimize that disadvantage more so than in years past.
“We gave up a lot of points that way, a lot of second chance opportunities,” Muscato said. “If we get better on defense boxing out, even offensively getting a few more rebounds and putback opportunities, we’ll be right where we need to be.”
During Chris Johnson’s time on the varsity team, the Panthers have made a bad habit of playing without confidence at the start of the season, he said.
But this year, confidence within the squad is high.
“Personally, I think we have a really good team,” Pryor said. “I think we’re better than last year.
“We’re a very talented team and we’ve just got to put it all together. We can make a run at the section championship, and we can make it deep into the WPIAL playoffs.”