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Despite challenges, defending WPIAL champion Mars boys remain team to beat in Class 5A | TribLIVE.com
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Despite challenges, defending WPIAL champion Mars boys remain team to beat in Class 5A

William Whalen
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Mars’ Brandon Caruso (23) makes a steal against Franklin Regional’s Nick Leopold (3) Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 at Mars.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Mars basketball coach Rob Carmody (right) watches as his team plays against Franklin Regional Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 at Mars.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Mars’ Michael Carmody (3) pulls down a rebound against Franklin Regional Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 at Mars.
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Louis Raggiunti | For the Tribune-Review
Mars’ Khori Fusco (2) competes against Franklin Regional Friday, Jan. 25, 2019 at Mars.

If there’s one thing teams around the WPIAL have learned over the first two months of the regular season it’s that they need pack a lunch before they step on the floor against the Mars boys basketball team.

Night after night and week after week, the defending WPIAL Class 5A champion Fightin’ Planets have taken their opponents’ best shots only to turn them away bruised, battered and frustrated.

“If you’re a competitive person, you want to get everyone’s bet shot,” Mars coach Rob Carmody said. “I’ve been doing this long enough now, and if you’re not being challenged and getting everybody’s best shot, you’re not really doing the best you can to get better as a team. Having the bulls-eye on your back is a fun position to be in.”

After Friday’s 58-53 come-from-behind win over No. 5-ranked Franklin Regional (13-5, 8-2), the bulls-eye on the Planets’ back has grown a lot larger.

Mars (17-1, 10-0) trailed a motivated and skilled Franklin Regional team for the first 31 minutes, 28 seconds before senior guard Andrew Recchia drained two free throws to give the Planets the lead for good at 55-53. Recchia scored 12 of his team-high 22 points in the fourth quarter.

“I still can’t believe that we won that game,” Carmody said. “The experience that Andrew (Recchia), Brandon (Caruso) and Michael (Carmody) have had playing in the WPIAL and state (championships), and playing in a bunch of big games, you saw that come out in the fourth quarter.”

Panthers’ players looked dejected, heads hanging. Franklin Regional had the top-ranked Planets on the ropes, but the Panthers couldn’t land the knock-out punch needed for the upset. Mars also defeated the Panthers, 54-44, in last year’s WPIAL title game and 59-51 in a Section 3 game Dec. 17.

The loss will go down as one of the toughest regular-season defeats of Panthers’ coach Steve Scorpion’s two-year tenure. Scorpion was short on words following the loss, only saying he needed to prepare his team better to finish games. Scorpion also smiled when asked if he was hoping to get another crack at Mars in the playoffs.

“Without our experience, we don’t come back in the fourth quarter,” said Recchia, who leads the Planets with a 17.8 points-per-game average. “It’s great to have when you can press on that gas and have people who have been there in big games that can step up and make big plays.”

God of War

The word “Mars” is Latin for the Roman god of war. A name that is fitting for the 2018-19 Planets. Mars has battled in the first halves of games this year only to come back in the second half to declare war on their opponents. In addition to Franklin Regional, Mars trailed Class 4A No. 3 Ambridge Sunday at the PBC Hall of Fame Classic at Montour and trailed section rival Shaler earlier in the season.

The Titans held a 33-27 lead heading into the locker room before the Planets came out in the third quarter and broke the game open with 27 points. Teams have to play near-perfect basketball for all 32 minutes to have a chance.

“There’s no panic,” Recchia said. “One through five, and even the kids that come off then bench, we have a certain confidence about us. That’s a credit to coach and the certain confidence about us. Friday night, we were kind of waiting to step on the gas, and that kind of got us in trouble.”

Robby’s gone, now what?

After the graduation of Robby Carmody, the 2018 Pennsylvania Gatorade Player of the Year and now a freshman on the Notre Dame basketball team, there were a ton of question marks surrounding this year’s team. Would Mars be just as good with Robby? How are they going to replace all of that scoring?

But while Robby was dazzling the WPIAL with his skill, there were a handful of players taking it all in and chomping at the bit to get a chance to be the next man up. Robby’s departure opened the door for players like Recchia, Michael Carmody, Brandon Caruso, Joseph Craska and Khori Fusco, among others. And so far, it has worked.

“I think they have a little bit of that, ‘What are you going to do now that Robby’s gone (mentality)?’ ” Carmody said. “We have more scorers this year than we did last year. We’re scoring more points this year than we did last year.”

Without question, the Planets have more balance this year. In addition to Recchia, Mars has two more players averaging double-digit scoring in Fusco (16.2) and Michael Carmody (14.9). Michael Carmody has averaged a double-double nearly the entire season, pulling down 15.5 rebounds per game. He also can knock down shots from anywhere.

First-year Kiski Area coach Will Saunders spoke highly of Carmody’s ability to transition his team into a more balanced offense.

“Robby has done a great job of changing this team over from a Robby Jr.-dominated team to a team in which three to four guys score in double figures every night,” Saunders said. “Robby Jr. was so dominant that while he was the focal point of every team’s game plan Recchia, Michael and Caruso came back this season with confidence.”

Planet Mars

Walk through the doors of the Planets’ gymnasium, the first thing one might notice is that it’s a little small. It has an old school “rec hall” feel to it.

The blue and yellow roll-out bleachers extend nearly to the the out-of-bounds line. Fans have to wait until there’s a break in the action before coming and going; it’s that tight. But once those stands are full and the bleachers start to vibrate from the sound, it feels like all of Mars is just inches away screaming and cheering for their Planets.

Knoch coach Ron McNabb took his Knights there plenty of times when the two schools played in the same section a few years back.

“Being in the same section with (them) for so many years, I know they were always well prepared for everyone they played, and it is also a very difficult place to play,” he said.

The Planets’ last home section loss was Jan. 8, 2014, in a 71-66 defeat to Indiana. Since then, Mars has been perfect. The crowd was a huge factor last Friday in the win over Franklin Regional. With each fourth-quarter basket, the standing-room only crowd’s roar began to grow louder and louder. All of the momentum the Panthers had built up over three quarters began to slowly slip away. It was almost slow motion. The crowd hit a fever pitch when Recchia scored on back-to-back steals midway through the quarter.

“That fourth quarter, when we started to come back, my ears started hurting,” Recchia said. “Its kind of a smaller gym but it works to our advantage.”

Half Apps

A team that wins together must also dine together. A word to the wise, seating at the Cranberry Township Applebee’s restaurant, aka “Half Apps” as the players call it, could be hard to find after a game. The entire team and coaching staff have made it a tradition to head there to eat after games. After last Friday’s win over the Panthers, “Half Apps” was jammed packed with more people than usual with fans that making the trek down Route 228.

“You couldn’t even walk through it,” said Recchia, describing the crowd that gathered following last Friday’s game. “They pretty much know that every Tuesday and Friday we’re coming in. I get the boneless barbecue wings and the spinach artichoke dip every single time.”

It should come as no surprise that the 6-foot-6, 282-pound Carmody has the biggest appetite. He’s been known to throw down a rack of ribs.

“Success isn’t always on the court,” Coach Carmody said. “I’m really lucky to get to do something that I love and work with young people. You need men to teach young boys how to be men. That’s what will determine how I was as a coach. Man, I’m just a lucky guy.”

William Whalen is a freelance writer.