22 & whoa! Bearcats finish up regular season perfect
HUNTINGDON — The Huntingdon Area High School boys basketball team completed a perfect 22-0 regular season with a 75-51 Mountain League victory over Bald Eagle Area Friday night at the Huntingdon Area High School gymnasium.
But the foundation and groundwork for the success of this year’s Huntingdon team, which won its second straight Mountain League championship with a 14-0 record this season, was set down long ago.
Most of the players on this year’s upperclassmen-laden squad have been playing basketball together since their formative days in the sport in elementary school.
The familiarity between the players has reaped great dividends for Huntingdon, which has returned a solid nucleus from last year’s 23-3 team that made it to the PIAA Class 4A state quarterfinals.
“We have a lot of team chemistry,” said senior forward Owen Lane, a third-year starter on this season’s team. “We’ve been playing together since we were like, 10 (years old).
“I think when one of us is lacking, the rest of the team is there to pick him up,” Lane said. “That’s good for team morale. It’s fun playing with these guys.”
Will Sulesky, a senior guard and two-year starter, also cited the team’s chemistry and cohesiveness as big factors in its success the past two years.
“It’s our experience that we’ve had playing with each other for so long,” Sulesky replied when asked what he felt was the biggest key to this year’s undefeated regular season — Huntingdon’s first since the 1944-45 team went through the regular schedule unbeaten en route to compiling a 26-1 record, with its lone loss in the state playoffs.
“And the amount of work we have put in (is important),” Sulesky said. “We’ve worked a lot in the offseason.”
Senior guard Nick Rigby, Huntingdon’s leading scorer this year with a 23.3 points-per-game average, also thinks the team’s participation in summer leagues has been vital.
“We’ve definitely done a lot of summer preparation,” said Rigby, who scored 22 points to lead three Huntingdon players in double figures. “You win games in the winter because of what you do in the summer, and we all did a lot during the summer. We’ve been there before, making the Elite Eight in the state last year. This is a really experienced group of guys who knows how to play basketball with each other, and who never gets too rattled.”
Rigby — a three-year starter and also a four-year letterman
who needs only seven more points to break 2015 graduate Nate Gearhart’s Huntingdon school career scoring record of 1,547 points — is definitely the ringleader of the Bearcats’ offensive show this season.
“He’s just a workhorse,” Huntingdon coach Nick Payne said of Rigby. “His work ethic is off the charts. His engine just goes and goes. He doesn’t stop.”
But Rigby also has a nice supporting cast on this year’s team. Juniors Jackson Ritchey and Nick Gearhart scored 19 and 14 points, respectively, Friday night, and Sulesky has had several games with double-doubles in rebounds and assists.
“He’s our distributor,” Payne said of Sulesky.
Ritchey has averaged 14.2 points per game this year, Nick Gearhart has averaged 12, and Lane has averaged eight for Huntingdon.
“We have a lot of senior leadership,” Payne said. “We’ve got competitors here, and kids who love the game of basketball. That’s very evident.”
Huntingdon got all it could handle from Bald Eagle Area (6-16 overall, 2-12 in the league) for the first two and a half quarters of Friday’s game. A 3-pointer by junior guard and football quarterback star Jaden Jones — who scored a game-high 23 points — pulled BEA to within 41-40 with 3:25 left in the third quarter.
Then Huntingdon went on a tear, closing the third period on a 13-5 run to take a 54-45 lead into the fourth quarter, a period in which Huntingdon scored the first 16 points for a commanding 70-45 advantage.
“We hung in there, but that’s a good team,” BEA coach Bill Butterworth said of the Bearcats. “You don’t become 22-0 for no reason. They’ve got it all — size, good ball-handling guards. They get up and down the floor, and they get rebounds. They have the whole package.”
Even so, it’s difficult to run the table in the ultra-competitive Mountain League, and against Huntingdon’s non-league schedule, which included Hollidaysburg, Bishop McDevitt, Juniata Valley, and Williamsport this season.
“If you’d have asked me if we’d go through the season undefeated, I would have said, ‘Hell, no,”’ Payne said. “I knew the league was good, and if you look at our opponents this year, a lot of them have 10 wins or more. But these guys don’t back down from anybody. They step up to the competition, and they play their guts out.”
Huntingdon will need to continue to do so in the District 6 Class 4A tournament, which begins in less than two weeks.
“We’ve had a great run through the regular season, and we’ve checked off a couple of goals,” Payne said. “We wanted to be the number one seed in (District 6) Class 4A, and we wanted to win back-to-back Mountain League championships.
“But we still have a lot of goals left to accomplish,” Payne said. “We know we’re at the point in our season where we have to hit the reset button and get focused. In the playoffs, you lose and you go home.”
Rigby believes in a step-by-step approach for this outstanding Huntingdon team.
“The first order of business was to go undefeated during the regular season,” Rigby said. “Now we want to make sure that we win districts, get into the state playoffs, and get as close to the state championship game as we can.
“There are some schools that will be tough, but we feel that we can play with anybody,” Rigby said. “We’ll see when we get there. We’ve got to take one game at a time.”
BALD EAGLE AREA (51): Jones 9 1-1 23, Hoover 5 0-0 11, Bucha 4 1-1 9, Maynard 2 0-0 4, Roberts 1 0-1 2, Koleno 1 0-0 2, Irwin 0 0-0 0, Gavlock 0 0-0 0, Hess 0 0-0 0, Vaughn 0 0-0 0, Parsons 0 0-0 0. Totals — 22 2-3 51.
HUNTINGDON (75): Lane 3 0-2 6, Sulesky 1 0-0 2, Rigby 8 4-6 22, Brindle, Jr. 3 1-1 9, Ramirez-Sesma 0 0-0 0, Gearhart 5 3-3 14, Ritchey 8 2-3 19, Miller 1 0-0 3, Poorman 0 0-0 0, Harman 0 0-0 0, Via 0 0-0 0, Cooper 0 0-0 0. Totals — 29 10-15 75.
SCORE BY QUARTERS
Bald Eagle Area 15 12 18 6 — 51
Huntingdon 18 17 19 21 — 75
3-point goals: Bald Eagle Area 5 (Jones 4, Hoover); Huntingdon 7 (Rigby 2, Brindle, Jr., 2, Gearhart, Ritchey, Miller).
Records: Bald Eagle Area (6-6 overall, 2-12 in the Mountain League); Huntingdon (22-0, 14-0).
JV: Huntingdon, 57-43. High scorers–McGuire Heverly, BEA, 9; Tony Poorman, H, 18.
Officials: Don Donaldson, Sarah Fye, Rod Brumbaugh.