Charles back in charge: Lions’ big man makes Altoona real threat

After being named a first-team all-star by the Mid-Penn League as a junior, P.J. Charles had some big goals in mind for his senior year.

Things haven’t gone exactly the way Charles envisioned, but thanks to his leadership on and off the court, everything is still possible for both Charles and the Mountain Lions.

The 6-foot-4 post player with guard skills suffered an injury in the season opener at the Mount Lebanon Tournament. He didn’t return until Jan. 3 at State College.

Without Charles playing, however, Altoona managed to find some success in the early going.

“I can’t say enough about the rest of the kids that really stepped up while he was out,” Altoona coach Jarrod Klausman said. “It’s not like he just missed a game or two. He got hurt in the first game of the year and didn’t come back until after Christmas. He missed seven and a half games, so for us to win over CD East, Carlisle and Mifflin County while he was out is a testament to the kids who stepped up into roles they aren’t used to.”

Charles was also in an unfamiliar role.

“It was really hard, because I know I could have done a lot more to help on the court,” Charles said. “I just tried to keep motivating them and tried to remind them that even without me, they could succeed.”

Klausman noticed Charles’ effort to impact the team despite being unable to play.

“When he was out, he still traveled to all the away games,” Klausman said. “He was still at practice every day when he wasn’t at therapy to try and get back with us, and I’ll never forget against CD East, I remember watching the game afterward. He was sitting behind our bench, and he was the biggest cheerleader we had, still trying to motivate his teammates and let them know he was there for them. This senior group has been playing together for a long time, and they are there for each other.”

Altoona has already had more success in its second year of Mid-Penn play than it did last year in its first foray back into the league.

“This year we got off to a 5-3 start, and last year we went 4-12 total (in the Mid-Penn),” Charles said. “So we already have more wins total than last year, and that’s what Coach Klausman has been telling us over and over. He tells us to play hard, because every game matters when it comes to our improvement.”

One of the biggest keys to continuing that improvement is Charles.

“Almost every team in the Mid-Penn has a quality post player,” Klausman said. “I believe (Charles) is a special player. Not just a post player, but as a basketball player overall. Having a post player inside like him is a big deal, but he also is able to play in space and be a matchup issue for other centers to play against.”

It certainly didn’t take long for the senior to make an impact when he returned.

“The first four games he’s was back, it’s almost like he never missed a beat,” Klausman said. “The first game back against State College, he had 18 points and 12 rebounds. He had 23 rebounds against Carlisle. He’s really controlled the glass well on both sides of the floor, and overall, he’s a crucial player for us.”

The win over State College was obviously an important one to help give the Mountain Lions the inside track for the top seed in the District 6 Class 6A playoffs. Charles said he and his fellow seniors have had their eyes on a district title for awhile.

“It would mean everything,” Charles said. “Not for just us, but for Altoona basketball. We haven’t got one in like five years, and it would be an honor to be a part of a team that won a D6 title, especially in my senior year.”

Klausman expects the team to continue to improve as they combine how they played with Charles out and the type of game they can play now that he’s back.

“It was an adjustment period for the team when he first came back,” Klausman said. “Going into the season, we were prepared having him ready to go, and then after one half he’s out. Without him, we had to do a lot of different things offensively while he was out. I think as a high school coach, you have to be able to adjust to the talent you have. We did some things differently while he was out, playing outside in, and in the games he was back, we had to adjust back to having one of the best players in the area back.”

With Charles back, Altoona has shown the potential of being a very good team. But there’s still work to do.

“You get better or you get worse every day, you never stay the same,” Klausman said. “On New Year’s Day, there’s one of two ways you can go. You can get better or flat-line. We’ve already started the process of getting better, but the challenge is that there’s no easy games. The level of competition we’re taking on builds character.”