WILKES-BARRE – Considering the history of the program, it is not uncommon for Hazleton Area to reside near the top of boys basketball standings in the Wyoming Valley Conference and District 2.
But even within those lofty standards, the defending WVC Division 1 and District 2 Class 6A champion Cougars appear to have the chance to make 2017-18 a special season.
Hazleton Area, the top-ranked team in the NEPABasketball.com Super Six each week this season, has the luxury of returning four double-figures scorers, each of which is averaging at least 12.8 points per game this season. The group includes highly experienced seniors Jeff Planutis, Joey Grula and Josh Samec, all at least 6-foot-5 and all seasoned in the spring and summer by playing for JB Hoops.
“I have a really good group of guys back,” Cougars coach Mike Joseph said at WVC Media Night Dec. 3. “We’re super excited. I have a great group of seniors – Planutis, Grula, Samec. This is their fourth year in the program.
“They’re really matured, not just as really good basketball players, but they’re really great young men.”
Just one month into the season, the Cougars are the district’s last unbeaten, the division co-leader and the third-ranked Class 6A team in the state, according to the cityofbasketballlove.com state rankings. They take that perfect record (4-0 WVC, 8-0 overall) into a Friday night showdown for the WVC Division 1 lead at Dallas (4-0, 8-1).
And, they appear to be getting stronger after pounding division rivals Wyoming Valley West, 94-64; Crestwood, 72-33; and Pittston Area, 89-37, in the span of a week since returning from the holidays. They blasted the Patriots Tuesday, opening leads of 28-7 after one quarter and 56-15 at halftime.
Hazleton Area beat Scranton Prep, another state-ranked team, 59-50, in the opener and has beaten every opponent by more than 20 since, winning by an average margin of 77.6-44.3 for the season.
Each of the three senior leaders offers much more than scoring.
Planutis led the team in points (15.6 per game) and steals (1.6) last season. He leads in steals (1.8) this season while averaging 13.3 points and 3.1 assists.
“He does a lot for us on both ends of the floor,” Joseph said. “He can score in bunches, but he’s also really good defensively, in pressure.”
Samec, 6-8 senior forward/center, is leading the team in blocked shots for the third straight season and rebounds for the second straight season, yet Joseph says he is arguably the team’s best shooter.
“He’s super skilled,” Joseph said of Samec, who is averaging 13.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocked shots. “He can shoot the basketball; he can score inside; he’s a really good passer.
“He’s got kind of an old-school feel to his game.”
Grula managed to average in double figures last season despite taking just 7 ½ shots per game from the floor and is only taking 8 per game this year.
“Joey Grula is sometimes the guy that gets overlooked for us,” Joseph said. “He’s a productive guy on both ends of the floor. He’s our best defender, probably.”
Grula is hitting 65 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the line while averaging 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds.
The Cougars missed out on the state tournament last year when they lost the Subregional final to Williamsport before beating Delaware Valley in the district championship game. Their second-closest win this season came 68-47 at Williamsport.