The events at a summer basketball camp made Abington Heights boys basketball coach Ken Bianchi smile, both at the memory and what it meant to him and his team.
"We went to a team camp, and got off the bus," Bianchi said. "We heard people talking and whispering, 'there's Abington Heights'."
Most coaches, in any sport, hope to build a program that is successful, one that contends for titles on a yearly basis. By virtue of reaching the state Class AAA quarterfinals for the third time in four years this year, Bianchi has achieved just that, not only at the league and district level, but also at the state level.
"Right now, we have a better reputation, but we understand that if you miss the state playoffs for a couple of years, that's gone," Bianchi said.
But for now, schools in Class AAA across the state are used to seeing Abington Heights in their bracket. If they are paired up against the Comets, they know they'll be in for a tussle against a battle-tested program, a team that knows how to play - and win - big games.
The Comets started its 27-3 season with an impressive 55-30 win over Holy Cross, which went on to reach the state final in Class AA. The Comets had built on a strong finish to their 2011-12 season, when the program made the state quarterfinals after failing to get that far in 2010-11. Last year's finish set the expectations of what was possible and showed how far Abington Heights could travel this year.
"Last year's post-season run had a great deal to do with the success we had this year," Bianchi said. "We improved last year as the season progressed and, by the end of the year, we were playing our best basketball. Winning the District 2 title was big for us. We entered the state tournament and beat Northern Lehigh and Berks Catholic before losing to Boys Latin Charter School of Philadelphia in overtime. We ended the season as a member of the Elite Eight in Class AAA for the second time in three years."
With four starters coming back, the Comets had high expectations, but there were no guarantees that success would be easy to repeat. Bianchi recalled two important stepping stone games that helped pave the way for this year's journey to the state quarterfinals.
"There were two key games that made us the team we were this year. The first came on December 27 when we got beat by Meyers in overtime in the Christmas Tournament," Bianchi said. "We went into that game undefeated and we didn't give a good effort that night. It showed us that no matter how good we think we are, if we don't come out and give a maximum effort, we are just another team that can be beat."
"The other key game was one month later on January 27, we were invited to play in the Hoop Group Showcase," he continued. "It was billed as the best of New Jersey takes on Pennsylvania. There were five games played that day. We were matched against Gill St. Bernard. They had three Division I players, two that are going to Big Ten schools. Winning that game gave us confidence knowing that when we play our best, we can compete with anyone."
Bianchi's belief in his team reflects on his confidence in his system, learned from his college days at Mansfield, and his high school coaches, Dan Donovan and Gerry Burke. Of course, the game has changed a little and Bianchi has added some tweaks of his own, but the base fundamentals remain the same. He knows what has worked in the past and, just as important, his players understand the system works for the program.
"They know they have to step up and run the system," Bianchi said. "Every one knows what it takes to be successful."
"Next year we hope to be back contending for the division and district championships. Although we lose four of our five starters we do have J.C. Show back and that is a good place to start," Bianchi continued. "Evan Maxwell, Tim Toro and Nate Hollander got a lot of playing time this year and we hope they can step in and fill some of the vacated positions. All the spots are open and we will see in November who steps up and seizes the stating positions. Once that is decided we will see how well they mesh together as a team and hopefully we can have another good season."
That is something the rest of the Lackawanna League expects from the Comets. It is what District 2 and the rest of the state now know about Abington Heights - a program considered to be among the best in the state.