---- — When his team got onto the bus after their final game last season, Milton coach Steve DeLong turned to his players and told them they were already better than everybody in the league.
That may be a strange thing to say of a team that just ended the season with a disappointing 6-16 record, but the Black Panthers coach -- now in his third season -- knew what he was talking about.
Milton would lose just one player to graduation and have plenty of talented players returning, whereas many teams in the league would lose pieces of successful teams.
Some may have thought DeLong was crazy to suggest his team was already better at season's end, but looking at them this year, it's not that crazy after all.
The Black Panthers are currently sitting at 10-6 after Tuesday's loss to Southern Columbia, and need just one more win to ensure a District 4 playoff berth, which would be its first since the 2009-10 season.
Milton also has a chance to match or exceed its win total from the last three seasons combined (12) with seven games remaining on the schedule.
"We got better just by the guys that we knew we had coming back," DeLong said. "I know a lot of people weren't expecting what we've done, but I've always believed that we could make a run this year."
They're making one.
It obviously starts with the five on the court and, luckily for DeLong, the Milton seniors have been stepping up this year.
"If they hadn't, we wouldn't be (11-6) right now. I think if you talk to any coach and you talk to them about the success of their season, usually it has to do with a couple seniors leading the way and that's no different for us," DeLong said. "I knew that was going to be the strength of our team this year. Those guys -- Michael Jacobs, Ty Kling, Chad Diggan, Brandon Rogers -- they started to show signs of leadership last year, but they weren't quite ready last year to fill that role. But this year's different. It's their team."
That group of seniors who have stepped up have been with DeLong all the way and haven't seen much postseason time. In fact, they were freshmen last time Milton was in the District 4 playoffs.
Jacobs (229 points, 14.3 ppg.) and Baker (126, 7.9) have been just two monumental cogs for Milton's success. Jacobs is a nice outside threat for the Black Panthers, sinking an area-high 38 treys. Add Diggan (210, 13.1) into the mix, and Milton has a solid trio on the court that have combined for 71 three-pointers.
While DeLong knew this team had the ability to make a run since day one, his players had to get over some mental hiccups.
"I knew that there are a lot of mental hurdles these kids have to get over with all the losing that's been done in the last few years," DeLong said. "That's hard to understand when you haven't been in that position (to win), and really I say at the beginning of the year, each win kind of slowly chipped away at the doubts they may have had."
One of the biggest wins happened earlier this month when the Black Panthers beat HAC-I foe Shikellamy, a talented squad led by Ernie Tyler, C.J. Tyler and at the time, Taylor Mantz, 60-56.
"That's a team that a lot of people were picking to battle it out with Danville (in the HAC-I). To beat them, that's the point where everybody realized this could be a lot bigger than just making it into the District 4 playoffs," DeLong said.
Before the season began, DeLong thought the Black Panthers could easily contend for the HAC-I title, another bold statement for a squad that went 3-10 in the league just last year. However, Milton took a 7-1 league mark into Danville against an Ironmen squad that was undefeated in the division (7-0) last Friday.
Unfortunately, a 25-point first quarter by the Ironmen was way too much for Milton to overcome, as the Black Panthers lost, 71-35, hurting their chance at an outright title.
"I think our chance (to be on top of league) was to beat (the Ironmen)," DeLong said. "I just don't see a team beating them in the league."
Milton would still have a chance to claim the HAC-I crown if a few things fell their way and Danville stumbles a little. Despite that, the Black Panthers have kept winning this year and it's something the players, and even DeLong, are more than thrilled about.
"We have some great moments after some of these games. They've probably seen a side of me they've never seen," DeLong said. "A lot of tight games; it's been an emotional year. A couple years of frustration that have been spilling over and this is great to see these kids win games and have fun because it's not been fun the last couple of years."
With a District 4 playoff berth in hand, the fun in Milton may just be beginning.
n Jon Gerardi covers boys basketball for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Jonidial.