---- — It was long before basketball season when Lewisburg boys basketball coach John Vaji attended a girls soccer game at Lewisburg Middle School. It was there that he mentioned how excited he was for the upcoming season to finally get underway and also mentioned a few players who came to open gym workouts.
After all, Lewisburg would need a handful of players to step up after losing three of its best scorers from the past year. Those players attending open gym would only be beneficial, and it was there that Vaji noticed the commitment and dedication of the players. Many of the players on his squad are multi-sport athletes, having played football or soccer in the fall, but that didn't mean they focused solely on their in-season sport.
"We have kids that play two and three other sports, so they're willing to make a commitment to not only their football team (or) baseball team, but their basketball team (and) they're willing to come in," Vaji said after Saturday's 50-29 win over Selinsgrove. "I know some of the guys who play football will come to my open gym here and then go over and get their lift in for football.
"I think a lot of it starts out with their commitment and love for the game, and we can give them some stuff to work on and they're willing to go out and work on it on their own as well."
That's part of the reason, in Vaji's eyes, that Lewisburg hasn't fallen off at all season after season.
Since 2000-01, the Green Dragons haven't had a losing season, their worst year being 2008-09 when the team went 12-10.
While Vaji's had to reload every few years due to graduation, like any program, this past year's graduation may have been one of the tougher ones to rebuild.
Lewisburg lost all-state player Travis Conrad -- who led Lewisburg last year in points (420) and points-per-game (15.0) -- in addition to both Erich Kline and Matt Driscoll, all of whom averaged double-digits last year.
The one returner who came back with significant varsity experience was Sam Allen, who is off to a fantastic start this year at the halfway point of the season. Allen is the second-best scorer in the Valley, behind only East Juniata's Nick Lorenz, and is the fourth-best in the Valley in terms of points-per-game (15.9).
In fact, Allen has increased his production in just one year. Last season, Allen had 284 points and averaged 11.4 ppg. and he's already on pace to surpass that total, with 159 thus far at the halfway point.
"Last year we were fortunate enough because we had those guys (so) we had some leads (and) we were able to develop some guys in varsity experience," Vaji said. "We lost some great seniors, but we had some other guys who have been seasoned a little bit, who have really worked on their game, who are ready to step in and replace them and ready to go."
For Allen and his teammates, playing alongside Kline, Driscoll and Conrad last year was only beneficial coming into this year.
"Those guys had to go against them in practice, so they're sort of understanding and getting the feel for it," said Vaji. "So now they're taking what they've learned having to go against them in practice and playing with them in games, now they're translating. Hopefully what they've learned will translate into helping out our younger guys so as they compete against them in practice, we just keep it rolling and getting more guys involved."
It all comes full circle in Lewisburg.
n Jon Gerardi covers boys basketball for The Daily Item. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JonGerardi.