A smile crept upon Tyler Kreger’s face when asked if he was surprised by the current record of his Bellefonte boys’ basketball team.
The point guard didn’t want to say “yes” — at least not at first — but it was hard to label the Red Raiders’ first non-losing regular season since 2009 as anything else. Bellefonte currently stands at 11-11 and could clinch a non-losing season with a win 7 p.m. Monday in the Class 5A District 6 semifinals.
Kreger, the team’s lone senior starter, expected this young squad to find success. But not like this — and not so quickly.
“If someone told me this before the season, I would’ve kind of looked at them a little crazy,” Kreger said with a laugh. “But that’s what’s great about high school sports. If you come in and put the work in every day, there’s endless possibilities for a season.
“I don’t think anyone really expected it, but now, seeing this all, I think we all see why we’ve gotten here. It’s not a surprise now.”
During a recent practice, players’ shoes squeaked across the Bellefonte gym as teammates applauded one another after any good play. When one of Kreger’s shots was blocked, he smiled and patted the defender on the back. First-year coach Kris Glunt clapped along at practice when the defense turned up pressure, yelling “That’s it!” whenever it forced a turnover.
That kind of atmosphere is new to these Red Raiders. There’s a new coach, a new energy and confidence and a new style of play that has catapulted this team past expectations.
“You really got to give it to the coaches,” sophomore forward Caleb Rockey said. “In the past, the confidence wasn’t amazing. Now we got the confidence back up.”
It wasn’t an overnight change. In fact, this team struggled to transition early on. Bellefonte dropped its first four games of the season, as the new press defense was riddled with early miscues. Players weren’t in sync when it came to rotating, and opponents were usually able to take advantage in the back of the press.
Some problems persisted on offense, too. Teammates hesitated, some preferring to eschew an open shot in favor of passing.
But as Glunt’s philosophy caught on, so did these Red Raiders. Instead of mistakes while playing the press, Bellefonte’s defense tightened up so much that it’s now No. 2 in the Mountain League in points allowed per game. Instead of hesitating on offense, new players have stepped up to provide a spark. Sophomore guard Nate Tice didn’t even begin the season on the varsity squad — now, he’s a varsity starter.
“To be completely honest, 11-11 has been a tremendous year for us,” Glunt said. “We have played a lot of young kids and we’ve played a lot of inexperienced kids, so to come in and build that confidence and find the right formula as a team, that’s a real testament to this team and their work ethic.”
Three of Bellefonte’s starters are underclassmen, and no starter is taller than 6-foot-1. The Red Raiders are also coming off a 6-17 season. So it’s no surprise the home gym’s red bleachers weren’t packed with fans when Bellefonte started the season with a 4-8 record. But after a key win over a good Huntingdon squad on the road — a 57-52 victory sealed by Cade Fortney’s late free throws — these Red Raiders knew they turned a corner.
Bellefonte finished the regular season by winning seven of its past 10 games.
“Whenever we beat Huntingdon, we got a little bit of confidence,” Fortney said. “And a couple games later, we beat Tyrone. Then we beat Central. We kind of just went from there.”
The fans have followed. Kreger remembers attending games back when he was in junior high, when he usually ignored the contest and just chatted with friends. But the crowd — especially the student section — has grown with every win.
There’s an excitement in this gym that hasn’t been there in years. And it’s not just because this team has chalked up more victories this season; it’s that this program believes this is only the beginning.
“I see it every day in practice,” Kreger said. “This team is just going to get better here.”