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By the very definition of the word, the players on Central York are a team.

Walk into the gym before practice and you'll see them throwing a foam football to each other over the length of the basketball court. As preparation for each game takes on more and more meaning, it hardly seems to bother the players, as they laugh their way through practice.

Head coach Kevin Schieler said it's the best chemistry he's seen from a group of teammates in his five years coaching the Panthers. In a way, that laid-back approach and team camaraderie was exactly what Central needed heading into the year, just to be competitive. Anything else — such as a York-Adams League Division I crown, a Y-A League runner-up playoff finish and the top seed in the District 3-AAAA field — was all just extra.

"I didn't know how good we were going to be," senior Jared Wagner said. "I didn't even know if we had any goals to start the season. We were kind of just blindly going into it. I'm sure we wanted to be good, just didn't know how good."

Losing a lot: Coming into the year, the Panthers, in one way or another, lost seven of their top nine players from last year's district- and state-qualifying team. Of their top three, Wagner was the only one coming back. Sam Saxton graduated and Charlie Gingrich informed the coaching staff that he wouldn't be coming out for his senior year.

The loss of Saxton and Gingrich alone caused concern that 2015-16 would be a season in which Central took a step back. Throw in the fact that this year's team is full of inexperienced players with very little varsity time, and even an average season seemed like a long shot.

"The seniors and coaches joked about it a bit when we came home from Cedar Crest when we were 8-0, 9-0, something like that, and we knew we were really happy with that," Schieler said. "But, we thought we would be better than people gave us credit for, losing as much as we did, seven of our top nine, from last year."

So, how did the Panthers go from potential afterthought in the Y-A League to the top seed in District 3's largest class and a state tournament team?

Look no further than the senior leaders.

Senior leadership: Schieler credits Wagner and fellow senior Nathan Markey for getting the team where it needed to be heading into the season.

It was Wagner and Markey who were responsible for getting the players into the weight room to go through their lifting program, something that the coaches leave completely up to the players. And when the team needed extra practice, Wagner and Markey were the ones who got the team together at one of the local parks.

"Those two deserve a lot of credit for the family that you see in the gym right now," Schieler said.

Realistically, Central was going to go as far as Wagner ultimately would take them. As the only returning member from the "Big Three" of himself, Saxton and Gingrich, he was going to need to be special to help guide the Panthers through a potentially difficult season. Through the league playoffs last Saturday, Wagner was sixth in the league in scoring, averaging 18 points per game.

Still, even he realized that he, alone, couldn't replace the pieces that left the program from a season ago.

"When you have a player like Sam, you can't have one guy come up and take his role," Wagner said. "You gotta have everyone elevate their game, and coming in, we didn't have much experience at all, so I think a lot of guys came in and started to build confidence and I just kind of did my thing. I think a lot of those guys should get more credit than I do."

Keeping the season going: With Wednesday night's 67-38 victory over Shippensburg in the opening round of the District 3-AAAA tournament, Central moved into the quarterfinals and secured a spot in the state tournament.

The Panthers (21-3) face Hempfield (15-7) on Saturday afternoon at the Giant Center, a team they beat earlier in the season, 52-49. With a win, they could potentially set up a rematch with York County rival Spring Grove, the tournament's fourth seed and a team that Central beat two out of three times this season. But the Panthers lost the most recent meeting to the Rockets last weekend in the league championship game.

So, whether or not folks outside the program are surprised to see the Panthers' continue as a league and district power, it's still a place the team expects to be every season.

"It's our goal every year to be competing for division and league titles," Schieler said. "It's our goal every year to be among the top teams in the district, so those things are falling in line and, again, it's a credit to our senior class to continue the development of this program."

— Reach Patrick Strohecker at pstrohecker@yorkdispatch.com

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