With fun factor restored, Plum boys look to continue rebuilding process

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Thursday, November 23, 2023 | 11:01 AM


Justin Walther focused on more than X’s and O’s in his first season as Plum’s boys basketball coach.

“Last year, we tried to instill some fun in everything we were doing,” he said. “We brought some enthusiasm and tried to show the players that we really care about them.”

Walther started to see the benefit of those efforts, even before the first official practice of this season.

“I think that’s why we’re getting the numbers at our open gyms,” he said. “In previous years, we might have a handful of kids. This year, I’d say we had close to 40.

“They realized the guys were having fun and being taught the right way. We’re just trying to do things properly and build a program.”

The Mustangs finished with a 6-16 overall mark and a 1-9 record in Section 2-5A last season.

“We were young and extremely inexperienced,” Walther said. “We have four kids coming back who received a lot of playing time last year. Three of them were starters for most of the year, and the other one was our first or second man off the bench.”

Walther said the top returnees are juniors Will Beckner (5-foot-8), Max Grice (6-4) and Darian Nelson (6-1).

“Max is our go-to scorer, and Will is a scorer as well. He’s a shooter,” Walther said. “Nelson will be our defensive stopper.”

Senior Sean Franzi served as backup point guard last season.

“Sean was the quarterback on the football team this fall,” Walther said. “Franzi and Nelson bring that football mentality of toughness to practice every day.”

Owen Proskin, a 6-4 sophomore, and senior Jack Anderson also will be vying for playing time.

“Owen played some good minutes as a freshman,” Walther said. “We’ll be counting on him a lot more this year.”

A standout on the Plum baseball team, Anderson decided to play basketball for his senior year.

“Jack is a point guard who brings another dimension of toughness to our team,” Walther said.

With Anderson, Franzi and Nelson, the Mustangs should have the personnel to play a more aggressive man-to-man defense, Walther said.

“Last year, we let teams get downhill on us. We were picking them up at the foul line, and they were already by us,” he said. “We should have more of a bulldog mentality this season. That’s why I think we can get down and dirty in a man-to-man that could give some of the more athletic teams we play fits.”

Walther’s teams were known for their up-tempo offense in his previous coaching stints at Winchester Thurston and Serra Catholic.

“I’d like to get out and go a little bit more this season, but in (Class) 5A, there are athletes everywhere,” said Walther, who needs four victories to reach the 100-win plateau for his coaching career. “There are going to be games where we can, hopefully, push the ball and other games where we’ll have to muck it up and grind.”

Walther said the Mustangs face another tough road in Section 2-5A against Penn Hills, Shaler, Fox Chapel, Woodland Hills and Armstrong.

“I’ve been around for a long time playing and coaching, and I don’t know if I’ve seen a tougher section from top to bottom,” said Walther, a former star at Central Catholic and Pitt-Johnstown. “We’ll have zero nights off in our section. We were competitive at times last year. It’s going to be hard getting over the hump, but once we do, we could have a pretty good basketball team. I think our kids have the opportunity to end some games with smiles on their faces.”

Plum boys at a glance

Coach: Justin Walther (Second season)

Last year’s record: 6-16 (1-9 Section 2-5A)

Top returners: Will Beckner (Jr., G), Max Grice (Jr., G/F), Darian Nelson (Jr., G/F), Sean Franzi (Sr., G)

Top newcomers: Jack Anderson (Sr., G), Owen Proskin (Soph., F)

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