Travis Buckner was at a crossroads after his junior year.
The Hazleton Area wing player could either be content with the status quo – an uneven season where he lost his starting spot for a time – or prove he could be the player coach Mike Joseph envisioned.
Buckner chose the latter and it showed this season as he was named The Times Leader Player of the Year in boys basketball.
Buckner's statistics were impressive, especially for a player in the traditionally strong Hazleton Area program. He set a school single-season record with 84 steals. He tossed in 16.5 points per game, the fourth-most for a single season. His 412 points ranked ninth in the school's record books. And his 30 points versus Tunkhannock was the most by a Cougars in a game since Mike Demarco scored 39 in 2007.
Those stats added up to Hazleton Area winning the Wyoming Valley Conference Division I title and finishing 20-5 overall, a jump of seven victories from the previous season.
"With the numbers he put up, arguably he had one of the top 10 seasons of any individual player in the 20 years of our school district," Joseph said.
One aspect of Buckner's play, though, couldn't be measured by numbers. It was how he handled a rough junior season where he showed enough to earn a starting position at the beginning, only to lose it at midseason and regain it by the end.
Even though Buckner played "starter's minutes" coming off the bench according to Joseph, the demotion was difficult.
"It was rough," Buckner said. "I was young and really didn't know how to respond to it. Instead of taking it as something to build off to get better, I was just a little shocked about it. But then I finally used it as something I could build off."
The construction began in the Harrisburg summer league where Buckner made the all-star team.
"I started to see him doing things offensively and defensively against great competition," Joseph said. "We played Harrisburg, Cedar Crest, Central Dauphin, Central Dauphin East. We made the semifinals and he definitely distinguished himself as one of the best players in the summer league. And that's arguably one of the best summer leagues in the state."
The jump in Buckner's play – both physically and mentally – wasn't and aberration. He knew what the competition would be like and prepared accordingly.
"When we went down there, I knew there would be a lot of good competition every night and I would have to step up my game," Buckner said. "During the summer I worked really hard on my body and my game to get better. When we went there, it kind of showed the hard work I put in during the summer."
More hard work is in store. Buckner will be heading to Misericordia University in the fall and will be vying for playing time on a Cougars team that won the Freedom Conference championship and qualified for the NCAA Division III tournament.
And he'll take with him the memories of playing for one of the WVC's top programs.
"I was blessed to play for them, really," said Buckner, who moved to the area from New York City in sixth grade. "It's a good school, a good program. There are great players who played there. I'm just fortunate to play there and put that jersey on."