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Seniors eager to push young Hempfield boys basketball team back to playoffs

A pair of season-ending victories at the Westmoreland Shootout last season left a good taste in the mouths of Hempfield’s boys basketball players and coaches for 2018-19.

Who doesn’t like to go 2 for 3?

But despite winning the final two games of a three-game tournament at Seton Hill’s McKenna Center, Hempfield’s 7-15 record was the bottom line for a program seeking its first WPIAL playoff appearance in three years.

“We remember some of those teams that got to the playoffs, and we’re hungry to get back there,” said forward Jules Nicholls, one of just three seniors on the roster.

Hempfield in 2015 made the last of 11 consecutive appearances in the WPIAL playoffs, when those current Spartans seniors were freshmen.

Swan was Hempfield’s coach for seven of those years (2005-09, 2014-15), and Jim Nesser coached the team during the remaining four years (2010-13).

Nesser is in his first season at Yough.

Hempfield’s roster is a collection of tall-but-young players, many with little varsity experience. It is a similar scenario to the start of the 2017-18 season, but the Spartans are an even taller team this year.

“It’s the second-biggest team we’ve had since 2001,” Hempfield coach Bill Swan said. “If I had to list the top newcomers, I’d list them all.”

Swan, in his fifth year of a second stint at Hempfield, is expecting some breakout performances from an array of players.

The leadership will come from three returning starters, including the 6-foot-5, 200-pound Nicholls. He’s joined by 5-11 senior guard Reed Hipps and 6-5 junior forward Marcus McCarthy.

“Play hard and knock down shots,” Hipps said before adding with a bit more conviction: “Defense is the biggest thing. It doesn’t always translate in games — and we’re hoping for a better showing this year — but we are a good-shooting team.”

Forward Fintan Brose and guard Drew Coletta round out Hempfield’s five returning lettermen.

As the Spartans prepared to open the season by hosting the six-team Hempfield Tip-Off Tournament, Swan imagined a rotation as deep as 11 players.

At least five others are expected to play significant minutes: junior guards Mike Gaffney and Blake Remalay, junior forward Nick Suchko, and sophomore forwards Michael Hosni and Christian Zilli.

Swan also was hoping for a positive carry-over from the Spartans’ performance at the season-ending Westmoreland Shootout. Hempfield, which entered the event with just five victories, toppled Penn-Trafford and Norwin after a tough one-point loss to Highlands.

“I see a really close group of kids,” Swan said. “Kids who are good friends, who share the ball, who love to play together.”

Meanwhile, Hempfield remained in Section 3-6A, a pared-down, six-team lineup that also includes Fox Chapel, Latrobe, Norwin, Penn-Trafford and newcomer Connellsville.

Defending-champion Woodland Hills, along with Penn Hills and Plum, moved to other sections.

Hempfield will face Class 4A Belle Vernon on Dec. 7 in its tournament opener. Franklin Regional, Greensburg Salem and McKeesport, from Class 5A, as well as Class 2A Jeannette round out the field.

Dave Mackall is a freelance writer.


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