Westmoreland County frontcourt players making impact away from the post
Marrek Paola doesn’t try to buck trends. Sometimes, it just happens.
The 6-foot-8 senior basketball player from Ligonier Valley likes to be stylish but can’t always find clothes to fit. Skinny jeans? Forget about it.
“It can be tough,” Paola said. “T-shirts aren’t too bad, but pants can be a problem.”
While Paola’s on-court role for the Rams has been a perfect fit, he is not exactly your traditional low-post player.
Paola is an example of how much the position has changed in the high school game. Not that he always wanted it that way.
Frontcourt players have changed. Some might say the true “bigs” are a lost art.
Paola grew up as a back-to-the-basket player, casting long shadows over opponents in the paint. He said he watched online videos of next-level forwards and centers to learn post moves.
“I love watching college basketball big guys,” he said. “They play with more heart than the NBA guys because they’re not in it for the money. My goal is to live up to those kind of high standards.”
Ligonier Valley’s all-time leading scorer with 1,753 points and 988 rebounds, Paola can add to his legacy with one regular-season game and what is expected to be a lengthy postseason run ahead for the defending District 6 Class 3A champions (19-2). He will continue his playing career at Seton Hill.
Paloa is one of several post players from the area looking to lead their teams on playoff runs.
• Derry (12-7) has 6-foot-6 John Kerr, an athletic end-to-end forward and tenacious shot-blocker who has fueled the Trojans’ return to the WPIAL playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
• Southmoreland senior 6-foot-2 center Maggie Moore helped power the defensive-minded Scotties (17-5) to a runner-up finish in Section 3-4A and spot in the playoffs.
• Johnny O-Toole is Franklin Regional’s 6-7 junior center and is perhaps as throwback as WPIAL big men come. He posts up inside and creates matchup problems. The Panthers (16-6) reached the WPIAL title game last season and O’Toole’s size, a complement to sound guard play, could help them return.
• Senior 6-foot-2 forward Stephanie O’Donnell is the inside game for Penn-Trafford (13-9), which is set to make its debut in the Class 5A playoffs. The guard-oriented Warriors like to shoot 3-pointers.
Kerr and Moore have more in common than height and skills: each is their team’s lone senior.
All of the aforementioned post players are not enamored of classic low-block style. And neither are their coaches.
Ligonier Valley first-year coach John Berger wishes he had been able to coach Paola for more than one season because the senior is so multi-skilled.
“Marrek is a first-class student-athlete with a great attitude,” Berger said. “He is a leader for the Rams in every way. He can play all five positions if needed. He hits 3s and is a huge threat in the paint. The way he can tip the ball and keep control of it off of missed buckets is like nobody I’ve ever seen.”
Kerr has had a breakthrough kind of season for Derry and is the cornerstone of this playoff push. The school’s single-game, season and career leader in blocks, he has an opportunity to play at Penn State Behrend. He also is considering college volleyball.
“John is just scratching the surface as a basketball player,” Derry coach Tom Esposito said. “I wish we had him for another year. He is probably the most underrated athlete in our school. His footwork is phenomenal and he has a nice, soft touch from 15 feet. Just his presence, standing there in the paint, discourages offensive players from penetrating in.”
Kerr had 26 points, 16 rebounds a school-record 17 blocks at Freeport.
He is averaging 16.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 5.3 blocks.
“Back when I was growing up, watching NBA, the big man usually just stood around down low,” Kerr said. “Now you have 7-footers like Kevin Durant going out and shooting 3s. But you still have those old-school post players still down there, working hard, getting rebounds and making their moves.”
Duke freshman Zion Williamson has doubled down on the modern big-man approach, showing how versatility can not only help teams win but also present quite a show.
“My main spot is on the inside,” Kerr said. “It’s a big factor whenever your point guards can come out and drive and find an outlet person … if they get trapped and can’t they can get it down to the big man.”
Moore is headed to the Naval Academy. She averages 14 points, 11 rebounds and 4.5 blocks and at times can be the most dominant player on the floor.
“I’m very happy that Maggie is on our team, and I don’t have to prepare for her,” Southmoreland coach Brian Pritts said. “She does a nice job using her length and body position. Since we play a lot of man (-to-man defense) I guess if I had to prepare for Maggie, I would try to get her to come out of the paint as much as possible.”
But that is a task in and of itself. Moore helps to clog the lane — along with teammates, 6-0 junior Sarah Pisula and 5-11 freshman Bailey Kuhns.
Moore didn’t start playing basketball until her freshman year, so she didn’t pay much attention to post players — any players. Now, she enjoys watching Williamson go coast-to-coast for Duke.
“I think good post players have to be versatile offensively, run the floor well and dominate on defense,” Moore said.
Paola, who leads Westmoreland in scoring at 25.4 points — he also averages 16 rebounds — also has 186 career blocks.
When O’Toole and O’Donnell catch the ball away from the basket, their coaches don’t say “Oh, no.” Both have also shown a touch from the perimeter.
Kerr has made 5 of his 7 3-point tries for Derry.
“Steph has taken more 3s this year because she can make them,” Warriors coach John Giannikas said. “We need her size inside, but she has really worked hard and stretched out her game.”
Bill Beckner is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bill at [email protected] or via Twitter @BillBeckner.