C.J. Hester had been on more than a handful of school, AAU and youth league teams throughout his years of playing basketball, but the team he represents in college plays the game like none of the previous had.
In fact, few teams in the country can compare.
"I had never played at a fast pace like that," Hester recalled thinking when he began his college career two years ago. "It was a real eye-opener."
Hester, a 2011 West Mifflin Area High School graduate, will soon begin his junior season at West Liberty, one of the elite NCAA Division II programs.
A 6-foot-4 guard, Hester is a two-year starter and helped West Liberty reach back-to-back Final Fours. The Hilltoppers have made it to the Elite Eight three years in a row.
A season ago, West Liberty finished 34-2. The Hilltoppers lost to Metro State in the national semifinals at Louisville's Freedom Hall.
West Liberty uses a full-court press, traps constantly and utilizes a frantic style of play that usually leaves opponents gasping for air. Last season, the Hilltoppers averaged more points per game than any other team in the country -- 102.8.
"In high school or on every team I ever played on, you didn't take any gambles on defense," Hester said. "It's the complete opposite [at West Liberty]. You're always trying to make plays in the open court."
West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield's recruiting strategy is to find players who were often overlooked by Division I schools. Crutchfield works those players into outstanding shape and helps them grow into his system.
Hester is a perfect example. At West Mifflin, he averaged 17.8 points per game his senior season and finished as the school's all-time leading scorer. Division I schools were interested in Hester, but he received only one offer. It was from Florida Gulf Coast, the up-tempo Cinderella story of the Division I tournament in March.
Now at West Liberty, Hester's statistics from his freshman and sophomore seasons are eerily similar. In each season, he led the team in rebounding and field-goal percentage and was third in scoring and minutes played.
Last season, Hester averaged 12.1 points and 9.2 rebounds and shot 61 percent from the field in 27 minutes per game.
"My role really hasn't changed," Hester said. "[Crutchfield] lets every player play to his strengths. It's been that way since I got there. I like to play inside and outside. I like to rebound. I've always had a knack for rebounding."
Hester's rebounding numbers do stand out, especially since he doesn't possess the size of a power forward or center. He grabbed at least 10 rebounds 14 times this past season. He finished with 30 points and 14 rebounds against Glenville State, and pulled down a career-high 21 rebounds against Shepherd.
West Liberty, which is a little more than an hour drive from Pittsburgh, has three former WPIAL players on its roster. The others are senior guard Jeff Yunetz from Greater Latrobe and redshirt sophomore Mike Lamberti from South Fayette. Hester and Lamberti, once rivals in high school, are now roommates.
Hester is home for the summer and is playing in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am in Green Tree for the second year in a row. The league features many Division I players and overseas professionals. Hester plays on a team that includes Pitt's Durand Johnson, Jamel Artis and Josh Newkirk.
"To become better, you have to play against better players. I think [the players in this league] are the best players around," Hester said.
Hester will be counted on even more this season. West Liberty's Alex Falk, last season's Division II player of the year, graduated.
Hester hopes he and his teammates are on the fast track to yet another high-flying -- and high-finishing -- season.
"We set our goals high every year," Hester said. "We try to win every game like it's our last. And one of my goals has always been to win a national championship."