Varsity Xtra: A long story -- big men show talent on WPIAL courts

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The well of Division I college basketball players in Western Pennsylvania hasn't been deep for a few decades. The number of talented big men in WPIAL and City League basketball has been in even shorter supply.

But all of a sudden, district high school basketball is like a McDonald's. There is now a super-size menu of players. And they are good enough to whet the appetite of some Division I college coaches.

In the past few years, this area has produced some impactful big men. It was only six years ago that DeJuan Blair played at Schenley and he is now in his fourth NBA season. He is only 6 feet 7, but a force on the inside.

McKeesport 7-footer Zeke Marshall is a senior at the University of Akron, one of the top shot blockers in the country and a possible NBA draft pick. Devontae Watson finished his career at Lincoln Park last year with more than 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 1,000 blocked shots. He is now a freshman at Temple University.

But the crop of players who get asked "How's the weather up there?" has gotten bigger this season. A handful of big guys have played their way into the spotlight. No, they aren't McDonald's All-American type players, but they are having impacts and have attracted the attention of some mid-major Division I college coaches.

"Actually, what's funny is I have thought about and noticed how there are more big kids doing things around here this year," said Bethel Park coach Ben O'Connor, who was on the big side himself at 6 feet 8 during his days as a player at Keystone Oaks. "It is unusual for here. ... I don't know. Maybe the bigger people all moved out of the area for a while. Now maybe bigger people are moving into the area and having kids."

O'Connor has one of the "super-size" players on the menu. Wyatt Haggerty has been a big guy since he started playing basketball, but this year he has blossomed into a player who has more than just size and bulk.

A 6-11, 255-pound senior, he is averaging 13 points and 15 rebounds a game. He wasn't even on the radar of Division I colleges a year ago. But in the past few months, Haggerty has picked up a few scholarship offers.

"Winthrop and New Hampshire are two who have offered, really like him and really want him," O'Connor said. "A lot of other schools are still in that introduction phase with him. Buffalo, Western Michigan, Niagara, Youngstown State -- everybody is intrigued with him. Without playing AAU in the past or being a great player, no one heard of him. Literally by word of mouth this year, word is getting around about him."

But Haggerty is just one of a handful of big guys who have burst onto the scene this year.

• Josh Goetz is a 6-8, 230-pound senior at Mars who has improved greatly in the past two seasons. He is averaging 12 points and 15 rebounds this season and Navy and Air Force are showing interest.

• Trent Bauer is a 6-10 junior wide body at Connellsville who is averaging a double-double this season. He missed much of last season with a concussion. A few Division I colleges have expressed interest in him.

• Elijah Minnie is a 6-8 junior at Lincoln Park who became eligible to play this season only a few weeks ago. Although Minnie's offensive skills allow him to play on the perimeter, he also can be a force on the inside.

"I think he'll be a Division I college guy," said Lincoln Park coach Mark Javens. "He really shoots it well. That's why you see him floating on the outside some. He really doesn't have a solid post game yet, and we'll work on that. But he's so athletic."

• Two sophomores, Serra Catholic's 6-10 George Prota and Steel Valley's 6-8 Tyler Lewis, have already displayed plenty of potential this season.

Kiski School, a prep school in Saltsburg that is not in the WPIAL, also has some sizable players who are worth watching in the next year or so.

But the WPIAL also has a few good-sized players who are actually playing guard or forward and making impacts. Ryan Luther is a 6-foot-7 junior guard at Hampton who already has scholarship offers from Duquesne and Dayton.

Danny Holzer is in his 18th season as Upper St. Clair's coach, but was an assistant at Duquesne University for four years and California University of Pennsylvania for two.

"I couldn't answer why this area hasn't had many big guys. I don't know if anyone can answer that," Holzer said. "But to me, it always seems like there are a few guys who get lost just because they're not going to Duke or Kentucky, and people don't think they're that good.

"But if you go play in the MAC or the Northeast Conference, like some of our big guys, that's pretty darn good. We certainly don't have the high-profile, top 10 big guys like we once had with someone like [Shaler's] Danny Fortson. But I think it's better around here than people think with big guys and there does seem to be more this year."

O'Connor believes many big players take time to develop and gain more coordination on the basketball court. It takes time for them to simply play, react and make moves, rather than thinking about what moves to make. Some big "kids" don't want to wait to develop or put the time and effort into developing.

"I think there are some big kids in Western Pennsylvania who are walking the halls of schools but don't play basketball," O'Connor said. "With Wyatt, he was never uncoordinated, but he couldn't run the way he runs now. His ceiling is very high for the future. He might not hit it until five years out of high school."

Mars coach Rob Carmody said Goetz is the biggest player he has coached in 15 seasons. He also was an assistant at North Catholic for four years and played at North Catholic.

"I don't know why this area hasn't had many big kids, and why we don't have many of those long, lean, athletic guys," Carmody said. "Don Graham coached me at North Catholic and he was the coach there for 51 years. I'll bet the biggest player he ever had was maybe 6-6 or so.

"But I think what has helped develop some of these big kids around here lately is some of them get some individual training away from their high school team and that helps. Before, you might have had a 6-7 or 6-8 kid who was kind of clumsy. Now they're getting some training on how to be smoother and more explosive.

"What's funny with Josh is the college guys all talk about how he catches the ball and runs well. They don't talk about him scoring 20 points. They talk about him catching and running."

Carmody believes some coaches struggle to coach a big player.

"Just because you don't get them around here," Carmody said. "You almost have to go back to learning how to teach big players. We're all so used to having guards and working on dribbling and shooting. For us, I know it's taken awhile for our guards to know when they should throw Josh the ball and how they should throw him the ball, using proper angles."

Maybe the run on big guys in the WPIAL could be a trend.

"High school sports is always cyclical," O'Connor said.

Added Carmody: "If there are any more 7-footers moving in around here, I'll take a couple."

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