South Xtra: West Mifflin alumnus sharpens his game


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There's a certain satisfaction and elation that any high school coach gets when they see a former player excel once they move on to college.

It's a feeling that Lance Maha knows well.

The longtime West Mifflin boys basketball coach has experienced it with Chris Giles, who went on to become the all-time leading scorer in Seton Hill history. It was also there with Bryant McCallister, who scored 1,546 points at Duquesne from 2003-06, the ninth most in school history.

Now, with C.J. Hester, that same joy overcomes him yet again.

Hester, who graduated from West Mifflin in 2011, is about to enter his senior season at Division II West Liberty and is primed for the kind of stardom that some of Maha's other pupils achieved. After averaging 14.2 points per game as a junior, Hester is the Hilltoppers' leading returning scorer, presenting him with the opportunity to not only help his team win, but put his personal mark on an already successful program.

"What you find out as a coach is that it takes a special type of kid to go to college, play basketball, get good grades and deal with everything that comes with that," Maha said. "I think C.J. has just been a tremendous representative of West Mifflin. It's more him than me, that's for sure."

After a productive career with the Titans, one that included averaging 17.7 points per game as a senior, Hester quickly found similar success when he made his way to the school near Wheeling, W.Va.

As a freshman, he averaged 14.4 points per game, but saw that number dip to 12.1 points as a sophomore before rising back up last season.

Hester's consistency is a result of his personal skill, as well as the system in which he plays.

Under coach Jim Crutchfield, West Liberty has become defined by a fast-paced, high-scoring offense, one exemplified by a 99.9 points per game average that was the highest in NCAA Division II and second in all of college basketball (trailing only Division III Grinell's 116.8 points per game).

In an open system that has granted him a certain level of freedom, Hester has thrived.

"[Crutchfield] has a lot of trust in us and he lets us play to our strengths and weaknesses," Hester said. "That's what makes our system so versatile. It's never the same. Every time we have a new lineup in, it's a different philosophy because he lets each player play to his strengths. That's what makes us successful."

While participating in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club Pro-Am Summer League, Hester has shown what he can possibly provide the Hilltoppers his senior season. In six games, he averaged 16.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.

Standing just 6 feet 4, his rebounding acumen is uncommonly sharp. Maha even went as far as saying he rebounds his position as well as anyone he has ever seen, and that includes his time coaching at the college level.

It's all a part of a well-rounded skill set that has made Hester a valuable piece of any team on which he has played.

"He's a coach's dream," Maha said. "When they look at the stat sheet, it's 14 or 15 points and nine or 10 rebounds every night, and he gets a lot of that on his own. As a coach, you really appreciate that."

Beyond all of the statistics, though, is an inherent responsibility that comes with being a senior -- a greater leadership role.

With six freshmen joining the Hilltoppers, it will be incumbent on someone such as Hester, the team's lone senior, to help integrate the newcomers. For a program that has made four consecutive Division II Elite Eights, it's a necessary duty at a school that has come to expect success.

But for all that faces him, Hester is prepared.

"Our program is built upon tradition and the seniors leading the way," he said. "It's my time to step up, lead the team and continue what I've learned the last four years."

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG


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