East Xtra: Hempfield looks like contender

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The past two years have been a free-for-all at the top of the Class AAAA Section 1 boys basketball standings, but only one team has been in the midst of all the excitement both times.

Two years ago Hempfield Area split the section title with Penn-Trafford and found itself in the same position last year with Kiski Area.

"This year we are trying to win the section [outright]," junior Kason Harrell said. "I feel like if we work hard in practice, we can make it a WPIAL title and that is what we are looking for right now."

A 6-foot-3 guard, Harrell is one of the main reasons why the Spartans have had success the past two years. Harrell, an all-section selection last year, is entering his junior year as one of the top players in the WPIAL.

"I don't really worry about [the hype]," Harrell said. "I just try to be the best player I can be. I act like I am the worst so I know I can get better. I just want to work my hardest."

Harrell averaged 16.5 points per game last year to lead the Spartans to a 17-6 overall record and 9-3 mark in the section. But the one thing he and his teammates have on their minds is their early departure from the WPIAL playoffs the past two years.

Despite their strong regular seasons, the Spartans lost in the first round of the playoffs the past two years.

"That is huge motivation," Harrell said. "This year we are just trying to make it further and make it to the championship."

Things are going to be a little different for Harrell and company if they are going to make a deep run into the playoffs.

During the offseason, Hempfield ended its search for a new head coach when it came upon 34-year-old Mark Marino.

Marino served as the lead assistant at Division III Lycoming College in Williamsport the past five years.

"I have been a head coach and assistant coach at the high school level before," Marino said. "I was really looking for something where there is great support from the administration. There were a lot of positives that I saw here. There were other opportunities in the past, but I didn't think it fit. This was a really good fit and the kids have been tremendous."

When Marino first arrived at Hempfield, he was taken aback by the pure athleticism and knack for leadership by his new superstar, Harrell.

"He is a tremendous talent and works very hard at it," Marino said. "He has a drive and a passion that he wants to be the best. Our best player is also our hardest worker and it has rubbed off on other kids. As good of a player as he is he is a better person. He is incredibly coachable. He wants to get better. He is just a great, great kid. He makes everyone better whether it is a freshman coming up from JV. He exemplifies leadership qualities that we are looking for in our program."

Harrell knows it takes more than one person to have a successful team.

"It makes my job a whole lot easier that I can rely on teammates who can score," Harrell said.

One player who can serve as a one-two punch with Harrell is 6-7 junior Tony Pilato. Pilato joined Harrell last year as the two Spartans to make the all-section team.

Hempfield will begin its quest for an outright section title Friday as it plays host to the Hempfield Tip-Off Tournament. The Spartans will face Greensburg Salem and Greensburg Central Catholic on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

"We bumped up our out-of-conference schedule and battling in our section is tough competition," Marino said. "That's what we want for the kids. We have done a good job in the preseason and have seen some competition there.

"If we are fortunate enough to make the playoffs we will be battle tested at that point."

Also on the non-conference docket for the Spartans is Class AAAA powerhouse Gateway in the Coaches vs. Cancer Shootout at Seton Hill University and Lincoln Park at the Pittsburgh Shootout at Montour High School.

"We are looking forward to playing tough teams out of our section," Harrell said. "Playing those tough teams will help us because than we will see what the playoffs are like when they come around."

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