Hempfield graduate helping hometown team find success

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Former Hempfield High School basketball star Nate Perry has found a college home at nearby Seton Hill University, and he's proving to be an important component of coach Tony Morocco's team.

After two seasons at Youngstown State, Perry transferred and is playing in his backyard for a coach who's been around the world.

“I really give a lot of credit to him and to the assistants. Those guys are trying to guide me, and I feel like I'm adjusting to it,” said Perry, Hempfield's all-time leading scorer with 1,662 career points.

The veteran Morocco, a Trafford native known for his international recruiting expertise, has coached professionally in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and has served as a college assistant at UNLV, Iowa, Long Beach State, St. Francis (Pa.), St. Vincent and Point Park prior to his first college head coaching job at Seton Hill.

He has been the Griffins' only coach since the school established a men's program in 2002. In his 10th season at Seton Hill, Morocco continues to seek a postseason bid. He says the NCAA Division II level, at which Seton Hill competes, is a major challenge every time out.

“The league is brutal,” Morocco said of the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, in which the Griffins are playing in their final season before moving to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. “We're a program, though, that's turning the corner. We're getting a good reputation.”

Seton Hill (10-8, 7-7 prior to Thursday's scheduled WVIAC home game against Davis & Elkins) recently upset No. 23 Charleston (W.Va.), which knocked WVIAC-leading West Liberty from its previous No. 1 national ranking.

Prior to that, Morocco's club gave West Liberty, now ranked No. 4, a scare when the Hilltoppers were top ranked, before the Seton Hill lost, 82-71.

While Seton Hill has produced a number of professional players, none have made it to the NBA, though 7-foot-1 center Ales Chan played for the New York Knicks' summer league team in 2004 and currently is with a professional team in Cyprus.

Guard Chris Giles, a West Mifflin High School product who graduated from Seton Hill last season, is playing professionally in Israel.

“This is a tough level of basketball, believe me,” said Perry, a junior. “I played sparingly at (Division I) Youngstown State behind a Kendrick Perry (no relation). He's got a chance to be the Horizon League Player of the Year and he's going to get a shot at the NBA. I didn't play that much. Basically, I haven't played much in the last two years.”

In 15 games at Seton Hill — four as a starter — the 6-2 Perry is averaging 9.1 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. He scored a season-high 20 points against Bluefield State on Jan. 12 and was coming off a 15-point performance in a 68-56 victory over Concord on Saturday.

Perry, Morocco said, “is like a freshman” because he's learning about different aspects of basketball.

“This kid came in raw,” Morocco said. “He was always known as a good shooter, a scorer. To his credit, he's really bit into trying to become a complete player. We have developed him and now, he's playing good defense, he's passing the ball, he's making a contribution in a lot of ways.

“There are games where he didn't score a point or make a shot, but his hustle on defense was invaluable. The other guys love him. He's made a 360-degree turnaround and is conforming into what a basketball player is supposed to be. He's doing well in the classroom, too. I'm very proud of him.”

Two other juniors — guard/forward Max Kenyi (13.7 ppg.) and forward Malachi Leonard (12.3) — were leading Seton Hill in scoring. Perry, among others, was not far behind, though he's nowhere near the pace of his high school days, when he averaged 23.1 points as a senior and 25.7 as a junior.

“In high school, I was a scorer,” Perry said. “I just looked at it like my team needed me to score points to win. I always thought I was a team player, but the way I'm playing now, it's changing my game. I always controlled the ball before. I always wanted the ball in my hand. I never really ran the wings hard. I never really cut hard. I never seemed to really have to.

”It's different here. Every time I make a mistake, I hear about it. We watch the films.”

With Morocco in charge, Perry is learning so much, he said. He's trying to help Seton Hill make a run at a WVIAC playoff spot with an eye toward the promise of next season.

“I'm having a great time. We're on our way up. We're building for the future,” Perry said. “People are starting to know about Seton Hill.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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