Ex-West Mifflin star Hester eyes March rewards with West Liberty

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 12:04 a.m.

When C.J. Hester, West Mifflin's all-time leading boys basketball scorer, was being recruited to play in college, Penn State, Duquesne and, yes, even Florida Gulf Coast came calling.

But when it came time to sign, Hester took his talents to the West Virginia Panhandle, where he has made quite a contribution to NCAA Division II West Liberty's ongoing success.

“He's the heart-and-soul of the team. Nobody plays harder,” West Liberty coach Jim Crutchfield said of the 6-foot-4 junior guard, who is the Hilltoppers' second-leading scorer (14.8 ppg.) and leads the team in rebounding (8.2 rpg.).

Despite being undersized, Hester is on his way to pacing West Liberty in rebounding for a third consecutive season. With a year remaining, he's on pace to reach 1,000 for his college career.

He has already topped 1,000 career points.

“His desire to rebound the basketball is greater than his opponent nearly every night,” Crutchfield said.

What's more, Hester is shooting 63 percent, which also ranks among the nation's leaders.

Just a few weeks ago, he scored a career-high 34 points on 13-for-14 shooting, including 7 of 7 from 3-point range, in a Mountain East Conference victory over Glenville State, the Hilltoppers' first-round opponent in the Division II Tournament.

No. 7 West Liberty (26-3), the nation's highest-scoring team in Division II, will face the Pioneers (18-10) on Saturday at East Stroudsburg in one of four Atlantic Region openers.

Second-seeded West Liberty lost a shot at the region's top seed by falling to Charleston (W.Va.) in the Mountain East Tournament championship game.

“Our league is so competitive,” Hester said. “Anything can happen, and you saw that in the tournament.”

The Mountain East is in its first year, with most of its members coming from the former West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which disbanded.

While Hester is a main element of West Liberty's success, he still plays in a supporting role to senior guard Cedric Harris, the Atlantic Region Player of the Year who averages 17.6 points, 5.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game.

Hester scored more than 1,700 career points at West Mifflin and has become a consistent scorer at West Liberty, but he takes the most pride in his rebounding prowess.

“Cedric is such a versatile player. He can do it all, no question,” Hester said. “My forte is rebounding.

“We don't really play positions, per se. We play a system. I like to think of myself as a garbage guy. I look at every shot being taken and anticipate that it's not going to go in the basket. I try to judge where it's going and go after it. I love my role on this team. I relish it.”

Except for winning, it's been a different kind of season for Hester and the Hilltoppers, who lost three key seniors from a team that was ranked No. 1 entering the 2013 D-II Elite Eight. West Liberty this season is bidding to make a fifth consecutive appearance in that round and third since Hester joined the program.

It took some getting used to without those familiar faces, said Hester, a two-time all-conference, all-region and academic All-American selection. But it has worked out well so far.

The Hilltoppers are trying to reach the Elite Eight again for a shot at a fourth consecutive appearance in the D-II Final Four.

If they put it all together, Hester could add a national championship to his many honors.

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

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