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Latrobe's Matt Cullen leads boys basketball team

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Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Greater Latrobe's Matt Cullen puts up a shot in front of Laurel Highlands' Tyler Eadie during a game in Unity Township on December 23, 2013.
Top high school sports
By Ed Phillipps
Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

A summer's worth of hard work has made the winter basketball season look easy for Matt Cullen.

The 6-foot-2 Latrobe junior spent his summer days taking hundreds of shots — between 400 and 500 a day, by his estimation — followed by weight training, summer league games and drills to enhance ball handling and foot speed.

The intense preparation was necessary for Cullen, who is counted on to score and shut down the opponent's top player. A typical series includes driving for a layup then sprinting back on defense and weaving through screens.

Cullen is the only returning starter from a team that made the playoffs last season then graduated seven seniors.

“A whole lot of scoring and rebounding and everything else left the team,” Wildcats coach Brad Wetzel said.

Cullen has filled the scorer's role with an average of 16 points.

“I knew they were going to look to me for more points,” he said.

That knowledge may have weighed on Cullen's mind. Earlier this season, Wetzel worried Cullen was forcing or rushing his offense. The Wildcats lost four of their first five games.

“We kind of struggled through the early part of the year,” Wetzel said. “I think it was us getting used to everybody having different roles. Every time you step out there as a team you learn something new. Thankfully, we've been able to learn some things and put some numbers in the win column.”

The Wildcats have won six in a row through Friday, in no small part thanks to Cullen and his robust scoring average. The winning streak began Dec. 20 against Norwin. It's no coincidence that since then Wetzel has noticed a more relaxed version of Cullen.

“We went down to the locker room afterwards, and Matt was the happiest guy in the locker room,” Wetzel said.

A blend of nurtured skills and raw talent is what makes Cullen special. Wetzel said he is a hard worker with attributes that can't be taught.

“He has the ability to take people off the dribble about as good as anybody I've seen in the WPIAL,” Wetzel said. “I think he's that good with the ball. He just kills you with that first step.”

Now that Cullen and the Wildcats are beginning to gel, the question remaining is whether they can keep the wins coming. At 7-4 overall and 3-1 in Section 1-AAAA, the Wildcats are in the thick of things, trailing Hempfield (5-0 in section) and Kiski (5-1) in the section.

“I think we can get better,” Cullen said. “I think we can compete for a section championship.”

Ed Phillipps is a freelance writer.

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