Program's 1st playoff victory in 10 seasons highlights special season for Hempfield boys

| Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014, 9:33 p.m.

Ten years passed without the Hempfield boys basketball team winning a game in the WPIAL tournament.

Between 2003-04 and 2012-13, the Spartans were defeated in the first round of postseason play on eight occasions. Twice, they did not qualify.

Earning an invitation was not a problem for this year's team, which won all 12 of its Section 1-AAAA games and finished the regular season with a 20-2 overall record. And in their first-round game against Mt. Lebanon on Feb. 19, the Spartans put the past to rest, coming away with a 74-56 victory that ended a decade's worth of postseason futility.

“Definitely my favorite memory from this season,” senior guard Logan Hunter said. “That was the first time I ever experienced it. We had a huge crowd that game and I just thought it was one of the best games we played. So, yeah, it was fun.”

Unfortunately for Hempfield, the team ran into what first-year coach Mark Marino termed a “buzzsaw” in the form of North Allegheny, which drained 12 3-pointers in an 82-59 victory on Feb. 22 that likely ended the Spartans' season. They could still qualify for the PIAA tournament, but only if North Allegheny wins the WPIAL championship.

However, regardless of whether Hempfield takes the court again or not, it would be wrong to think of the 2013-14 basketball season as anything but a triumph.

“All in all, I thought it was a very successful season for the kids,” Marino said. “I felt our guys definitely bought into what we were teaching. They knew and accepted their roles, which was huge and really helped us.”

Led by Marino, who took over last July, Hempfield scored an average of 63.1 points per game during the regular season while surrendering 50.5. The Spartans won 13 straight games from Dec. 13 to Jan. 24, a streak that was sandwiched by their only other defeats, losses to Greensburg Central Catholic and Lincoln Park.

In addition to the WPIAL tournament victory over Mt. Lebanon, road wins at Latrobe and Kiski Area stand out for Marino. The Spartans beat Latrobe in a low-scoring affair without the services of Hunter on Jan. 14 and withstood an intense, Senior Night environment at Kiski Area to clinch the section title Feb. 4.

Kiski Area's inclusion in the WPIAL semifinals demonstrates the high level of competition in Section 1-AAAA this season, Marino said. His program has now finished with at least a share of first place in its section in three straight and four of the past five years.

To do it again in 2014-15, Hempfield must find able replacements for Hunter and Mike Nauman, two departing starters, and other seniors who contributed from the bench. The Spartans are fortunate to be returning starters Kason Harrell, Tony Pilato and Logan Swan. Harrell averaged more than 23 points per game and Pilato averaged almost 11.

“We've got some big holes to fill,” Marino said. “Everyone wants to point to Tony and Kason coming back and say, ‘Oh, they're set.' But absolutely not. We've got some young guys that need to step up.”

Complacency has no place in Hempfield's program. Even when the Spartans won the school's first WPIAL playoff game since the 2002-03 season, they still wanted to accomplish more.

“We're very proud of the run we made,” Hunter said, “but we just wish it could have been a little bit longer.”

Mark Emery is a freelance writer.

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