Top Level AAU basketball program making big strides
What began as an idea four years ago has grown into a brand name in Pennsylvania AAU basketball circles.
The Top Level All-Stars program started with nine young players on one team, a group that barely could hold an intrasquad scrimmage. But fast-forward to 2014, when it has 79 players on seven teams representing grades four to 10.
And this group has swagger with its black-and-yellow logo-splashed gear and growing association with success. The program throws around the term “elite” like passes in a figure-eight weave. But that's not a product of arrogance. The proof is in the numbers.
“It's taken off and has become much bigger than I expected,” said Top Level founder Greg Hutcherson, a Kiski Area graduate and the boys basketball coach at Ford City. “We have kids from all over the WPIAL now, not just in the little old A-K Valley.”
Hutcherson's outfit doesn't play against just anybody with five kids. Top Level has a calculated schedule that includes, well, top-level tournaments (there are dozens from weekend to weekend across the country). And expectations have grown to the point where anything less than deep runs through brackets is unacceptable.
“If our teams aren't in the semifinals, there's a problem somewhere,” Hutcherson said. “We're not playing in rinky-dink tournaments.”
• Top Level took an overall record of 319-96 and 39 tournament championships into the weekend.
• The 16-under team reached the semifinals of the Hoop Group Pittsburgh Jam Fest last weekend.
• The sixth-grade team won its fifth straight championship at the Court Time Shootout and is 25-1 this season. The eighth-grade team won the championship at the same event, and the fifth-grade team was runner-up.
While winning certainly helps the top AAU programs, Hutcherson said there's more technique with Top Level. Sure, the we'll-get-you-more-exposure concept is a key selling point as it is with any program, but Hutcherson wants opponents and followers to remember the team's name, not just those of star players.
It's a sort of novel concept: An AAU coach asking, “How many wins do we have?” as opposed to, “How many points did you score?”
If a college coach calls him about a player, he wants him to be known as a “Top Level player,” complete with the accompanying characteristics.
“A lot of other programs just get together and scrimmage,” Hutcherson said. “We strive on team and skill-building. Our goal is to get players prepared for their high school seasons and get them playing better team basketball.”
Hutcherson said “any dad” can start an AAU team these days, and, often times, players and parents are misguided.
“You don't know what you're going to get with some of those teams. They take your money and promise you everything,” Hutcherson said. “I am not big on wasting people's time. I don't want these kids to pick up bad habits.”
Now that Top Level has had time to develop, it can point to players it has produced. Apollo-Ridge junior Tre Tipton was part of Top Level's first “class.” Hutcherson calls Tipton “the face of Top Level.”
“Top Level has made me into a competitor and a absolute hungry athlete,” Tipton said. “They have taught me how to fight through the pain and to fight until the end.”
Kiski Area junior Mike Simmons, who was named Valley News Dispatch Player of the Year this past season, said Top Level has helped his progress from a walk to a jog to a run.
“They deserve a lot of the credit for the success I've had so far,” Simmons said. “Coach Hutcherson has made me a better player by pushing me every day to be the best.”
Up-and-coming Top Level players from non-Valley schools include Jamison Nee of Vincentian, Micah Fulena of New Castle, Aiden Howard of Gateway and Sean Graytok of Latrobe.
Hutcherson said he recently received a call from an interested player in Ohio. And future plans, although still in their early phase, include adding girls teams.
“The one thing I always remember that coach use to tell us is be tired later but right now give it all you got,” Tipton said.
Despite road trips to Ohio, New York, Maryland, West Virginia and Washington D.C., a crowd always seems to follow the Top Level teams.
“It's become a family atmosphere,” Hutcherson said. “We travel really well. One of the tournament directors told us we travel like Kentucky.”
Top Level has practices at at St. Joseph, Kiski Area and Penn State New Kensington.