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“Mr. High School Sports” – Best of the Rest: WPIAL Basketball

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Chaquille Pratt, Lincoln Park

Chaquille Pratt led Lincoln Park in scoring in 2010-11 and helped guide the Leopards to silver medals in the WPIAL and PIAA tournaments. (Photo credit: Matt Freed/Post-Gazette)

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By Matt Popchock

Recently our partners at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette announced their annual “Fab Five” teams, celebrating the best of the best from the 2010-11 WPIAL boys’ and girls’ basketball campaigns.

Earning that honor on the boys’ side were Sheldon Jeter (Beaver Falls), Micah Mason (Highlands), Anthony Dallier (North Allegheny), Jesse Reed (Greensburg C.C.), and Devon Cottrell (Gateway.)

On the girls’ side, it was Madison Cable (Mount Lebanon), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (Hopewell), Belma Nurkic (Baldwin), Alexa Hayward (Blackhawk), and Val McQuade (Shaler) making the cut.

But there are a number of other boys and girls throughout the WPIAL who enjoyed great individual and team success this past season, and their accomplishments do not go unnoticed.  That’s where Mr. High School Sports comes in.

If there’s an outstanding player you think is worthy of a mention, feel free to comment below, but in the meantime, without further ado, here are, in no particular order, some of the best WPIAL basketball players from 2010-11 who didn’t make either “Fab Five”:

Chaquille Pratt, G/F, Lincoln Park – People might remember last year’s Leopards because of Devontae Watson’s freakish size and skill, but it was Watson’s equally dynamic teammate who really carried the team offensively.  Pratt finished fourth in Class A during the regular season with 22.7 points per game.  He led Lincoln Park to back-to-back WPIAL Finals with a 25-point, seven-rebound effort against North Catholic in the Semifinals that included an off-balance game-winning three at the buzzer.  The Leopards fell short at Penn State too, but Pratt again put the team on his back with a game-high 27 points in the state final.

Aaron Johnson, F, Moon – If the Tigers hadn’t played in such a tough section, perhaps more people would talk about Johnson as one of the top big men in Class AAAA, if not the WPIAL.  He finished fourth in the classification during the regular season with 24.3 points per game, and topped the 1,000-career-point plateau in his fourth year as a starter.  Johnson’s greatness was evident in two must-win victories against Peters Township that propelled his team into the playoffs, a 43-point outing one night, and a 24-point, 15-rebound game the next.  He led Moon with a game-high 20 points in the Tigers’ First Round loss to Butler.

Matt Palo, G, Norwin – You might say his smooth and relentless scoring touch made Norwin one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the WPIAL “Knight in” and “Knight out.”  His 30.1 points per game during the regular season topped Class AAAA and ended up second overall in the district, while surpassing 1,000 career points, playing some solid zone defense, and never being shy about cutting to the basket.  Palo drained 43 in an uncanny 115-106 victory at Section 1 rival Latrobe in one of the highest-scoring hoops games in WPIAL history.  He contributed 15 points, eight boards, and three assists in a First Round loss to Chartiers Valley.

Mike Lamberti, G/F, South Fayette – One of the fastest ways to score is by being fast, and not many players in western PA could run the floor like Lamberti, a talented defender who could turn a great play at one end into instant offense at the other.  Averaging a team-best 18.7 points and eight boards per game, he helped the Lions’ offense become one of the most productive units in the WPIAL, and he also helped carry the 2010 state champs to a No. 1 seed and berth in the WPIAL Class AAA Final.  One of his best performances came in the district semifinals, when Lamberti delivered 22 points and 14 rebounds in a win over Section 2 co-champ New Castle.

C.J. Hester, F, West Mifflin – The Titans were viewed as a contender in Class AAA this past season, and throughout the year it became evident how much they depended on Hester’s leadership.  He led West Mifflin with 18.8 points per game during the regular season, and with his helped the Titans grabbed the Section 4 title, and ultimately, a spot in the state playoffs.  With Hester concussed during the end of the regular campaign, they weren’t the same team in the district tournament, but he did return for states and pumped in 17 points and 15 rebounds in a play-in game against Bradford.  He leaves West Mifflin as the program’s all-time scoring leader, thanks to a 20-point night versus South Park Jan. 27.

Naje Gibson, C, Seton-LaSalle – She might not be the flashiest player on the floor on a given night, but this freshman can score in transition, she rebounds well, and she’s a solid finisher.  She’s pretty soft-spoken, but her play should speak volumes about her for years to come.  Gibson recorded six straight double-doubles at one point, as she burst onto the scene with 17 points and 17 rebounds in a win at No. 2 Bishop Canevin in mid-January that solidified the Rebels’ top ranking.  The great-granddaughter of Negro League baseball legend Josh Gibson would school Canevin again in the WPIAL Semifinals after a 21-point outing against Greensburg C.C.  She then helped LaSalle get revenge on Jeannette at the Palumbo Center with 16 points and seven boards, and ended 2010-11 averaging over 15 points per game.

Amanda Temple, G/F, Avella – It’s tough to get attention when your school is known largely for being one of the smaller ones in District 7, but the Eagles had a fine campaign nevertheless, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t honor their leader, who also happened to be the WPIAL girls’ regular season scoring champ.  Temple was the first Washington County girls’ player since Jamie O’Donnell of Burgettstown in 1997-98 to lead the district in scoring.  She averaged 22.0 points per game through the regular season to power Avella to a Class A playoff berth, and she drained a game-best 21 in the team’s tough First Round loss to Serra.

Ashley Stoner, C, Thomas Jefferson – A strong physical presence under the basket, she seemed automatic this past season whenever one of her Jaguar teammates found her open…and good luck trying to score against her as well.  Stoner ended the 2010-11 regular campaign second in Class AAA and fourth in the WPIAL with 20.3 points per game, one of just four girls’ players in the district to average 20 ppg’s entering the playoffs.  Her game-high 25 points led TJ to a 40-39 upset victory at West Mifflin that would later help the team solidify the second playoff berth in Section 4, and in the postseason lid-lifter against Valley, her game-high 29 led Thomas Jefferson to an easy win.  A responsible defender, Stoner also averaged 13 rebounds per game, and has gotten D-II and D-III looks since her injury-plagued sophomore season in ’08-’09.

Candace Martino, G, Bethel Park – You hate to use the expression “if only,” but if only she had been able to stay healthy for the balance of the WPIAL Playoffs, there’s no telling what kind of run the Black Hawks might have made, desipte playing well in the WPIAL Semifinals against eventual champ Shaler in her absence.  Martino was one of the top shooting guards in Quad-A, leading Bethel at a 15-points-per-game clip.  She has impressive range and set an early tone for Bethel Park’s season with an 18-point night in December against Section 4 rival Moon.  Among her other highlights was a 23-point game in February against Canon-McMillan.  She enters freshman year at Akron as PA’s No. 7 high school prospect at her position, according to MaxPreps.com.

Catherine Costa, G, Avonworth – She may be small in stature, but Costa was big at both ends of the court this past season, giving the ‘Lopes some great leadership with steadfast man-to-man defensive skills and the ability to shoot the three with obvious confidence.  She ended the 2010-11 regular season averaging 17.8 points per game as Avonworth’s regular point guard, putting her alongside teammate Lauren Mayernik in the WPIAL Class AA top five, as Costa keyed her team to the Section 6 crown.  Catherine lived up to her family name beautifully by becoming the third of four Costa sisters to surpass the 1,000-career-point mark, and she contributed 13 big points to Avonworth’s First Round win over Keystone Oaks.  With her help the team had the WPIAL’s top-ranked defense during the regular campaign.

*By the way, several of the boys’ players we mentioned participated in the annual Roundball Classic at Geneva College last weekend.  Among the notable performers:

-Mike Lamberti led the boys’ Class AAA team with 16 points, leading him to Class AAA team MVP honors.

-With 14 points, C.J. Hester was one of four on the Class AAA squad to finish in double figures.

-With 14 points of his own, Matt Palo was one of eight players on the Class AAAA team to finish in double figures (Norwin teammate Andy Carter did the same).

-Chaquille Pratt’s 12 points tied him for the second-most on the Class A team, which narrowly defeated the Class AA squad, 116-113.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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