The success of area high school basketball teams in the district and state playoffs of March is often forged in sweat during the summer months.
While some athletes choose to play on AAU teams, a large number stay together as school units and participate in area summer leagues such as those out of Westmont and Richland.
The Richland Varsity Summer League, which is for boys, is administered by Rams boys’ coach Greg Burke, while the Westmont Hilltop Recreation has a girls’ league.
“It’s something in the last 20 to 25 years when I’ve been around basketball, that we didn’t have all the leagues that we have now, and the opportunity for the kids to play in the summer has just grown by leaps and bounds,” said Conemaugh Township boys’ coach Chuck Lesko. “Whether it’s AAU or leagues or shootouts or team camps, a lot of people take advantage of that to get a lot of court time. You can actually pick up a season or two in the summer.
“Like us, we will play in the neighborhood of 35 to 40 games in the summer and the kids really have an opportunity to grow and experience different types of games really not on a pressure level like a varsity season. They get to see a lot of situations that you will hopefully run into during the winter.”
Lesko said that the summer leagues give him a chance to look over the Indians squad, which lost four starters from last year’s District 5 Class AA champion squad that advanced to the PIAA quarterfinals.
“We graduated four seniors that were successful and it’s a totally different team this year,” Lesko said. “Our guys last year were returning lettermen and we knew what we had, but this year coming up, there are a lot of shoes to fill. This just gives us the opportunity to look at some guys that are willing to put in the work and maybe mature physically and mentally and get involved and hopefully garner some experience working together and you hope they improve over the summer and at least you have a starting point when it comes time to start practice in November.”
Another work in progress for the winter is the Shade boys’ squad, which won the District 5-A title but also lost three of its starters, including a pair of 1,000-point scorers in Wade Walker and Ryan Fyock.
“Summer leagues, the coach isn’t trying to put too much on us at once,” said Nash Walker, one of the returning starters for the Panthers. “He wants to see what we’re doing and what he can do to improve what we already do naturally and just figure out what he wants to do as we head toward the season.
“I like that we all play hard; there isn’t a minute of the game that we don’t play hard. We all put our hearts out there. It doesn’t matter if it’s from the top of the list to the bottom of the list, they put it all out on the floor.”
Conemaugh Valley girls’ coach Teri Cruse said that summer league play offers an opportunity for younger athletes.
“I really like when the freshmen and sophomores are here with us,” Cruse said. “The younger kids, when they get to fall league, will already have an idea what the system’s like and that it isn’t as scary as they might think going into the varsity level. They see how we do things different and can start to get used to the pace before the season starts so it’s not as much of a shock.
“I also like to get the ball back in the girls’ hands. Many of them have been playing softball so if they are not playing AAU there are a lot of months where they are not touching the ball.”
Cruse said that her team lineup may vary based on availability.
“I have 16 kids on my high school team and we have anywhere from eight to 12 girls here for summer leagues on any given night,” the Blue Jays coach said. “The girls get a chance to play in positions that they may not otherwise get an opportunity to play in.”
Because of playing in the summer league, new Conemaugh Valley boys’ coach Brandon Studer is getting the chance to begin a working relationship with his players.
“I’ve learned a lot all ready about these guys because we play against a lot of different schools up here, schools of all different sizes, some single-A schools and some double-A schools and it’s nice to see that different level of competition and see that the kids are not afraid to go out there,” Studer said. “So far, these kids want to be here, which is half the battle. They are athletic and they play hard and you can’t teach that so with the fact that they want to play hard, I think we will be be able to work together since this is my first season because I like to play hard. I know we are not going to be bigger than many teams, but the boys like to play hard and I think we will be able to do something with that.
“I told them them it doesn’t matter right now about the score, it’s about getting better every time that we play and adding on to what we did the week before and they’ve really done that so far so I’ve been very happy with the effort the guys have given.”