Hampton boys look to grow from tough season

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Saturday, March 6, 2021 | 10:01 AM


A season that began with a delay ended with a dud for the Hampton boys basketball team.

One of the most demanding seasons in coach Joe Lafko’s 25 years at the school concluded with a 73-49 loss to No. 17 seed McKeesport in the opening round of the WPIAL Class 5A playoffs Feb. 27.

It was the most lopsided WPIAL playoff loss for the No. 16 seeded Talbots during their 17-year postseason run — a streak extended this year only because the district held an open tournament — and closed a difficult, hurdle-filled season with a 4-16 record, by far their worst mark in a quarter-century under Lafko.

“With so many changes that we had, it was one of the most challenging coaching jobs that I’ve experienced,” Lafko, a WPIAL Hall of Famer, said after his 31st season as a coach. “I thought the kids responded with a lot of perseverance. I thought they competed every night. But it was a challenge.”

While every WPIAL school dealt with a three-week delay to start the year and the ongoing demands of a pandemic, the Talbots faced more obstacles than most. They lost their top two scorers — and only seniors — when guard Quinn Morrow opted out after two games because of covid and guard Seth Koontz left the team at midseason.

The youthful Talbots also played a strenuous schedule, facing three eventual section champions (Fox Chapel, North Allegheny and New Castle) along with Class 6A schools Butler and Seneca Valley. Their seven nonsection opponents ended the regular season with a combined record of 85-40.

“One of the things that we learned from this year was that you are going to get knocked down,” Lafko said. “It’s not what happens when you get knocked down. It’s how you respond. And I’m just so proud how they responded with the resilience and the drive to continue to meet the next challenge. I think that says a lot about their character.”

Indeed, Hampton carried on. The Talbots won three of their first five games to open February, highlighted by section victories over Shaler and Indiana. That mini-surge, however, was sandwiched by a pair of six-game skids, including one to end the season.

“With all of the adversity that we went through, I definitely think we held our own at different points,” sophomore center Braxton Eastly said. “Our record wasn’t the best, but we played our game and we did the best that we could.”

The Talbots will bring back all five starters, including junior guard Matt DeMatteo, who averaged a team-best 12.3 points, and sophomore guard Brennan Murray, who led the team in rebounds (3.9) and assists (3.6). Junior guard Zander Plizga, freshman forward Robert Coll and Eastly also are set to return after starting for much of the season.

“Everyone really stepped up and did their part,” said Eastly, who averaged 6 points and 3.8 rebounds. “Whatever role we needed to fill, we worked at it, all of us.”

The Talbots were forced to learn on the fly with limited practice time. They played four games in seven days in mid-February and then five games in eight days to close the covid-compacted season.

“It was tough for a young team,” Lafko said. “When you are coaching 18-year-olds and they are playing four games in a six-day period, they can handle that a little bit better. When you have a younger team, that can be a big challenge.

“There were a lot of factors that we needed to improve upon in order to win, not withstanding the physical maturity of the athletes. … There also were some skill sets that we just weren’t good enough to defeat some of the teams we were scheduled to play.”

Lafko, 55, who has an overall record of 486-310, said he plans to return for a 32nd season.

“It’s the time in your career when those questions come up,” he said, “but it’s a year-by-year thing.”

Other returnees will include sophomore guard Eric Weeks, freshman forward Liam Mignogna, junior guard/forward Bobby Oliver and sophomore forward Matt Moser.

They will be joined by an influx of talent from a freshman squad that finished 11-9 after a 1-3 start, winning four of its final five games.

“Hopefully, we don’t have the same outcome with everyone again,” Eastly said. “I definitely think we will be able to move forward. We saw what happened this year, and we can learn from it and we’ll know what to do.”

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