Hempfield boys basketball surprises, exceeds expectations

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Thursday, March 4, 2021 | 8:08 PM


As Hempfield boys basketball coach Bill Swan and his staff prepared for this season, masks on and attitudes upbeat, they pondered what might happen in the coming months.

Would covid-19 take a swing at the Spartans?

Would there even be a season, let alone playoffs?

The questions piled up, yet the team practiced just the same, like it knew the answers.

Perhaps the greatest uncertainty was right in front of them: the team itself, which lost six seniors from a playoff qualifier — and more than 50% of its scoring.

It wasn’t like expectations were through the roof. Truth be told, they barely got above the rim.

One person who follows the program said they didn’t think the team would win two games. Swan admits, looking back through the years, this is not the Hempfield team he would pick to make this kind of run.

He’s had better teams. More talented teams.

Still, these Spartans (12-5) are set to tip off against Pine-Richland (12-5) in the WPIAL Class 6A quarterfinals Friday night at Hempfield with a chance to go to the semifinals for the first time since 2003.

The Spartans never could have envisioned a second-place section finish, a No. 3 seeding, back-to-back home games, and a playoff win.

“Bill has his kids ready to play, and he gets the most out of them,” Baldwin coach Jeff Ackermann said. “They are very structured.”

Said Swan: “We’re just balanced between offense and defense, with four double-digit scorers and guys who embrace their roles.”

Despite the question marks, Swan said in the preseason it was nice to know his team wasn’t starting over because it could build around a senior core led by Michael Hosni and Christian Zilli.

The pair have been support beams. Hosni had 22 points in Tuesday’s playoff opener, and Zilli added 16 as the Spartans warded off Baldwin, 66-63.

Both are good baseball players but consider them patient at the plate on the court.

“This team just works hard and plays so well together,” Swan said. “You look at guys like Hoz (Michael Hosni) and Zil (Christian Zilli), they are doing so well because they don’t care who scores all the points. They are two great kids. They sacrifice in life, school and sports.

“This group will do anything for us.”

Zilli said the team’s uncertainty could have been a blessing in disguise because, “Nobody has any film on us.”

They do now, though, and opponents are seeing a sound unit with some kick to it.

Hempfield still likes its halfcourt sets, but it has moved to a faster pace, letting a deep rotation spread the floor and run. Hosni (17 ppg) and Zilli (15 ppg) have been complemented by rangy junior Sean Gordon (13 ppg), who had a 29-point game this year. All three are finishers who can shoot or drive.

“Hosni is really good, and Zilli can stick it and do some things in the post,” Ackermann said. “They got to the hoop against us. They got around us.”

Junior Joey Fiedor has been consistent in the backcourt, senior Niheim Lewis earned his starting nod, and senior Mario Perkins and junior Dom Hipps are scrappy off the bench.

“We’ve had a lot of output from everyone,” Hosni said. “I think we’re better defensively this year. We grew up together and played on two travel teams. We got the toughest to stay all the way through.”

Perkins didn’t play last year and Lewis was a junior varsity player.

“Guys like Chaz Ewer and Dom Hipps are so energetic and vocal,” Swan said. “They play hard and get along with everyone. They’re a big reason we meshed as a team.”

Pine-Richand was supposed to play Hempfield earlier in the season but the game was canceled. They also didn’t get to play No. 7 seed North Allegheny.

Still, they nearly upset No. 1 Upper St. Clair and swept No. 4 Penn-Trafford in section play.

“We’ve played everybody,” Swan said. “Our kids love the challenge.”

The Baldwin win erased the bad taste of late-season losses to 5A teams Albert Gallatin and Mars.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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