Local basketball freshmen playing beyond their years

Wednesday, January 27, 2021 | 5:57 PM

Jim Nesser liked what he saw from Terek Crosby from the moment the promising freshman first laced up his basketball shoes and took the court at Yough.

Nesser has coached at a few area schools over a lengthy career, coming full circle at Yough — his first stop in 1988 — when he returned to lead the Cougars again in 2018.

He has seen talented players. Remember, he coached local greats Kason Harrell at Hempfield and Terrelle Pryor at Jeannette — among others.

While he stops short of fully elevating the 6-foot-2 Crosby to the level of those players, Nesser thinks he has a special talent nonetheless.

“Terek is similar to Kason, but Terek is a better athlete (than when Harrell was a freshman),” Nesser said. “Kason might have been a little more sound fundamentally, but they’re both gym rats.”

Crosby is averaging 19.7 points, five rebounds and four assists for Yough, which is trying to return to prominence in the WPIAL.

“There’s more to come,” Crosby said.

Crosby isn’t the only freshman making noise this season around Westmoreland County.

Belle Vernon has 6-3 swingman Quinton Martin, an athletically gifted ninth grader who has a football scholarship offer from Pitt. He made the MaxPreps All-America Freshman football team as a defensive back.

Some others include Penn-Trafford’s Olivia Pepple, Southmoreland’s Ty Keffer, Kiski Area’s Abbie Johns and Cora Coleman, Greensburg Salem’s Kaitlyn Mankins, Burrell’s Kate Myers and Greensburg Central Catholic’s Tyree Turner and Mya Morgan.

The adjustment to varsity basketball, sight unseen, has been impressive for the first-year players. They were not afraid to get into the ring with WPIAL heavyweights.

Crosby and Martin, AAU teammates, exchanged rim-shaking dunks Tuesday when they played at Yough. Belle Vernon pulled away 87-71, but not before the freshmen made their marks. Crosby had 16 points, and Martin went for 14 points and 15 rebounds.

Yough also starts 6-5 freshman Austin Matthews.

Pepple had 19 points in her first appearance against rival Norwin. Penn-Trafford beat the Knights and took their No. 4 spot in the rankings in the process.

“She didn’t play like a freshman,” Norwin coach Brian Brozeski said. “She played like a veteran.”

Penn-Trafford coach John Giannikas said Pepple burns the candle at both ends, putting in extra time to improve her game.

“She comes in a lot after practice to use the (shooting) gun and work on her foul shots,” Giannikas said. “She is a real skilled kid. She wants to work on her game. She deserves all the credit she gets (after the Norwin game) because she put a lot of work into it.”

Johns was impressive for Kiski Area in Greensburg Salem’s season opener. She scored on a buzzer-beating layup as the Cavaliers clipped the Golden Lions in nonsection play 33-31.

Johns has her eye on the standings.

“I want us to win a section game because that hasn’t happened in a while,” Johns said, referring to her team’s 29-game section losing skid. “It’s what we want to do, and I know we can.”

Like Crosby, Keffer is a 6-2 guard who can get to the basket. Southmoreland has struggled offensively in stretches this season, but Keffer has been a bright spot.

Keffer is scoring 11.7 points and grabbing 6.8 rebounds per game.

“I really like Ty’s ability to stay even-keeled for a freshman, mentally, when things are not going well,” Southmoreland coach Frank Muccino said. “Has the potential to be a really good shooter, and his ball-handling is improving game by game. As he gets stronger, I think his game will take off.”

Crosby is more than a highlight-producing guard. He could be the future of the Cougars’ program — maybe in football, too — with big-play ability rarely seen in ninth-graders.

“He competes well and plays with a lot of confidence,” Nesser said. “He is athletic and fearless. Very coachable.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins have Crosby and Malkin. Yough has Crosby and Marballie — senior Gamal Marballie is a 1,000-point scorer whom Crosby has complemented in the Cougars’ backcourt.

With Crosby, there are shades of Devin Whitlock, the Belle Vernon junior who transferred from Monessen, where be splashed onto the scene when he was a freshman — one big game after another.

Crosby is taller than Whitlock but can make plays, like the Leopards’ guard, when there doesn’t seem to be a play there.

It’s a lot to ask of Crosby to play to the level of Whitlock, who helped Belle Vernon reach the WPIAL Class 4A championship last year. But the upside is there. So is the confidence that Whitlock had from the beginning of his prep career.

“The game is faster, but I feel like I am adjusting to it,” Crosby said. “Middle school was easy. I was getting like 30 a game.”

Maybe a light came on when Crosby threw down a one-handed dunk in a scrimmage against McGuffey. Or when he dunked against Southmoreland and Uniontown.

“I bust my butt at practice because of coach Nesser and the (older) guys,” Crosby said. “We all work hard. I want to see us get more wins. That means more to me than the points.”

Crosby was looking up at the banner of 1,000-point scorers after a recent practice at Yough. He spotted Ben McCauley, the former Cougars star who played at North Carolina State and holds the lofty top spot with 2,283 career points.

“I want to be above him on that list,” Crosby said.

Muccino coached against Crosby and appreciates his game.

“He does everything well,” Muccino said. “But most importantly, I think he makes the other kids on his team better with his ability to create things with ball in his hands.” Jeannette also has a talented freshmen in Brad Birch, the fast-emerging quarterback on the football team. But Birch has been out with an injury he suffered in the WPIAL Class A football title game. He is expected to return soon.

“He is going to help us,” Jeannette coach Adrian Batts said. “He has the talent. He’s going to need some time to get going when he returns.”

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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