Hampton boys’ basketball is poised to rebound with multi-sport athletes
Sunday, December 5, 2021 | 11:01 a.m.
The Hampton boys’ basketball team will be looking to bounce back from one of the worst seasons in program history with a group of players who have come up a lot lately.
The Talbots, who just finished a 4-16 season, have a roster of versatile athletes who have found success in other sports in the months since the end of last year’s disappointing basketball season. .
“I have a lot more multi-sport kids than I’ve had in a long time,” said coach Joe Lafko, entering his 26th season. “We are delighted with all the athletes we have.”
From the 11-win conference champion football team to the PIAA Class 3A champion football team, Hampton hopes the winning mentality rubs off on the basketball court. The Talbots fire all players from last season, which ended in a lopsided loss to McKeesport in the first round of the WPIAL 5A class playoffs.
“We just weren’t happy with how last year went,” said Section 4-5A senior guard Matt DeMatteo, a quarterback/defensive back who last fall helped guide the football team to its best season. “We’ve had a pretty good season (of football), and I think we’re all set to continue this win and take it to basketball.”
DeMatteo, who averaged 12.3 points last season, is joined in the starting five by junior guard Brennan Murray (3.6 apg), senior guard Zander Plizga, a football team starter of the state championship, and sophomore forwards Liam Mignogna, a 6-foot-8, 240-pounder and Robert Coll.
Top reserves include 6-4 junior center Braxton Eastly (6.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg), junior guard/forward Jaden McMeekin and another pair of football players, senior guard/forward Bobby Oliver and guard junior Eric Weeks.
The abundance of multi-sport athletes — second Brock Borgo, a 1,000-yard rusher, and junior Joey Mayer, a two-way football starter, joined the basketball team for the first time — prevented the Talbots to do a lot of off-season training as a grouper. They competed in the Pittsburgh Basketball Club’s summer and fall leagues, but rosters and attendance fluctuated.
Lafko, a former three-sport athlete himself at Frazier and a member of the WPIAL Hall of Fame, understands the concessions.
“Compared to some of my other years, where teams played 30 games together in the offseason, this team didn’t,” he said. “Not that we haven’t tried to play. But we didn’t play together. … This group in particular has some catching up to do.
Junior forward Matt Moser and a quartet of sophomores are also battling for playing time – guards Alex Nyilas and AJ Prodente, guard/forward Keegan Thompson and forward Gabe Gannelli, another football player making his college basketball debut.
“We definitely have a lot of athletic, talented kids on our team, so I think it’s going to be tough for other teams to keep up with our athleticism,” DeMatteo said. “And we also have a certain size inside.”
Lafko, who is 486-310 in 31 seasons, has just three seniors on the 20-player roster, along with six juniors and 11 sophomores. One of the promising youngsters is Mignogna, the cousin of former Hampton stars Ryan and Collin Luther. Mignogna made the college football roster last fall and has benefited from the extra work. He excelled on both ends of the court in preseason scrums against Fox Chapel and Thomas Jefferson, Lafko said.
“Liam has grown,” Lafko said. “Not just the physical size, but the maturity to deal with certain things. Compared to where we were at this time last year, it’s noticeable.
The Talbots are looking to extend their streak of 17 consecutive trips to the WPIAL playoffs, a streak that only survived last year because the district held an open tournament during the covid-hit season.
Lafko said the team’s growth and performance this summer and fall gives him reason for optimism.
“We certainly had more success in the offseason than we did last year,” he said. “We are not yet at a championship level team. But we have noticeable improvements in many areas. These are all positive signs to continue to build on. And we are still quite young.