Amir Hinton (above) might be the best player in the PSAC despite being a redshirt sophomore. (Photo courtesy Lock Haven Athletics)
Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Mike Nestor’s program is looking to get over the hump.
When Nestor took over at Lock Haven following a one-win season and went winless in his first year as head man, expectations surrounding the program were not very high. But by year three Nestor had the Bald Eagles in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference playoffs.
Lock Haven has now gone to four straight PSAC playoffs and has won 10-or-more games in four straight years—an impressive, turnaround from when Nestor took over the program. However, the Bald Eagles have yet to win a playoff game and only have one winning campaign during that time.
Last year’s team went 13-14 and 9-13 in the PSAC. Back from that squad are the Bald Eagles’ top four scorers and three of five starters. The key departures for Lock Haven are guard Cole Renninger (8.3 ppg) and Constitution High School product Craig Slade (8.1 ppg).
Returning starters for Nestor are redshirt-senior forward Ra’eese Hunt and redshirt-sophomore guards Amir Hinton (Abington) and Jihad Barnes (Philadelphia Electric). Hinton led the league in scoring at 23.8 ppg and earned first team all-conference honors.
Barnes and Hinton are both part of a talented sophomore group that represent a promising future for Lock Haven. Redshirt-sophomore forward Marques Jackson (Monsignor Bonner) and sophomore guard Tarojae Brake (Octorara) and Kutztown transfer Christian Kelly (Phoenixville) should also be key contributors from the class.
Lock Haven has a pair of talented local products coming in who Nestor said should make an impact from the start. Matt Cerruti, a 6-4 guard, won a Catholic League title at Archbishop Wood last season. Jesse McPherson, a 6-7 forward, helped Archbishop Carroll on its state-playoff run.
In total, the Bald Eagles have 12 Philadelphia-area players on their 2017-18 roster.
Here are the (copy-edited) highlights of our conversation with Nestor:
City of Basketball Love: The status of your program the last few years seems to be on the rise. Can you go into how you’ve done that a little bit?
Mike Nestor: We’re at a place right now I think over the last couple years of getting some kids in here that just kind of fit the mold of what we’re trying to do. With 11 sophomores and freshmen on this roster now, we really looked for guys who were coachable, they just wanted to be gym rats. To be able to watch these guys compete every day, and they put a lot of time in on their own. They’re kind of bringing up our program to a higher level and just a higher standard. And the guys before them did a great job, and it’s just a natural progression of, the better you get, you get some better players. I would say the more known we are in certain areas, kids recruit themselves. It’s been a good progression of better players that are coming in from the guys a couple years ago that kind of started the process, to now we’re in a much better place as a program as a whole.
CoBL: You played in the Catholic League. Where’d you play at?
MN: I played at Monsignor Bonner, graduated in 1995 with Paul Romanczuk, Chris McNesby, he was at Roman at the time. Same guys, same group of people who are still in that world or were a few years ago. It’s been a very good league for us to recruit out of, just being such a very tough league in general. It’s been good for our program up here over the last few years.
CoBL: The Philadelphia area in general, you seem to have have roots. How have you expanded on that and recruited that area so well?
MN: Over the last 15-16 years of coaching as an assistant and now a head coach, we’ve really hit that area hard. My assistant coach Brian Oleksiak is from Abington High School, played at Abington for four years there. He’s done a great job with his connections and building on the ones I had in the past. Even right now, we have three Abington kids on our roster as we speak, so it’s been a good area for us. We keep expanding, but I still believe a lot of the best basketball played in the state is in that area, the suburban area, the Philadelphia Catholic League, the Public League. We’re going to continue to hit that area as hard as we can.
CoBL: The two freshman from the Catholic League this year, Matt Cerruti (Archbishop Wood) and Jesse McPherson (Archbishop Carroll), how big of a role do you see them playing?
MN: I think they’re going to be immediate impact guys for us. They’re right in the rotation. Matt’s had a very good preseason for us. His IQ level is very high. He played at an unbelievable level last year. We’re just fortunate enough to have him here. He’s a piece that we haven’t had in the past, just a guy who can shoot the ball well, make plays, and just do so much for us on both ends of the floor. Jesse’s been hampered with a little bit of an ankle injury right now, so he hasn’t been able to go a ton, but when he was doing preseason workouts with us, he’s another one who just has a high level IQ. He’s very secure and knows his game and knows what he brings to the table defensively and rebounding the ball and running the floor. They’re two guys, they just fit into our program so perfectly and they’re just so excited to be here, which is a great feeling to have. Great kids from great families who played at great high schools. It’s such a blessing to have both of them here on campus.
CoBL: Amir Hinton and Jihad Barnes both redshirted their first years and then came out last year and played really well for you. Were there any signs of that?
MN: As the season progressed their freshman year, they put in the work in the weight room, which was a big deal for both of them. And then just being able to play together every day in practice, they were teammates every single day. They played scout team every day. What you could really see as the season wore on is they could have played right then, they were capable and absolutely good enough. They were at times just dominant in practice. They were competing at a high level, they played with poise. Amir was the best player on the floor every single practice and Jihad played his role unbelievably. You just knew something special was going to happen if they just made it through that first year. It’s tough. It’s tough to sit out a year, especially when you’re coming from a high level in high school. For them to do that and just know it would be better for our program on the whole, it just says a lot about those two guys. They did what they needed to do in the classroom, and they produced. From Day One, they started pretty much every game for us last year and played a lot of minutes. To have that year under their belt, it just gave them an idea about what this league is about. They got to see every home game. They got to see teams we play on a regular basis, so they were prepared and they were hungry. You could tell they were hungry, couldn’t wait to get started, and it showed just by both of them the way they played.
CoBL: Even after seeing Amir for a year and having him get acclimated to the college game a little bit, was last year a surprise just kind of the way he took over? He was the league’s leading scorer as a freshman.
MN: It was enjoyable to watch, that’s for sure. We opened up an exhibition game at Penn State. He went for 30 in his very first official exhibition game. From then on, you were waiting to see if he’d wear down, and you knew teams were going to double team him, jump trap him and to be quite honest I would say most teams’ goal was to somehow contain him. Just to see how well he did and all the adversity he would go through in terms of different defenses being thrown at him, it was pretty remarkable to watch. Because not only did he lead the league in scoring, but his percentages were very, very good. To shoot above 50-something percent from the field and almost 80 percent from the foul line, that’s an unbelievable task for anybody to do, let alone a freshman, let alone somebody who most defenses are keying on. We kept figuring at some point it would be tough for him to continue that pace, but he just did. He continued to play at that level. Now the big goal is to just get him mentally prepared to step up his game even more and produce a little bit more in terms of some other things, whether it’s screening or rebounding that he can do. I just think our roster has a lot better pieces around him that he can kind of have more confidence in some of his teammates than maybe he did in the past.
CoBL: You mentioned you're excited for the freshman class, the sophomore group ahead of them. How good are they?
MN: They’re very good. You have four sophomores, who as of today would be in the starting group for us. Jihad Barnes and Tarojae Brake, just putting a lot of time and work in with Amir Hinton and Marques Jackson, who sat our last year for us, they’re four guys who are just very, very good in terms of how we play and play well together. They get along great. It’s a special group to have. And then we were fortunate last year to pick up a transfer in Christian Kelly, who’s really just trying to figure out where he fits into our group of guys. Every day it’s becoming more and more enjoyable to watch because he’s getting more and more comfortable. For us, I just think you’re talking about five sophomores who are going to be contributing for the next three seasons. It just puts our program in a place, where if everybody stays healthy and they just keep improving and just buy into playing as a unit together, they could be a very special group as time goes on.
CoBL: A talented younger group with the freshman and sophomores, how do the older guys bring them together? And how much will the older guys determine how far this team can go this year?
MN: We have two seniors who have done a great job. Ra’eese Hunt started for us for two years. He’s a Maryland native and he’s done a great job since he’s been here. He knows exactly where the program was when he came here in December his freshman year and sat out. He’s been here, it’ll be four and a half years, and he’s kind of seen the progression and the change over the past couple years and he’s been a big part of it, just a positive, skilled big man for us. And then there’s a player who doesn’t get as many accolades in terms of production on the court in Scott Brown, who’s from Abington High School. He brings so much to our program. It’s kind of remarkable just what he does. He is an unbelievable student-athlete. Great student. Great person to be around. Unbelievable leadership and is somebody who has no problem, just confident in himself in terms of how he knows how we should act and really just lets the younger guys know what they should be doing when you’re on the road, when you’re on the bus. He’s brought a lot to our program over the last four years.
CoBL: Is the attitude around this team any different than years past? Maybe a little bit hungrier?
MN: Starting here as we did years ago, it was a program that was struggling for so many years, so the first taste of any success was just make a playoff game and everybody was excited. I don’t think that’s the same case right now. I think these guys are a little bit hungrier for success. They work a little bit differently and they take college athletics a little bit more seriously, which is a great thing to have. They’re guys who just continually improve their game. They work out on a regular basis. They work out before practice. They work out after practice. They work out during the day between classes. And when you see that it becomes contagious, and more and more guys show up when they get ge their group together. It’s just a little bit more of a serious attitude they’re bringing right now, and I don’t think they’re ready just for a push of where are we going to be. They’re just going to enjoy this ride and work hard to hopefully get another playoff opportunity and try to find a way to finally get a win in a playoff game.