Jesse Newman has been going up against Randy Zimmerman for six years, and old habits die hard.
So, it should be no surprise that when the two got on the court together at the Summit Tennis and Athletic Club for a practice for the fifth annual Mirror Basketball Classic all-star game this week, they were still competing with each other.
"That's kind of funny,'' Newman said. "We were out there earlier. I was guarding Randy, and he was guarding me, and we were trying to take the ball off each other and trying to show the other one up a bit. But, it's all in good fun.''
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
From left: Central PA team members Jesse Newman,?Randy Zimmerman and Zach Reed take a break during practice.
That's good news for the Central PA team, of which Newman and Zimmerman will be teammates this afternoon to take on a squad of Blair County standouts in the second game of the girls-boys doubleheader at St. Francis University's DeGol Arena at 3 p.m.
The girls game tips off at 1.
Newman, from Forbes Road, and Zimmerman, of Tussey Mountain, went head to head at least twice a year for the last few seasons in the Sideling Hill League and South Division of the Inter-County Conference, as did fellow Central PA player Zach Reed, who played for Northern Bedford.
Their league is made up predominantly of small, spread-out, rural schools in eastern District 5, but the Sideling Hill trio is eager to show they can hold their own in a game that includes a big-time Division I recruit like Penn State-bound Taran Buie of State College and Cambria Heights' 6-foot-8 wunderkind Ian Vescovi, a Division II Pitt-Johnstown signee.
"There a lot of good kids here. A lot of big kids, too,'' said Newman, who played at the McDonald's Roundball Classic in Hagerstown earlier. "It's nice to play with competition like this. It's really fun.''
Some might be skeptical of Newman, Zimmerman and Reed's ability to fit into a game with talent like this. Central PA coach Eric Nagel, who coached Vescovi at Cambria Heights and took his team to two straight District 6 Class AA finals, isn't one of them.
"They're very, very skilled. I really like them. I told Zimmerman when I had him on the sidelines that I'd love to have had him [on my team],'' Nagel said. "Even though they are small school, they can play basketball.
"I know they can [play in a game like this] It might be a surprise to other people, but it's not a surprise to me.''
To anyone who's closely followed area boys hoops over the last couple of years, it won't be much of a surprise, either. This season, four of the five teams to advance to interdistricts in District 5 came from the Sideling Hill League. Two of them won their first-round PIAA games, and Tussey led eventual Class A state champion Sewickley Academy in the third quarter in the state quarterfinals.
In 2009, the ICC South sent three teams to states. Tussey and Northern Bedford both made it to the second round, with the Titans again only being ousted in a close game by a tournament finalist.
Five of the eight teams that qualified for the District 5 Class A playoffs this season came out of the SHL/ICC South, including the teams that finished first, second and third. The other two lost to league rivals in the first round, including NBC, which returned arguably its two best players from the previous season.
"[The play in our league] was probably the toughest it's ever been. We probably had six or seven teams that could win it. It came down to the end,'' Reed, a 6-foot-3 forward who averaged 18.8 points and 9.3 rebounds for the Black Panthers, said. "It definitely picked up my game. Everybody's game was elevated.''
They didn't only beat up each other, either. Tussey Mountain defeated District 6 Class AAA runner-up Huntingdon, District 6 Class AA top seed Mount Union and Juniata Valley (twice) and lost a close game to 6-AAA champion Johnstown. Northern Bedford topped Class AAA Central.
Zimmerman was a third-team all-state pick last season. He is Tussey's No. 2 scorer all-time with 1,800 points. Newman is fifth at Forbes Road with more than 1,300 points, and Reed also surpassed the 1,000-point mark this season.
The talent was so strong in the league that even Southern Fulton's Luke Mellot and Fannett-Metal's Justin Bannister drew consideration for the Mirror Classic.
"I think it's the rivalries,'' Zimmerman said when asked why the quality of ball in the Sideling Hill League is so strong. "Everybody works so hard. We're all trying to beat each other, so we each work harder and harder, and that's what comes out of it.''
The quality extends to the girls game, where Everett's Jess Beegle and Tussey's Rachel Zimmerman - Randy's sister - will take the floor in today's early game. Newman is the first player from Fulton County selected to play in the Mirror Classic.
"I didn't know that. That's a pretty big honor,'' Newman said in a light southern drawl.
As intense as the rivalries are, there seems to be a large amount of good will between the players, too. Newman bypassed the District 5 all-star game - players are only allowed to participate in two all-star contests - but he practiced with the East team to get them prepared. Reed recalled when he was in eighth grade going to Susquehanna University's team camp with Tussey Mountain because Northern wasn't doing much that summer.
Reed's father, Eric, used to play with Zimmerman's dad, also named Randy, in recreational leagues growing up.
" It was different, being rivals, but we got past that and we played. We played hard,'' Zach Reed said.
That was in spite of the fact that Northern Bedford crushed Tussey, 40-5, in a junior high game. The younger Zimmerman remembered it well.
"We moved our ninth graders up, and they didn't. They pounded us,'' Zimmerman said. "We ended up getting them back in varsity.''
The competition between these teams and the standout players that led them goes back even earlier than that.
"I remember Randy Zimmerman back in my seventh grade year. We were talking on the court. We were playing a pretty good game,'' Newman said. "I asked him what grade he was in. I was hoping he'd be older than I was, because I wanted to be the better guy. Then he said he was in seventh grade, and I was in seventh grade it's just kind of a moment that sticks out to me.''
Maybe today eventually will provide another.