Salyards fitting right in

Manny Span went to the Great Commission boys basketball game more to see a friend than to take in the action.

“Not to be rude, but when you go to something like that, you don’t expect to see the highest [quality] of ball game,” said Span, Altoona Area High School’s star forward and a Division II college prospect.

But then something happened that forced Span to sit up and take notice: a 6-foot-3 wing for the Bears who was scoring virtually at will in a variety of ways.

“You see a kid shine like that. It wasn’t like he was scoring 15. He was scoring 30, 35. He was going hard, elevating every time. It was kind of like seeing one of our games,” Span said.

“I was at a game with [teammate] Tony [Acrie], and I said, ‘Tony, he can play with us.'”

Span and Acrie will get that chance on Friday night at Mount Aloysius College when Jonah Salyards becomes just the third Great Commission player to suit up for Blair County to take on a team of all-star seniors from the rest of Central Pennsylvania in the ninth annual Altoona Mirror Basketball Classic. The boys contest is set to tip off at approximately 8:15 p.m. following the girls half of the doubleheader at 6:30.

Of all the players in either game, none can boast a better scoring average this season than Salyards’ 29.4, nor can any player say they’ve scored more than the 2,644 points for which he was responsible in his career.

Now Salyards is eager to prove that those numbers weren’t just a reflection of his competition.

“I was really honored to be picked. Usually, you don’t get much of a spotlight on the smaller schools in the area. It really was an honor and I’m very excited,” Salyards said. “I want to go out and show that I can compete at this level. People say the competition may not be as strong. I want to go out and prove that I can play with these guys.”

Blair County coach Paul Hasson wasn’t surprised to see Salyards’ name show up on the roster. He’d already seen Salyards play in summer league.

“He was a scoring machine down there during the summer, and it looks like he continued that through the winter season,” Hasson said. “He absolutely fit right in with us, and he played pretty well at practice. He has a lot of skill, and I think he’ll have a really good game on Friday night.

“He’s a scorer. Those kids are really valuable in an all-star game. It looks like he gets to the basket well. He shoots from the outside well. I think he’ll be a big plus for us.”

While Friday night might be Salyards’ introduction to a lot of Central Pennsylvania scholastic basketball fans, a lot of players and coaches – not just Span, who has become friends with Salyards, and Hasson – have known about him for almost a decade. Originally from Hollidaysburg and now living in Roaring Spring, Salyards began playing in the Central Blair Recreation Commission youth leagues when he was in third grade.

“I just loved sports,” Salyards said of how he got started. “I played a lot of tennis growing up. My brother [Jared] was a district champion in tennis. So all my life I grew up playing tennis with him. In ninth grade, I kind of had to pick, ‘am I going to go with tennis or am I going to go with basketball?’ Now I don’t play a lot of tennis, but I still enjoy it. I play a lot more basketball.”

Picking a sport wasn’t the only choice Salyards has had to make in the last few years. Although he’s always gone to small Christian schools and his mother works at Great Commission, he considered a few years ago transferring in to Central, where his older brother attended. Scarlet Dragon fans already have two players in this year’s Mirror Classic with Austin Cunningham and Zach Slagenweit, and, who knows, Salyards’ addition might have put Central over the top as is came up short in the District 6 Class AA championship game to Richland.

Salyards said the Forshey family which is so involved with Central hoops told him he could play at their level, and there is definitely a part of him that wonders what might have been.

“I really do. Tenth grade year, I debated it a little bit,” Salyards said. “It was a hard decision, but I had a lot of friends and I’m really close with my classmates at Great Commission, and we had a pretty solid basketball team, so I decided to stick with the private school.”

Although his height makes Salyards a rarity on the small, non-PIAA school circuit, Salyards is most accustomed and feels he’s at his best playing on the perimeter. His calling card is slashing from the wing to the hoop, but he also can shoot the 3 and bring the ball up against pressure.

Part of a championship team at Great Commission as a seventh grader – seventh and eighth graders are allowed to play at the Bears’ level – Salyards had an amazing senior season all around. In addition to scoring 823 points, he pulled down 406 rebounds, blocked 100 shots, dished out 134 assists and came up with 135 steals.

During the season, Salyards became the first Great Commission player to record both 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. He set the school single-game scoring record with 42 points against DuBois Christian in January, then broke that in a 45-point outburst against Christian Life Academy of Pittsburgh in an end-of-season tournament in Erie in March.

Salyards has attracted recruiting interest from several Division III colleges and at least one at the Division II level according to Great Commission coach Scott Johnson, but he said he’ll most likely go to Penn State Altoona or Geneva and try to continue playing basketball.

A good performance on Friday, though, might be the clincher for colleges considering taking Salyards.

“I have high expectations for myself,” Salyards said. “I wanted to come out here and compete and, so far, I feel pretty comfortable with these guys.”