Reaching new Heights
Highlanders finally return to their winning ways
By Michael Boytim
PATTON — The Cambria Heights boys basketball team is headed back to the District 6 playoffs and will finish the regular season with at least a .500 record for the first time since the 2012-2013 season.
That’s quite the accomplishment considering the Highlanders had won a combined 12 games in the three seasons prior to this one, and head coach Eric Nagel was petitioned to be removed from the job he’s held for the past 13 seasons this past offseason.
“It’s definitely been a rough couple years,” Cambria Heights senior Nathan Lamb said. “The playoffs are something we are all really looking forward to.”
After winning just three games two years ago, the Highlanders doubled that total last year before winning 11 of their first 21 games this season.
“This group of kids are basketball kids, and they’ve worked really hard the last couple years to be good,” Nagel said. “It’s really showing. They are smart, and we have three returning starters from last year’s team, so the experience is there.”
Cambria Heights has had a pair of four-game winning streaks this season and has been competitive in most of its losses while competing in the Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference, widely regarded as one of the top leagues in Central Pennsylvania.
“It’s a great feeling playing these games night in and night out and knowing it’s going to be a battle,” Nagel said. “To go right around .500 in this league is a great accomplishment.”
One of the biggest factors in the Highlanders’ turnaround has been the play of senior point guard Liam Wholaver, who recently scored his 1,000th career point.
“Liam is probably one of the hardest workers I’ve had in the 14 years I’ve been here,” Nagel said. “From where he was as a freshman to where he is now, he’s come a long way. That came with his work ethic and how hard he works in practice and in the offseason.”
Wholaver said a combination of offseason events and the disappointment of last year played a role.
“Everyone is more locked in this year,” Wholaver said. “We believe in ourselves, and we played a lot in the summer and built up team chemistry.”
Along with Nathan Lamb and Wholaver, the Highlanders are getting big contributions from senior forward Damon Maul along with underclassmen Preston Lamb and Hunter Yeckley.
“This team has really come together as a group of individuals,” Nagel said. “They are becoming a family and spending a lot of time together. It’s really special to see these kids create a bond that they’re going to have for the rest of their lives. That’s the fun part as a coach to see these guys grow together and not just as basketball players.”
The family atmosphere has led to a mentoring program from the team’s older players.
“We bring them in under our wing,” Wholaver said. “If they can play, they’re going to get on the court regardless of their age. Yeckley, (Ryan) Bearer they have been stepping up big time this year.”
The Highlanders, who will enter the District 6 Class 3A playoffs as the No. 7 seed, have shown the ability to win close games. Earlier this month, Cambria Heights edged Portage, 54-53, in a showcase game at Mount Aloysius.
“I knew that the seniors we had this year, pressure wasn’t going to bother them,” Nagel said. “When it got tight, they knew what to do by moving the ball and looking for a good shot. With three of them being back and being more seasoned, I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Nagel, who led Cambria Heights to a District 6 championship in 2009, has been getting some help from one of his former players. Isaac Vescovi, a 2018 University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown graduate, is an assistant coach this year, following in the footsteps his older brothers Ben (who coached the Huntingdon girls) and Dom, the current Forest Hills boys coach.
“Coach Vescovi has helped a lot,” Wholaver said. “He’s put in some really good plays and defensive schemes.”
Nathan Lamb also pointed out a change in the play-calling.
“We’re really playing like a team,” Lamb said. “I’m really happy with the way we are moving the ball, and we’re just playing together right now. We’re running our plays and getting good looks.”
The Highlanders will be the underdog in their first-round playoff game, but they’ve been in that position all season, and they know anything can happen in the postseason.
“It’s special,” Wholaver said. “Last year we missed them, and in the playoffs anything can happen. If we can just get one win, we could go on to the state playoffs. That’s our goal.”