Mars’ John Castello, left, had a breakout season for the Planets last winter. He is honing his skills through summer basketball and plans to be even better as a junior.
Marissa Siebka passes up hanging out with friends, going to movies and generally being a kid with lots of free time in the summer. She does it to play basketball — lots and lots of basketball. She does it with a clear purpose: to get better. “It’s not what I have to do,” Siebka says. “It’s what I want to do. I want to play in college, and I can’t skip out on one day. That one day I could have gotten better and that one day could have gotten me a step closer to my goals.” Siebka, who will be a junior at Slippery Rock High School this year and is a standout 5-foot-10 swing player for the Rockets, is certainly not alone. Long before the first tip-off of the late fall and the last basket of the late winter, high school players are attempting to better their skills. The ways in which they do it are as varied as their skills. Some do it by playing AAU. Some do it by attending camps and open gyms. Some do it by lifting weights and shooting baskets wherever they can find a ball and a hoop. Some combine all of those things, jamming it into a summer full of hoops. “You don’t really have a social life, other than your team,” Siebka said. “And that’s OK. You become close with all the players on your team and all the players you play against.” Shoot and shoot again Many high school basketball programs have a shooting club. A goal is set, such as 5,000 made shots, and the players track it over the course of the summer. The Freeport girls basketball program has one such program and 5-7 junior guard Zoe Soilis is trying to see just how high she can go. Soilis, who never passes up an opportunity to work on her jumper, has already made more than 6,000 shots this summer. Toss in all the shots she has made in open gyms, on her AAU teams and at college showcases, and Soilis is wearing out nets. “I feel like it is helping my shot a lot,” Soilis said. “Plus, I want to set a good example for the young girls. At our open gyms, we have seventh graders up through high school.” Soilis is gunning for 10,000 made shots this summer. She took her dedication to an extreme on a recent family vacation. “There was a basketball court in our hotel,” Soilis said. “So I took some shots.” Sara Getsy, a senior guard for the Mars girls basketball team, is also shooting for a 5,000-shot club for the Planets. About 4,000 of those shots are free throws. The other 1,000 are 3-pointers. Getsy has a hoop in her driveway and gets some aid from her family. “I have my parents rebound for me,” Getsy said. “Once I get into a rhythm I can hit quite a few.” When she’s not shooting at home, Getsy is attending open gyms at Mars and playing for her Drill for Skill AAU team located in Ambridge. AAU basketball, once relegated to the fringe, is now almost a requirement for improving basketball skills in the summer, players say. AAU The Karns City girls basketball team lost just one game before falling in the PIAA Class AA playoffs. The key members of that team — seniors Annie Hegedus, LeeAnn Gibson, Shanel Preston and Emily LoPresti — can be found this summer playing for Metro, an AAU team that also includes Butler standouts Julia Baxter and Kalynn Callihan. Gibson, a 5-9 forward, shared the Butler Eagle Girls Basketball Player of the Year award with Baxter, a 6-foot senior forward. Both have complimented each other greatly as members of Metro. Perhaps more importantly, the Metro is giving the core of the Karns City girls team a chance to play a lot of basketball together this summer. “Oh, it’s huge,” said Mike Hegedus, the Metro AAU coach and assistant coach for the Gremlins. “We went right from the season right into AAU. We’ll go right from AAU into team camps. ... We’re playing a lot of basketball.” Baxter has used her time playing AAU this summer to branch out her considerable skills. “I’m shooting outside more and driving to the hoop,” Baxter said. Those are skills that should make Baxter even more of a threat for the Golden Tornado this season. And will perhaps show college scouts she can be versatile. Working on shoring up other areas of a player’s game is also a big part of the summer for returning high school hoop standouts. Rounding out the game John Castello burst onto the high school basketball landscape last season for the Mars boys basketball team with thunderous dunks and massive rebounding games for the Planets. He was the perfect foil to Butler Eagle Boys Basketball Player of the Year Owen Nearhoof. Castello, who also figures to have a big season for the Mars football team, is using his time on the court this summer to work on his auxiliary skills. “I’ve definitely been working on an outside shot,” said the 6-5 junior center. “It’ll be a good weapon. I’ve been working on dribbling as well. I’ve dedicated a lot of time to the fundamentals just to make myself a more dangerous, all-around player.” Slippery Rock senior point guard Jake Whitmer is also a standout football player, the quarterback of a potent Rockets’ offense both on the gridiron and the hardwood. While Whitmer said he is working hard in preparation for the football season, he is also putting the time in on his basketball skills. “I go to practice every day with the mind-set of getting better,” Whitmer said. “But that’s what any high schooler that wants to get better is currently doing.” Getting better also includes doing things off the court. Getting stronger Siebka spends almost every morning in the Slippery Rock weight room. The clanking of bar bells is just as familiar to her now as the rhythmic thump of a basketball being dribbled off the court. “It’s so important now,” Siebka said. “I can feel it. Whenever you have a jump ball and you can rip it out of other people’s hands, anytime you can’t get pushed out of the way when you are posting up, you can tell it is working.” Castello and Whitmer are also no stranger to the weight room, mostly because of football, but also because coaches and players have realized how important weight lifting has become to rounding out all skills. “We condition a lot for football,” Castello said. “But also for basketball. It definitely helps when you are getting beat up under the hoop to be strong.” Getsy, who is a wiry 5-9, has also noticed her weight lifting regime paying dividends. “Last year we had one trainer helping us,” Getsy said. “Now we have two this year. I can really see the improvement. We play in a pretty physical section, so any way we can get stronger will help.” AAU, open gyms and camps, shooting at home and weight lifting — why do these budding hoop stars do it? The answer is quite simple. The love of the game. Siebka also plays soccer. Baxter, Callihan, Hegedus, LoPresti, Soilis and Getsy also compete for their school’s track and field teams. Gibson plays softball. When it comes down to it, though, basketball is the reason why they sacrifice free time — even while on vacation — to shoot, dribble and pass on courts all over the map. “I do it because I just love playing basketball,” Siebka said. “I love getting better. I always want to be the best.”