By Andrew Koob
New Castle News
Plenty of questions surrounded the New Castle boys basketball program heading into the 2014-2015 season.
That will happen when a loaded senior class ends its tenure with a WPIAL title, its third in as many years, and a PIAA championship, the program’s first.
Yet, with the season nearing its end, Marquel Hooker has had answers, and then some, for the New Castle faithful.
The junior guard stepped up when the ’Canes (21-5) needed it most in their PIAA Class AAA opening round 55-52 win against Erie Strong Vincent, a game won in the final seconds.
Hooker recorded a steal, grabbed a big rebound and went 2-of-4 from the free throw line in the final 1:03 remaining to secure the ’Canes’ victory. He finished with nine points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
His performance in crunch time earned him Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.
“I was down the whole game, but it made me want to give it all back to my teammates,” Hooker said. “I wanted to bring the game back for them. I know that I have a group of guys that are there for me. I have to be there for them as much as they are there for me.”
Hooker, who scored 12 points in a 50-43 win over Indiana last night, has been the player to step up in the closing minutes of games numerous times this year. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.
“He’s closed out so many games for us,” New Castle coach Ralph Blundo said. “A lot of times, it’s defensively making big plays. He’s been a great rebounder all year, I think what makes him such a good basketball player is that he does everything well. He rebounds it well, he shoots it well, he’s a good free-throw shooter, he defends well. He’s a very versatile player, he has a passion for the game and it’s showing.
“He’s clearly been our MVP this year.”
Hooker is averaging a team-high 14.5 points per game and is Lawrence County’s best free-throw shooter, connecting on 80.2 percent of his attempts.
He also acts as the point man of the ’Canes vaunted three-quarter court press, the most vital part of a defense that allows opponents to score only 51.3 points per game.
“He has great hands and great instincts, things you can’t teach,” Blundo said. “One of the things that makes him really good is that he takes good angles, he’s made tons of big plays for us all year long.
“You take Marquel Hooker, who didn’t play any quality minutes last year, now he plays 31, 32 minutes a game. You can’t take him off the floor because he’s played so well, because he’s been so effective, because he’s been such a good leader. He’s been such a smart basketball player for us, the results are the team success that we’ve had. He’s a very selfless player, just cares about winning and finding a way to win basketball games.”
His performance throughout the season has earned the trust of both his teammates and coaching staff. Hooker has proven that the confidence has not been misplaced and he has rewarded their faith night in and night out.
“He knows we believe in him,” Blundo said. “Because of that, I think he’s played great in big moments for us. The bigger the stage, the more Marquel likes it. He’s really been a joy to coach this year.”
Added Hooker, “I just get to business. I have to do what I have to do. I have to do it the Red Hurricane way, do it the right way every time.”
School: New Castle
Parents: Jermaine and Angela Dennis
Known for: Scoring nine points and grabbing 10 rebounds and stepping up in the final minute in New Castle’s 55-52 win over Erie Strong Vincent in the opening round of the PIAA Class AAA playoffs.
Favorite Team: Duke Blue Devils. “I like Duke because they play hard, they’re always at their best.”
Favorite Player: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers. “I just like the way he plays. When he’s healthy, he goes out there and plays and doesn’t let anything affect him.”
Future plans: “I want to go to college and become a physical therapist.”