Early in the high school basketball season, State College girls’ coach Chris Leazier, in his first season guiding the team, was still making the transition with each of his new players.
Some got more coaching, more prodding and pointers, than others. But for Maya Bokunewicz, Leazier made a point of “not overcoaching her,” instead wanting the freshman to rely on her instincts.
“She really distinguished herself as a kid that belonged on the court,” Leazier said. “She’s a very instinctive, intuitive player and very athletic.”
Bokunewicz has certainly had an impact on the Lady Little Lions (10-14), helping them into their PIAA Class 6A first-round matchup with Mount Lebanon (18-6). The teams tangle at 6 p.m. Friday at Bald Eagle Area High School.
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Bokunewicz is second on the team this season in scoring at about 11 points per game, which isn’t bad for a freshman.
Putting a ninth-grader on the floor for decent minutes, or even starting, is not that uncommon, but it’s a taller task for a program in the Mid Penn Conference’s Commonwealth Division, which is sending three other teams to the same PIAA bracket as State College.
“It’s definitely sometimes a challenge to keep up with the speed of play,” Bokunewicz said. “But I think I’ve adjusted well, and Coach has really developed me this season, just trying to fit that kind of play, that kind of tempo.”
She brings a variety of helpful assets to the game for the Lady Little Lions. At 5-foot-11 with long arms, she starts off with a tremendous advantage on the perimeter as a guard. She loves to slash to the basket, drive to the rim or find an open teammate.
Plus, she has some pretty good instincts.
“The transition, in terms of basketball for Maya, hasn’t been that difficult,” said Leazier, who did work with the freshman later in the season. “I think she has a good basketball IQ. I think she understands the sport pretty well.”
She’s also a good athlete in general, excelling on the soccer field. Her brother, Eli, was a standout senior for the State College boys the last couple seasons, and she’s been playing both sports, “all my life,” she said.
Having the soccer background, playing with the Lady Little Lion soccer team last fall, gives her a strong advantage in basketball. She entered this season already in top condition, and she’s got good footwork and balance from the time on the pitch.
“Definitely (helps) a great amount,” said Bokunewicz, who plays AAU basketball with the Central PA Dynamite out of Altoona. “On the footwork, moving my feet on defense, it really pays off when I come to basketball. It’s really critical, especially for the high-tempo pace and keeping up with the good players.”
Leazier said he usually assigns Bokunewicz to guard the opposition’s top perimeter player, and he’s pretty confident in doing so.
Her quickness and defensive abilities will be tested Friday against the Blue Devils, a perennial power out of the WPIAL who are fond of high tempo play and scoring in transition. Leazier has been stressing all season for his team to maintain balance on the floor, dropping guards back after Lady Little Lion shots to prevent an open floor for opponents.
“They will easily be the best transition team that we have faced,” Leazier said. “We have spent a lot of time all season talking about floor balance. ... We have been good all year long at taking away other teams’ running games, and that will be critical.”
Bokunewicz’s skill and instincts will be tested, but Leazier knows he can count on her maturity.
The freshman is up for the challenge.
Said Bokunewicz: “Right now I need to keep working, keep grinding.”
PIAA Class 6A girls’ basketball 1st round
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: Bald Eagle Area High School
Admission: $6 per person; doors open 45 minutes before the first game
What’s next: The winner plays Tuesday against the winner of North Allegheny (24-1) vs. Hempfield Area (14-9)