During his basketball career at Ligonier Valley High School, Marrek Paola enjoyed nothing but success.
Standing 6-foot-9, Paola typically towered over his opponents, and prolific stats and a myriad of accolades resulted. With the Rams, the Ligonier Township native earned First-Team All-Conference awards three times, twice was an All-State performer, and finished as Ligonier Valley’s all-time scoring leader. Paola also was instrumental in tremendous team accomplishments, including Ligonier Valley winning the Heritage Conference twice as an upperclassman, as well as the District 6 crown in 2018.
Paola’s first year of college basketball was in stark contrast.
After averaging 27 points and 17 rebounds per game as a senior at Ligonier Valley, Paola produced averages of 5.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in his first year with Seton Hill University. Furthermore, after going a combined 41-9 in his last two campaigns with the Rams, Paola’s Griffins posted a mark of 4-22 this past season.
“It was a completely different experience, and definitely a learning experience... obviously just from the level of competition and the level of play,” Paola revealed of the transition to college basketball.
“It was also eye-opening. Once you hit the college level, you know that every single person there has done everything they can to work hard and get to the spot they’re at.”
Paola played sparingly early in the season with the Griffins, earning less than 10 minutes in four of the first five games. The exception during that stint was a fine showing against Bloomsburg University, a game in which Paola played 22 minutes, scoring 13 points and grabbing seven boards.
Paola earned his first collegiate start against Lock Haven University, and remained in the starting lineup as the calendar turned to 2020.
Paola went back to a reverse role and saw a reduction in his minutes, however, until an injury gave him another opportunity for an expanded role. On Jan. 19, fellow freshman Jimmy Moon, a 6-foot-11 forward, was injured against Shippensburg, and missed about three weeks of action.
During that time, Paola seemed to find a groove, punctuated by a 40-minute performance against perennial powerhouse Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in which Paola netted a season-high 17 points.
After Moon’s return, Seton Hill started both big men, and their ability to play together could be a major factor in Paola’s role moving forward.
“It would definitely be good to be able to work side by side, but it’s whatever the team needs,” Paola noted. “It’s definitely fun to be able to have another big guy in there with me, compared to in high school, where it was just basically me.”
While those two shared many of the same experiences acclimating to the college game and the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), they certainly weren’t alone at Seton Hill. The Griffins’ roster included nine freshmen, six of whom played key roles in 2019-20.
“It’s definitely a plus to have that many young guys,” Paola said of the large freshman class. “It’s definitely easier to jump in with a good bit of players, because at the end of the day, you can all learn everything about the team and learn how to play together more.”
While Seton Hill’s record wasn’t pretty, including an eight-game skid to conclude the season, Paola is optimistic about the future.
“I think we improved a lot throughout the year, and we’re just going to keep doing that for the next three,” he said.
With his first season in the rear view, Paola knows what it takes to succeed in the PSAC, and since the end of February, he has worked to hone his skills.
“My biggest thing is definitely to get in the weight room and get bigger and get faster,” he detailed. “If another team decides to go small, I definitely want to be able to stay in front of the faster big guys.”
Even with quarantine and stay-at-home orders in effect the past few months as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Paola has been able to stay sharp by playing on the basketball hoop at his home.
“I’ll always be able to get some shots up, no matter if I’m on lockdown or not,” he joked.
Even during the rigors of the college basketball season, Paola still followed his high school team, as the Rams went 23-4 and won another Heritage Conference Championship. He was in attendance when Ligonier Valley scored a first-round victory in the District 6 postseason, as well.
“Especially with being local, I wanted to come back to a couple of the games. It’s always good to be able to come back and watch the team you played with for four years,” he said. “They carried on what’ve been really doing my last three years I played in high school. They had a really good year.”