The sentence needs to be said — or read — a couple of times for it to be truly believed.
Cameron County’s Nate Sestina, who came off the bench as a big contributor for the Patriot League’s Bucknell Bison just a season ago, is now in the starting lineup for the nation’s top-ranked basketball program, Kentucky.
Sestina’s rise, from Emporium to Lewisburg to his new home in Lexington, Kentucky, is far and away the biggest accomplishment this area has seen by an athlete in some time.
We’ve had Matt Bodamer (Port Allegany), Cole Peterson (Johnsonburg) and Owen Chambers (Coudersport) — just to name a few — who have shined on the field or the court over the past decade. And no disrespect to what those three individuals did in high school or at the next level, but it pales in comparison to Sestina.
To give Sestina’s athletic rise a bit more context… just six years ago, Sestina was playing games against the likes of Austin High School (50 students) or Oswayo Valley (96 students) in North Tier League matchups.
On Kentucky’s schedule this season are some of the nation’s most respected and decorated programs, such as Ohio State (46,820 students), Florida (35,491) and Michigan State (39,423) — who the Wildcats already beat in their season opener.
Playing on the bright lights of a massive national stage, Sestina, a 2014 Cameron County graduate, has made his hometown unspeakably proud.
And it’s not just folks from District 9 or Emporium taking notice of Sestina’s strong start to the season.
If you aren’t on social media — which is probably a good thing — the UK graduate student has already received shoutouts on Twitter from the likes of Dick Vitale as well as some of the Wildcats’ biggest basketball fans and former players. There’s even a video of Sestina bringing former Kentucky basketball star and current Washington Wizard John Wall to his feet after he hit a 3-pointer against Michigan State. That video has been viewed over 35,000 times.
But yes, some of Sestina — and Kentucky’s — early season luster was lost Tuesday night when the Wildcats lost to 25-point underdog Evansville at home in one of the biggest upsets in school history. Though I don’t think that loss will stop any folks from watching UK games anytime soon with Sestina representing the area.
When he played at the Reilly Center as a member of the Bison last year, it was remarkable then to realize the support that he had behind him. I’ve done several interviews with Sestina over the past couple of years and it’s always struck me how quick he is to mention and credit his parents and his siblings for his life’s successes.
He almost always mentions the coaches he’s had growing up, who will certainly be proud of
Sestina’s production through three games.
There isn’t a category he hasn’t contributed to in the first two weeks of the season.
In addition to his 28 points, the 6-foot-9, 234-pound Sestina has recorded 22 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and two steals. He’s also 2-for-6 on three-point attempts.
He recorded a double-double against Eastern Kentucky with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
“If that’s what I need to be, I’m going to do that,” Sestina told reporters after the Michigan State game. “If I need to be a pick and roll guy, if I need to be a dominant force down low then I’m going to work at that every day. I think, for me just being a high-energy level guy whether I’m down low or on the perimeter, that’s what I’m going to try to be.”
After helping the Bison reach the NCAA Tournament twice in his four years at Bucknell, Sestina is certainly used to playing in the game’s biggest stages.
That dates back to when Sestina was leading his Red Raiders into PIAA state playoff contests against some of the top Class A schools in the state.
But now, instead of battling kids from Pittsburgh or Altoona, Sestina is going toe-to-toe with some of the top basketball talent in the world.
Not only has Sestina impressed the folks on Twitter and his adoring fanbase back home, but he has also gotten the early approval of the man most important to his basketball growth and development at Kentucky: head coach John Calipari.
“I called the coaches at Bucknell and thanked them and said you did a great job with this kid (Sestina),” Calipari said. “Really did. And they said after their game with Fairfield, they were on a bus watching our game and when he made that 3 (to put UK up 13 vs. Michigan State), the bus had to pull over because they were going absolutely bonkers on the bus. That’s the kind of stuff which makes this great.”
Sestina and the Wildcats have some time to refocus after Tuesday’s loss to Evansville. The Wildcats are off until Monday when they host Utah Valley and look to get their season — which has national championship aspirations — back on track.
And if we know Sestina, who has experienced success at every level of basketball through his hard work stacked up against tall odds, it would come as no surprise if the Cameron County star leads Kentucky back to the nation’s top ranking sometime soon.
(Anthony Sambrotto, the Era Sports Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.)