By Nathan Mayberg,Berkshire Eagle Staff

PITTSFIELD -- Pittsfield youngsters looking to be the next Steve Nash or Mark Price toed the free-throw line of St. Joseph High School's gymnasium on Saturday and let the basketballs fly.

The annual Knights of Columbus Free-Throw Shooting Contest title was up for grabs as boys and girls, ages 9-14, competed for the title of best Pittsfield free-throw shooter. Split into boys and girls divisions for two different age groups, the winners earned a berth in the countywide contest. A win there will give them a shot in the Western Massachusetts and state competitions, which could lead to national and international contests.

In the 12-14 boys' bracket, 13-year-old Paul Wales emerged victorious.

"I am very happy to move on to the next round," Wales said, who connected on 11-of-15 free throws.

Wales entered the contest, along with his teammates from the Pittsfield Boys and Girls Club travel team. Wales said the team wanted to enter the contest together.

"The team seemed pretty excited about it," he said. Coming after he and the teammates had just played two games in the morning, he "was just looking to have some fun," Wales said.

Wales said he shoots better when he doesn't think too much about shooting. "If I'm thinking too much, I can't make any free throws," he said.

An eighth-grader at Herberg Middle School, Wales is a fan of Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. "I like his attitude. He never gives up, ever."

His teammate, Carter Matthews, shot with a broken pinkie on his non-shooting hand. The lefty didn't let a cast on his right hand get in the way. A point guard, he likes to watch Chaz Williams of nationally-ranked UMass play.

Derek Adams, 12, the team's power forward, hit 10 of his 15 shots. "I just got over a broken foot," said Adams, who was injured when he landed awkwardly while going for a rebound. Adams can't play competitively for two weeks.

"I think I did pretty good," Adams said. "I could have done better."

He roots for Oklahoma's City's high-scoring Kevin Durant, one of the best free throw shooters and all-around players in the game. "He's (6 feet, 9 inches), and he can dunk and he can shoot."

Their team's coach, Susan Mount, knows free-throw shooting can be the deciding factor in a game.

"It can be a game-changer," she said. "Once, we went 4-for-17 from the free-throw line but only lost by six points."

In the younger bracket, where players can step a foot closer to the rim, Allendale Elementary School fourth-grader James Connors took home first prize, making 13 of 15, good for an 87 percent rate. That would be better than nearly every NBA player -- if he could do it for a season.

A fan of reigning NBA MVP Lebron James of the Miami Heat, Connors has been playing at the Boys and Girls Club for the past five years, and is currently on their all-star team. "Awesome," was his description of his victory.

In the girls bracket, Anna Najimy, 10, and Lexi Mercier, 12, both led their divisions by going 7 for 15.

Ryan Scago, an assistant coach at Pittsfield High School, helped organize the contest. Scago competed in the contest as a kid and played on the St. Joseph's High School basketball team as a member of the 2005 class. His father, Frank Scago Jr., was one of the best basketball players to come through the Berkshires.

"I think we doubled our number (of participants) this year," he said. "To me, (free-throw shooting) is one of the more important parts of the game. Sometimes, it's overlooked."

Scago says following through on your shot and keeping a good balance are important. He said he and his father used to play in the driveway "all the time," and always ended by shooting free throws. "He never let me end on a miss."

Jack Laviolette, a member of the Knights of Columbus, has been helping out with the contest for the past eight or 10 years. "I think it helps give confidence," to the players, he said. "When they come out and they practice, you should see the smiles."

Paul Divirgilio, 93, has been watching the games since he co-chaired the first contest with the Knights of Columbus in 1975. He has seen state champions, and even an international champion, come out of the Pittsfield contest. "I'm not athletically inclined," Divirgilio said. "I enjoy it because it's for the kids. Somebody's got to do something for the youngsters."

To reach Nathan Mayberg:
nmayberg@berkshireeagle.com
or (413) 496-6243