Thanksgiving brought us brutally stinging cold temperatures, while the early throes of December dumped something we haven’t seen in awhile across the Philadelphia region: ample snowfall.
So let’s ditch the cold and head inside the warm gymnasiums for another fantastic season of high school basketball.
With a plethora of area teams vying for postseason glory across two leagues, hopes are high as we churn closer to Christmas and the new year. Who will rise up in 2013-14? Here’s a closer look at the programs:
Last season: 14-9, 9-4 league
In his time at Archbishop Ryan, Bernie Rogers has always gotten the most out of the talent he’s had. After being hit hard by graduation, the Raiders’ head coach will face one of his stiffest tests yet in the unforgiving Catholic League.
Gone is Bryan Okolo, one of the best players in the league last season, as well as key seniors Gage Galeone, Shawn Miller and Tyler Reed. Senior Brendan Horan, the second-leading scorer in league play last year, is the most experienced guy back on a team that fell to Archbishop Carroll in the quarterfinals.
“We’re very young, experience-wise, but we do have seniors who have come up through the program,” Rogers said. “We have some talent, and these guys are looking for their chance. We’ll go through some ups and downs, but we’ll improve along the way.”
In addition to Horan, Rogers mentioned seniors Matt Dever, Chris Marshall and Nick Heuser as players who will need to step up in the league, which is “so fun and challenging, but also sometimes a little scary,” Rogers said with a laugh.
“You hope the younger guys who have been around understand the culture,” he said. “I want them to see how hard Bryan worked and competed, and hopefully that rubs off on them. The margin for error is not big, so as usual we’ll have to do all the little things right to compete in a league that’s so good.”
Last season: 10-12, 5-8
Speaking of new faces, Judge head coach Sean Tait’s got a few of those as well.
After graduating their most experienced players in Sean Hanna, Brandon McGuire and Jeff Siegafuse and losing Malik Robinson via transfer, things look a bit different for the Crusaders. They’re young (senior Johnmike O’Connor is the only senior expected to get major minutes) and talented, so much so that Tait thinks Judge will be a formidable Catholic League team … he’s just not sure when.
“A lot of these kids haven’t been through it yet, so how will we be?” Tait asked. “Ask me in mid-January.”
In addition to O’Connor, veteran junior point guard Will Brazukas returns, and he’ll be joined in the rotation by junior Pat Mulville and sophomore Quincy Reed (both up from JV), while transfers Aaron Curry (Constitution) and Jamir Coleman (Germantown, after spending a year in Georgia) will need to step up. Sophomore Justin Fleming and heralded freshman Mark Rodriguez are also expected to contribute.
“We have the same goals every year,” Tait said. “We want to be lucky enough to be a playoff team in this league, which we’ve done in my four years here. I like our size, smarts and athleticism, and it’s important for this young group to find some early success.”
Public League: Division A
Last season: 10-12, 6-5
The top division in the city’s most packed league, featuring perennial powers such as Imhotep, Constitution and Math, Civics & Sciences, dwindled from 12 teams to six in the offseason. If you think Frankford bailed on facing top-line competition, then you don’t know Dave Huzzard.
“I had to fight to stay in ‘A.’ They wanted to dump us down, but I’d rather be 0-10 in ‘A’ than 8-2 in ‘B’ and not see our guys play the best teams in the city,” Frankford’s head coach said. “You get more exposure playing against teams that have won state titles.”
Frankford won a playoff game over Northeast last season and brings back a large part of its core, including seniors Joe Ricketts, Aaron McFarlan and Rob Simmons, as well as junior guard Quadire Truesdale, whom Huzzard is very high on. Newer names to keep an eye on are juniors Mussa Ba, Ladji Fofana and the 6-foot-6 Odanis Betances, a transplant from New York.
“We haven’t played with consistency yet, and I’m not picking us to win the A Division,” Huzzard said. “But there’s people saying we’ll be the cellar dweller, and I think we’ll surprise a few people if we keep getting better. It’s nice we have guys back with experience, so they won’t be nervous wrecks out on the court.”
Last season: 14-9, 9-3
John Creighton won Division B in his first season as GW’s head coach. In order to repeat, he’ll have to do so without his top two scorers.
Gone is senior Kendale Truitt, who graduated, as well as his younger brother, Devante, who transferred to a charter school. The duo represented one of the most fearsome 1-2 scoring punches in the city.
“It’s a major change, because you’re talking about replacing 40 points a game,” Creighton said. “Now, we’re going to look at a more balanced, motion offense approach.”
Creighton does bring back six players, with 6-foot-4 senior James Cottrell and senior point guard Khyree Hunt-Hawkins being headliners.
“We lost a lot, but we’ll still be competitive in every single game,” Creighton said. “I take it game by game, so I don’t have much of an outlook yet, other than we’re going to play our tails off and be in every game. We have really good kids who get good grades and are well-behaved. It’s all coming together at the perfect time.”
Last season: 8-11, 4-8
Samuel Fels head coach Mark Heimerdinger doesn’t have much in the way of experience when it comes to his roster, but he knows the only way for the program to go is up with so many fresh faces, some of whom have never played at the varsity level.
“We’ll be inexperienced, lots of sophomores and juniors,” Heimerdinger said. “We’re going to be young, and I want them to understand we have to improve, and that starts with understanding the game, both physically and mentally.”
Junior forwards James Bishop and Sami Arrington have been the most consistent players so far for the Panthers. After that, it’s a lot of unknown for Heimerdinger, who has been a high school basketball coach in Philadelphia for parts of four decades. His extensive experience on the sidelines will only help his youthful team.
“I’m always excited this time of year,” he said. “This team works hard and they come to practice every day. We have depth at certain positions, which should help us. All I can tell you now is that by January, I hope we’ve grown enough to put ourselves in position for a playoff run.”
Last season: 5-13, 4-8
Al Brown’s favorite part of the massive Public League is its unpredictability.
The Lincoln head coach, who returns some talent to a team that finished in the bottom half of Division C last year, says the beginning of a new season is what excited him the most.
“It’s very exciting, sure, because right now we’re all on the same playing field,” he said. “Who’s going to step up and be an X-factor? Who will bring the consistency? You practice hard, but in intense game situations, how will guys do? How will they deal with adversity and success?”
These are all questions Brown hopes his Railsplitters can answer in time, and he thinks he’s got the talent to win. Blair Bowes, who started as a freshman, will man the point. Senior Raymond Fred is expected to be a capable scorer, and junior Ishmael Marshall and senior Zyhir Baker-Elam add defensive energy and intensity.
“Every day in practice we work and we build on the momentum we’ve had,” Brown said. “The greatest gift of coaching is to see them execute something how you practiced it. We’re just trying to teach them to play the game the right way.”
Last season: 13-4, 9-3
Coming off a fantastic season, Ira Stern doesn’t want to hear about a potential drop-off due to a high graduation rate.
“We lost eight guys, so we’re going to win games with preparation,” said Stern, entering his second season as Northeast’s head coach. “We’re teaching them that we can beat teams if we prepare enough, which is why we practice three hours a day, five days a week.”
One of the few returners is junior guard Elmange Watson, who Stern hopes averages around 15 points a game. Stern loves guard Deshaun Brown’s shooting, and Tyriq Wilson, Will Okrafo-Smart and 6-foot-9 Dalvin Johnson are all names to keep an eye on.
“Our goal is to win Division C,” Stern said. “We won’t score as much last year, so we’d like to score 60 and give up 40. Our philosophy remains the same: we’re going to box out, rebound and run the floor. If we play our game, nobody’s beating us.”
Franklin Towne Charter
Last season: 11-6, 7-5
Chris Lauber lost three of his top seniors from his first year as Franklin Towne’s head coach, but that hasn’t diminished his enthusiasm heading into year two.
Gone are top scorer Steve Smith, as well as heavy contributors Naje Benton and Thomas Whitfield. But second leading scorer Ryan Boyd is back, and Lauber said “the team will run through him.” Junior transfer Ishmael Lanzo has some ability, and seniors Mike Kessler and Demetrius Frye are ready for larger roles.
“We have a lot of potential,” Lauber said. “This year feels new for everyone, but our goal is still to make the playoffs, which we did last year for the first time out of Division D. They’re more familiar with the offense in year two, and now we can better identify our struggles and see what we need to focus on in practice.”
One thing remains clear: Lauber is less stressed out this time around.
“Things are a lot calmer, a lot more forward moving than just being in the moment,” he said. “I’m very excited for the kids. They are great student-athletes and great people, and we have a lot of friends on this team. They had a taste of the playoffs, but that wasn’t enough. Now, when you mention the playoffs, it’s not a question of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’ We’re all excited, and it’s rubbing off on one another.” ••