Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2016-17 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
HARRISBURG — D.J. Cooper may have been in fourth grade at the time — and playing football, not basketball, was his thing — but he and his mother were enthralled by the hoops team that thrilled Central Dauphin East’s vast family some eight years back. Checked out as many games as possible.
Cooper was even jumping back and forth between Giant Center’s plush seats on that historic Saturday in Hershey when Bruce Leib masterfully guided East to a methodical yet decisive 63-54 victory over previously undefeated York High in the District 3-AAAA final.
Even now, every time Cooper wanders into East’s gymnasium and takes yet another look at the west wall, he’s reminded of the Panthers’ lone District 3 hoops crown by the conspicuous banner that hangs there commemorating an enduring feat.
Heck, Cooper even recalls the players and coaches who got it done.
Whether it was guards such as Jon Breeden or Demond Bates or Amani Glenn or Christyan DeVan, Cooper can picture them all. Yet, he’s also constantly reminded of bigs such as Terrence Kellum, Brian Chatman and Kevin Onyeaka.
“I was there. I was in the stands screaming,” Cooper recalled. “It was always me and my Mom coming to the games and I didn’t even play basketball at the time. I was a football player — but I would come here and every time Demond Bates would shoot, I’d stand up like this with a three and every time Monnie scored I’m sitting there screaming.
“I was always hyped. I was always the little kid jumping around,” Cooper added. “I was proud to be part of the district.”
So much so that Cooper, a 6-3 senior defensive standout for Don Ross’ Panthers, wants to bring more and more acclaim to a surging East basketball program flush with capable talent, enthusiasm and an unquenchable drive that’s thirsting for success.
Ross, who spent the better part of two decades as an assistant coach at nearby Harrisburg High before relocating last season to East, got several close-up looks at Leib’s 2009 club and appreciates what the Panthers accomplished in the past.
At the same time, he’s quick to point out what’s possible going forward.
“He always talks about that being up there,” Cooper said. “Every practice we have, he always talks about there’s only one banner up there for basketball. He’s like, ‘I’m here to change that culture. I’m here to change the culture of how people talk about East.
“That just gives us a boost of confidence,” Cooper added. “I’m on the same page and I’m tired of seeing only one banner up there.”
“It shows what can be done here,” Ross countered.
While Ross guided his first East squad to a 14-10 record and a spot in the District 3-AAAA playoffs, last season’s accomplishments were merely a taste of what the Panthers hope to accomplish since a lopsided loss at Spring Grove brought everything to a close.
Generated plenty of humility, too.
“Man, knowing that we were all juniors last year and stuff, it fuels us tremendously,” said 6-1 senior guard Evan Chandler. “We went out feeling like we left so much on the table. We had so much talent that I think the experience of our past snuck back on us.”
“That left a sour taste,” added 5-5 senior dynamo Justin Henry, the Panthers’ point guard. “We were ready, but we didn’t come out of the gates ready.”
So they went back to work.
Whether it was in a local summer league or in Philadelphia or somewhere in the Lehigh Valley or another distant locale, Ross and his players piled into vans and hit the road. While they bonded plenty, they also encountered lots of quality opposition.
“Right now the best basketball, maybe in the world, is being played in Philly, in the Jersey-Philly-D.C. corridor,” Ross said. “So, why wouldn’t we go down there and see who it is and what it is? When you’re playing against Constitution and schools like that regularly, you get an idea of what you’re up against.
“One of the things at this school that we changed is that guys wanted to be the best player at East and we were like, ‘So what?’ Ross added. “We want people to know our school, that’s why we get out. We like to travel. The guys are generally closer.”
In the meantime, their collective expectations never wavered.
“The goal is to win it all. Myself personally, I made it to the Elite Eight my sophomore year so I know what it takes to make it through the districts,” cracked 6-9 Brennen Jackson, the senior big man who arrived at East prior to last season from Harrisburg.
“I know what you have to do and what you have to work at,” Jackson continued. “We’re all older. We’re all more mature. The leadership is taking over. We’ve all been through the fire now, so it’s just time to take over.”
Be successful, if you will, on a number of levels. Hey, there’s no false bravado here. It's matter-of-fact stuff that's spilled regularly.
“Our goal is to win the league, the district and the state championship,” said Ross, whose East staff includes former Harrisburg greats Demone Maxwell and Dajuann Greene as well as erstwhile Steel-High stars Tramayne Hawthorne and Ryan Hill.
“That’s why they work. … Everybody should have that goal. Why lace them up if you don’t? I do think we have the talent, if things fall in place. Why not?”
With nine members of his rotation returning and several talented transfers adding even more depth, East should be right in the chase with Carlisle, Harrisburg and State College for the Mid-Penn’s Commonwealth Division title.
In addition to Henry, Chandler and Cooper, East’s remarkably deep, athletic backcourt also features 6-0 senior Jordan Gillis, 5-11 senior Naseen Thomas, 6-2 junior Jaylen Hawthorne, 6-0 sophomore Jordan McCraw and 6-1 senior Ty Little.
Hawthorne is Tramayne Hawthorne’s brother, McCraw pocketed 10-plus points per outing and was one of the leading scorers last season at nearby Susquehanna Twp., and Little shipped in from neighboring Steelton-Highspire.
“No one’s better than the other person by that much, so it makes everyone push their game to a different level,” said Chandler, who ran cross country in the fall for the first time in an effort to take his conditioning to an even higher level.
“It’s very pleasing knowing that every day is a working day.”
Joining Jackson and, at times, Cooper up front will be agile 6-5 junior Terry Danner and 6-2 senior Travis Biney. Of course, someone else could emerge.
East will need everyone since Ross and athletic director Greg Goldthorp devised a terrific nonleague gauntlet to go along with a rugged Commonwealth Division slate that will test the Panthers each and time they step on the floor.
While scraps with West York, Hazleton, Stroudsburg, McCaskey, John Bartram, Williamsport and Steel-High are definites, the Panthers could wind up colliding with Milton Hershey during the season’s opening weekend.
“It’s gonna be a challenge, too, but we’re built for it,” Henry said.
These Panthers certainly will give it a terrific shot.
And if things go the way everyone hopes, maybe some special things will follow — such as a sparkling record, championships and perhaps even another banner.
“That’s the goal,” Jackson admitted.
“Senior year is big. Every day I think about it and there’s no more high school basketball after this, so I look at that banner up all the time and I want one of those,” Chandler said. “I think about the legacy of our school and in 10-15 years I want to come back and have someone say, ‘That’s him on the wall.’”
Even Cooper weighed in.
“It’s the last go around and all I can say is I just want to give everything I have,” Cooper added. “We’re feeling a lot more confident. Last year we were pretty much getting our feet wet. And when we found out that we can really do something and we’re all on the same page, we can be beasts on the court.
“We’re trying to set the tone now and leave a mark that this group of guys may be leaving, but that we set the tone for the next group of guys.”
While showing that next group of guys what East basketball is capable of.