Rich Flanagan (@RichFlanagan33)
If Plymouth Whitemarsh needed a basket last year, every spectator, player and coach knew who the ball was going: Xzavier Malone. If Malone was doubled, Mike Lotito was the viable second option. If the opposition had managed to take those two out of the equation, Oakley Spencer or Kevin Ashenfelter could take the pressure of the two go-to guys.
Those core four contributed to a District 1 Class AAAA championship and run to PIAA semifinal appearance.
It was a season head coach Jim Donofrio remembers fondly, but his focus immediately shifted to figuring out the best way to utilize the players he had on this year’s team. He did not have that explosive scorer or reliable second option to consistently go to. He was not entirely sure where points would come from but what he had was young roster of guys who had seen firsthand what their predecessors accomplished and it rubbed off on them.
For Donofrio, fresh off his 400th career victory in an overtime win over Upper Moreland on Tuesday, it’s been a process, but his team appears to be clicking at the right time.
“They’re not quite as experienced as Xzavier or Mike. They were good decision-making guys. We’re [now] a higher turnover team,” Donofrio said. “It’s a little more loose and you have to forgive it while you’re learning. It’s also a team where Malone is your 1,000-point guy and everything centers around that guy. This team has to have four or five guys in double figures and get going in the beginning. They’re starting to figure that out.”
After defeating Pennsbury 64-48 in the Suburban One League semifinals at Bensalem High School on Saturday, Donofrio’s 401st win, the Colonials appear to have figured out the type of the team they know they have to be.
They don’t feel they need a primary scorer like Malone as evidenced by the scoring distribution: junior point guard Ish Horn had team-high 18 points, and senior guard Cheo Houston and 6-foot-10 sophomore center Naheem McLeod had 17 points apiece.
(SOL Semifinal Coverage: Abington slows down North Penn)
Not having a guy the defense can key on or shade toward keeps them guessing and has worked in the Colonials’ favor. Take Houston, for example. As a member of the Plymouth Whitemarsh’s district title team last season, he was used sparingly and contributed only when needed; now he’s a guy looked upon to provide scoring and leadership.
“I didn’t get in the game at all. I got in the game sometimes usually in the second quarter,” Houston said. “I was more of an energy who got points off of the bench. This year has been different.”
Houston credits guys like Malone, Lotito and Spencer for teaching him what it takes to win big games and be a part of the Colonials’ program. He knows waiting for your time to come makes for a more satisfying reward.
“I learned you have to be disciplined. I learned defensive [aspects] from Oakley Spencer and Mike Lotito. Xzavier taught me how to score. I learned a lot from those guys,” the senior said.
Houston isn’t the only player who was looked upon at the beginning of the season make a big jump in both minutes and overall production.
Plymouth Whitemarsh (20-3) was not seen as the favorite in the SOL and things did not get off to a great start. Despite defeating former PW grad Chuck Moore and Coatesville in the season opener, junior forward Alan Glover suffered a torn ACL and partially torn MCL less than a minute into the game.
He missed 22 games before returning on Saturday. He scored four points, and Donofrio called him “a great companion to Naheem. He brings a guard’s type of defense to the four spot.”
The Colonials earned another quality nonconference win over Constitution as well as two victories while playing in Florida during the winter break. Add in winning the season series with both Hatboro-Horsham and Cheltenham, and one would assume things were rolling for Donofrio’s squad. The 19-year head coach wasn’t sold.
"You’re trying to teach them things, have them evolve and also grow a bit. We’re young as far as experience goes,” Donofrio said. “Our final phase of this or going into our playoff run is [having] concepts and smarts in getting back to the freelance base. Let’s do the little things to win these games.”
In their win over Pennsbury, Plymouth Whitemarsh never surrendered the lead and did the little things. During one sequence in the third quarter, McLeoad missed a dunk but Horn corralled the rebound and knocked down a three-pointer in the right corner giving the Colonials a 36-26 lead at the 5:13 mark but they weren't pulling away as a team with Malone and Lotito would have.
Falcons senior Mark Flagg (St. Francis, Pa.), who finished 18 points, hit a trey then teammate Joey Monaghan finished a putback to put Pennsbury within seven. The Colonials answered as Houston recorded a steal off a inbound then senior Matt Walker nailed a momentum swinging three to push the lead to 57-45 with 3:14 left to play. Flagg shot 6-15 against the stout front line of McLeod and Glover.
Horn led the team in points against Pennsbury but Donofrio wants him to learn to slow the pace down. McLeod’s offensive is maturing but it still has a long way to go before the Colonials can continually dump it into him for a critical basket. Glover has returned but he now needs to find his way back into the rotation.
While Glover is back, captain Ahmin Williams, brother to starting forward Ahmad, injured his right foot against Upper Moreland in a way Donofrio said “took the pain to another level.” It's uncertain how much time he will miss but the hope is to have him back during district playoffs.
Donofrio has led the Colonials to four straight SOL American Division titles and on Monday against Abington the program will look to win its 13th SOL crown, which would increase the record it already holds.
Despite all of the question marks, the team has withstood the uncertainties of the preseason and will also be working toward a second consecutive District 1 title, though this time it would be in Class 6A. The course of the team can be attributed to a number of figures: Donofrio, last year’s leaders and players like Houston who are ready to lead.