Aquil Stewart (above) chipped in four points and some terrific defense as Girard College made its second state championship game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
It’s not easy being the smallest guy on the court.
Just ask Aquil Stewart, a freshman at Girard College High School.
Standing just 5-foot-4 and weighing 97 pounds, Stewart is one of the smallest varsity players in the region. He makes the average fan think the team has let a middle school player onto the court.
Playing with a front line which boasts three players taller than 6-foot-4, Stewart definitely stands out whenever he takes the floor -- but it doesn't bother him in the slightest.
Making up for his lack of height, Stewart uses his quickness and tenacity while guarding the ball. He’s a relentless defender, harassing opposing guards with his always-moving hands and jitterbug reflexes.
Stewart’s defensive mentality is influenced by Russell Westbrook, one of the premier defenders in the NBA.
“I love playing defense,” he said. “I help us defensively, makes sure no one scores -- or at least scores easy.”
With one Cavaliers starter in early foul trouble, Stewart came off the bench and did his thing on the defensive end, adding in the occasional timely offensive spark as the Cavaliers advanced to the PIAA Class A state championship game for the first time since 2009, defeating Faith Christian 67-58.
Girard College (24-8) will take on western Pennsylvania powerhouse and defending state champion Kennedy Catholic on Thursday at the GIANT Center in Hershey. Tipoff will be at 2:00 PM.
Playing for Girard College is special for Stewart, as he grew up his entire life within the walls of the Girard Ave., Philadelphia school, which was founded in 1848 by one of the city’s wealthiest inhabitants, Stephen Girard, as a school for white male orphans; it’s now a co-ed school open to any child of a single-parent family, and is known for its academics, sending students off to Ivy League schools and many other colleges each year.
Stewart’s father Jonathan Stewart, an assistant coach on the Girard staff, has spent the last 18 years working as a resident advisor, and himself graduated from the school in 1987.
“It’s amazing is that he was with me as a coach when I won it in ‘09 with the Girard staff,” Jon Stewart said, referencing the school’s on previous trip to states, which ended victoriously. “I have a picture of him with me celebrating the final, and now here I am coaching him as his father and he’s here at Girard, it’s amazing, I never would have believed this would happen.”
“I’ve got high expectations because a lot of teachers there know my father,” said the younger Stewart. “So I know if I mess up, he’s going to hear.”
Stewart, who started for a majority of the season, has recently been coming off of the bench. While in a shooting slump as of late, the normally sharp-shooting guard he has been looked upon by the coaching staff to step up his defensive game.
“He came in tonight and defended his tail off, and he really harassed the ball-handlers,” head coach Clyde Jones said. “I’m really proud of him, he definitely impacted the game.”
Stewart has been around the Girard program for his entire life, but everybody in the starting lineup is in their first year with the team.
Mikeal Jones, a 6-foot-8 freshman, transferred in from Roman Catholic, where he won a state championship during his freshman year.
After the season, Jones decided to switch to Girard College and reclassify to the class of 2020. Girard felt like a home for Jones, as he and Stewart grew up together and consider each other as “brothers.”
Jones’ impact was felt on Monday night, as he scored 17 points and five rebounds, including a massive baseline slam with a few minutes left in the game, shifting the momentum back toward the Cavaliers bench.
Girard’s other key transfers include sophomore point guard Kasim Toliver and junior guard Daiquan Copeland.
Daiquan Copeland (above) poured in 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
While all of the “new kids on the block” played well, Copeland stole the show, scoring 22 points and reeling in 10 rebounds.
Clyde Jones inherited a program with one returning key player, sophomore forward Brandon Smith. After seeing the talent which was brought to him, he immediately began to develop the players, and make the most out of their natural abilities.
Toliver, who has never played beyond freshman basketball, has assumed the role of starting point guard on a state championship contender.
Copeland came into the program from Robeson as a natural scorer, and now has expanded his game in multiple directions under the guidance of the coaching staff at Girard College.
“For all of those guys to come here and change roles and to be counted on the way they are now, it was great to see it all come together,” Clyde Jones said.
For assistants coaches Stewart and Naseer Eggleston, both alums of the school who have been coaches for double-digit seasons -- the team’s statistician and strength trainer are also Girard alums -- they realize how special the continuity is within this team and the coaching staff.
They are able to instill in the student-athletes what it takes to be a Girardian, and what it takes to lead the kids in a positive direction.
“I really wanted that whole feeling of Girard College and family to be there for these guys, so they can look at it and see success and then buy into that whole family piece.” Clyde Jones said.
For Faith Christian, which beat previously-undefeated St. John Neumann in the quarterfinals, senior guard Zeke Snowden led the way 14 points, and junior forward Sawyer Smith added 13.
Girard took care of Faith Christian handley in the district championship, defeating them 72-40, but the rematch was much closer.
Faith Christian trailed by six after the first quarter but rallied to go up by one, 31-30 at the break. The third quarter saw the Lions extend their lead to 45-41 entering the final period, though it came at a cost -- Snowden picked up his fourth foul just seconds before the end of the third, and spent the first portion of the fourth on the bench.
As the clock started to run down, Girard began to enforce its full-court man press, which let the Cavs dictate the final minutes of the game. The Lions started to commit turnover over turnover, racking up 16 on the game, and Girard College ook advantage; it was a tie game midway through the quarter, and a 10-0 Cavaliers run left them up 59-51 with 2:09 to play.
By that point, it was only a matter of making free throws -- and Girard went 26-of-37 from the line, including 16-of-20 in the fourth quarter alone.
Now, after hiring a new athletic director, a new coach, and receiving a plethora of talented transfers, Girard College is poised to take on a challenge it hasn’t seen since 2009: a state championship game.
The Cavaliers might not have received all of the preseason hype they think they have deserved, but after winning a league and district title, the Cavaliers are not going to back down to anyone.
“When you go to District 1 and you start winning, people start to notice, when you go into the state tournament and start winning, people are going to notice,” Jones said. “They know they’re the best single-A team in this area, I know they know that.”