Eric Burnett (above) enters his fourth season at Phoenixville without much in the way of returning varsity minutes. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Tyler Sandora (@tyler_sandora)
(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 2017-18 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
Since the time he was hired as Phoenixville’s head coach prior to the 2014-15 season, Eric Burnett been able to rely on some experience in the rotation.
Taking over a program which finished 8-15 just a year before he arrived, Burnett, a Spring-Ford graduate, led the Phantoms to a 19-8 record in his first year. One year later, with star senior forward Christian Kelly leading the Phantoms, Phoenixville finished 20-6. And last season, with seniors Avery Close and Shyheim Abernathy leading the way, they finished 17-9, making the District 1 playoffs for the third time in Burnett’s three years.
In each of those three seasons, Burnett has entered the year with returning starters, or players with at least significant varsity experience from years prior.
That’s what’s different about this year’s team.
Close (Gettysburg) and Abernathy (DeSales) are both playing college basketball. Only current senior Brendan Jenkins and junior Colton Brown saw varsity minutes last year, with both players only really getting garbage time at the end of games.
“We’re essentially returning 8-10 minutes [per game] at the varsity level,” Burnett said.
Though a majority of this year’s team doesn’t have experience at the varsity level, Burnett and the Phantoms do have some optimism for this squad. They all played together last year on a successful JV team, creating great chemistry throughout the team.
“It’s been fun to see the progress,” Burnett said. “They really came together as a JV team last year, and they stuck together. They work hard and get in the gym together outside of the open gyms. You can see that starting to pay off.”
Burnett will turn to a trio of seniors to have a big impact on this year’s team. Tim Kopera, a 6-1 bruiser, and Jenkins, a lanky 6-6 big man, will play down low in the paint. Zion Small, a 6-2 athletic combo guard who can score from all over the court, will be looked upon to provide points out of the backcourt.
“The class is small, but they’re making great strides,” Burnett said. “They do what the coach asks for and they’re a coach's dream. They’re very talented and tremendous to coach.”
Jenkins missed the majority of his freshman and sophomore years with injuries to his knees and ankle, but he’s primed for a big senior year. His post moves are still being refined, but Jenkins is one of the more versatile big men in the PAC, using his mid-range jumper to draw opponents out onto him, with the ability to blow by them and finish at the rim. Penn State-Brandywine, Moravian, and Albright have all been in contact with the big man.
Now a senior, Jenkins is excited to finish out his career as a leader, using what he’s learned from previous players to put on display this year.
“It’s a lot more responsibility, but I’m ready to take on the role,” Jenkins said. “I’ve been getting in the weight room getting my weight up. I've been getting my post moves down in practice. I think it’s a good role for me, I think I can handle it and I’m excited to see what I've got.”
Joining Small in the backcourt is a pair of junior guards, Brown, and K.J. Quinn. Both 5-11 guards, Brown and Quinn can both shoot the lights out, and have very high basketball I.Q.’s. Both prioritize defense as something to work on, knowing they can depend on one another on offense.
Another name to keep an eye on for the Phantoms is Steven Hamilton, a 6-3 sophomore point guard whom the Phoenixville coaching staff is rather excited about.
Throughout open gyms and summer leagues, Burnett has seen lots of improvement in his young team. Whether it’s weight lifting or skill development, the Phantoms continue to make strides to improve their game.
“I know defensively we’re going to be really tough,” Burnett said. “We’re unselfish, they love to pass and share the ball. We have some shooters who can spread the floor. Our IQ is at an all time high, we can understand the game and angles and rotations.”
Brown in particular can testify to the results of Burnett’s skill development After working together on Brown’s game, Brown has seen his game change for the better in countless ways.
“He’s taught me everything I know about basketball,” Brown said. “He fixed my shot, taught me defense first, I wasn’t the best defender going into high school, but I like to think I’m pretty good now and that’s all credit to him. Just team comes first, and no individual play.”
Playing in the Pioneer Athletic Conference’s Frontier Division against teams such as Pottsgrove, Upper Perkiomen, and Pope John Paul II, Phoenixville hopes to sneak into the Final Five, the conference’s second-year playoff template. The top two teams from the Frontier and Liberty divisions plus one wildcard make a run towards the PAC championship.
“They’re excited, I’m excited and I think they have what it takes to shock some people,” Burnett said. “I’m not calling it a rebuilding mode because that’s not what it is, but we have the right guys who are working hard and doing the right things and that’s all I can ask for.”