Austin Laughlin (above) is one of the area's leading returning scorers at over 22 ppg. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(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.)
Garnet Valley basketball has come a long way in a relatively short period of time.
Head coach Mike Brown knows there’s a little further still for his Jaguars to go.
When Brown took over the Jags six years ago, it was a Garnet Valley program that had won three games in three seasons, total. With southern Delaware County experiencing a population explosion in the last 15 years, Garnet Valley’s student population had necessitated a move up to the Central League and the “large school” classifications of the PIAA, and the athletics needed some time to catch up.
Last year, Garnet Valley celebrated a state title in girls’ volleyball and a second-place finish in the District 1 football tournament; the Garnet’s girls’ lacrosse team has won three state championships in the last five years.
This could be the year the basketball team joins that group of Jaguars teams who have made it through to PIAA state tournament competition.
Last season, Garnet Valley went 14-8 in the regular season (9-7 Central League), including a pair of wins over league powerhouse Lower Merion. Though they barely missed out on the league playoffs, it was good enough to earn the Jaguars the No. 16 seed in the District 1 6A playoffs, and a first-round home game against Methacton.
That was where the biggest breakthrough yet occurred.
A 49-45 win over the Warriors was the Jaguars’ first playoff victory since that move up in classification 10 years prior, and though they lost in the second round to top seed Perkiomen Valley and then in the play-back round to No. 9 Spring-Ford, that wasn’t enough to spoil a successful year.
“I think we had a great year last year,” said 6-1 senior guard Connor O’Brien. “[We’re] looking to build off it and go even further, we have a lot of guys coming back so we can have a better team this year.”
O’Brien and classmate Austin Laughlin will be the headliners this year, though the Jaguars return four of five starters from last season. Only Brandon Starr, who averaged 18.3 ppg as a senior, is gone; the 6-2 guard is now on the roster at D-II University of the Sciences (Pa.).
With so much experience back, Garnet Valley has enjoyed a strong offseason. Playing in a spring league in Octorara and one in Mount Pleasant (Del.), as well as at several other shootouts, O’Brien estimated the Jaguars ripped off 20 straight wins at one point. Brown didn’t dispute the assertion, saying only “we’ve been doing well, yeah.”
Last year’s leading scorer at just over 22 ppg, Laughlin is a rangy 6-3 guard who can pull up and score from just about anywhere within 30 feet. He came up with some heroics last year, nailing a half-court shot in an overtime win over Lower Merion that served as a big boost midway through the season.
“[I’ve been working on] going to the rim a lot more,” he said. “I think I settled a lot last year, shooting 3s a lot, but I need to get to the rim, get fouled, get to the line and get some easy points there.”
Connor O'Brien (above) gives the Jaguars an experienced No. 2 scorer and ball-handler. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
O'Brien, a sharpshooting point guard, isn't as flashy as Laughlin but also was a double-figure scorer; in the district playoff win, he contributed 12 points, seven assists and three rebounds.
Also returning are a trio of players who will join the team a little late in the preseason due to football: 6-0 senior guard Danny Guy, 5-10 junior guard Cole Palis and 6-5 junior Cade Brennan.
Brennan’s development will be crucial, as the second-year starter becomes one of the bigger centers in the Central League now that Strath Haven’s John Harrar is at Penn State.
“We’re a team without much size, with (Brennan) he makes us a lot bigger and a lot tougher, too,” Brown said. “He’s our toughest big man, and he keeps getting better as well. His progression from freshman to sophomore year, if he duplicates that for junior year, he’ll be a lot better.”
Making the step up from junior varsity to varsity this year are 6-3 junior guard Greg Vlassopoulos and 6-3 wing forward Mehkhi Stephens, both of whom could compete with Palis for the starting spot vacated by Starr.
Before O’Brien, Laughlin and their classmates depart, they have a chance to impart quite a bit of knowledge on the next group to come.
Brown calls his incoming freshman class the best he’s had in his six seasons, and mentioned that there’s several who could be in the running for varsity minutes right away. At a preseason scrimmage event at Spooky Nook Sports earlier in the month, 5-4 guard Carl Schiller and 6-2 guard Neel Beniwal both had their moments while running with the rest of the varsity squad.
“The freshmen even push us in workouts because they’re so eager to play, and we’re telling them advice so they can do what we did, keep coming up in the program, get better and better,” O’Brien said. “The younger guys see what we did, and they really want a part of that.”
“The seniors -- but Connor and Austin in particular -- demonstrate by ‘A,’ showing up at everything, every open gym, every game we play, and ‘B,’ working as hard or harder [than everybody else],” Brown said. “It sounds like typical coach speak again, [but] if they’re not the two hardest workers, they’re close to it. The freshmen look at them and they see why we’ve increased our wins every year under these guys.”
Though the youth might be exciting for the Jaguars’ future, the veteran leadership is crucial when playing in a Central League whose conference games start the second week of the season.
After opening the year with Downingtown East and Unionville at the Unionville tipoff, Garnet Valley gets Ridley and then a trip to Lower Merion immediately following. A stumble there puts them behind the 8-ball in terms of making it to the 12-team league’s four-team playoffs come February. A pair of wins sends a big notice to the rest of the league, as well as District 1.
But unlike in the past, Garnet Valley isn’t looking at those games as probable losses anymore. Not even close.
“Winning is fun,” Brown said, “and we win a lot now.”