Princeton commit Drew Friberg (above) and State College are coming off the program's first Mid-Penn Commonwealth Championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
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 2017-18 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
Drew Friberg won’t forget how encouraging it felt last winter when he’d be navigating one of State College High School’s hectic hallways and he’d repeatedly encounter someone offering a number of positives about one of the Little Lions’ recent basketball outings — and, most likely, a win.
Even State High’s instructors were quick to commend the talented youngsters who thrilled many in Pennsylvania’s heartland whenever they pulled on their jerseys and laced up their sneakers.
Since there were plenty of victories celebrated over the course of last season — even several championships — one can understand why Friberg and his buddies are looking for a repeat.
Not just one, however, but several times over.
Buoyed by the return of several starters from a State High club that collared its first Mid-Penn Commonwealth Division championship and captured the sprawling circuit’s postseason tournament for the first time, there’s a reason why expectations are mighty lofty among the Little Lions.
Basically, why stop at one title when there might be several more within reach?
“Oh, yeah, for sure. That’s a big goal of ours,” the sweet-shooting 6-7 Friberg said last month at a preseason event in South Jersey. “That’s up there, to defend our title.
“All the guys are hungry, too. They want to keep winning, so we can keep it going.”
Well, State High (21-5) certainly won plenty last season as Joe Walker’s program outdistanced hammers such as Carlisle, Harrisburg and Central Dauphin East to secure the school’s first Mid-Penn Commonwealth Division championship since entering the league prior to the 2012-13 campaign.
For those who weren’t paying attention, all three of those aforementioned Commonwealth Division teams reached states last season and won opening-round games.
State High added to its neat haul by knocking off Trinity (71-63) and Mechanicsburg (77-68) to claim the Mid-Penn’s postseason event, also for the first time. While the Little Lions popped long-standing rival Altoona a week or so later to win yet another District 6 Class 6A title, they weren’t done yet.
Walker’s Little Lions sidelined Woodland Hills (82-71) in the opening round of the PIAA’s Class 6A tournament, but their season ended in the second round with a loss to Butler (53-50) in overtime.
Yet while it’s wonderful to reminisce from time to time — State High played an independent schedule for years before joining the Mid-Penn, so a league title is a big deal — these Little Lions want more.
“Going in, we knew Carlisle, Harrisburg and CD East were all going to be tough, but we were picked fourth at the beginning of the preseason and they took that to heart,” said Walker, who is beginning his fourth season at the State High helm. “I mean they were upset.
“They thought they were a little disrespected, especially since we beat Harrisburg the year before at the end of the season and we split with Carlisle. They felt that was a slight last year and this year they have their eyes set. We talked about climbing the ladder and they want to do a little bit better.
“Of course, our hope is to repeat,” Walker added. “But you don’t want to get ahead of yourselves, because [the Commonwealth Division] is so tough night-in and night-out.”
While the Commonwealth is extremely tough — especially since State High may have to travel 150 miles just to play division rival Chambersburg — a second straight title is within reach.
Especially since the Princeton-bound Friberg, a third-team Class 6A all-state selection after averaging a team-high 17.3 points and 6.1 rebounds per contest, is back for his final season.
Named a first-team Commonwealth Division all-star for the second time, Friberg canned 42 percent of his 3-point looks, bagged 54 percent of his field-goal tries and shot 88 percent from the stripe.
“He’s just so intelligent with the basketball and off the basketball,” Walker said. “Reading situations, pace of the game, angles and where somebody’s going to be.
“He’s not the most athletic guy, but he makes up for it with how smart he is.”
Hardly content with his game, Friberg’s been working on some new tricks that certainly will help him this season and even after his senior year when he reaches the Ivy League.
“I’ve been trying to get quicker off the bounce, just working on my handle and stuff,” Friberg said. “I’m also trying to work on the mid-range and pull-up game, because shooting is probably my best thing.
“I know people are going to be closing out hard, so if I can just get a pump fake and a one-dribble pull-up I think that will be a big help.”
Friberg also should get plenty of help from his State High teammates, particularly since the Little Lions return a number of players from the rotation they employed last season.
We’ll start with 6-5 senior Ryan McNulty, who popped off the bench and dropped 21 in a win at Harrisburg, but 6-5 junior Tommy Friberg, 6-0 junior Keaton Ellis and 6-5 senior Brandon Clark also played a lot and even started for Walker’s Little Lions at some point.
Friberg, the younger brother of Drew Friberg, is State High’s starting quarterback. Ellis already has committed to play football at Penn State, while Clark will head across town to PSU to play football as a preferred walk-on. Clark is the son of former Nittany Lion All-American Bruce Clark.
Two other seniors, 6-3 Max Benner and 6-1 Ben Shaffer, are capable veterans who will play. Sophomores such as 6-2 Nate Lusk and 6-2 Johnny Friberg — another of Drew’s younger brothers — also figure to log quality minutes whenever Walker wants to put a fresh youngster on the floor.
All of them will try to compensate for the loss of Tommy Sekunda (16.6 ppg/3.4 rpg), a Commonwealth Division all-star who now plays in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference at Seton Hill.
“Obviously, we’re gonna miss him a lot,” Drew Friberg said of Sekunda. “He provided a lot of offense for us, but we’ve got guys who can step up. There were a couple games when Keaton had a lot of points. McNulty had 21 points at Harrisburg off the bench. Tommy, my little brother, can score, too.
“Their roles will increase and they’ll get the ball more,” Drew Friberg added. “We’ve been playing together for a while, so we know each other pretty well. We’re really excited.”
While State High will play 14 games against its rugged Commonwealth Division playmates, the Little Lions will host a pair of tournaments as they’ve done for years. Regional rivals such as Williamsport, Hollidaysburg and Altoona also await, as does a date with reigning 6A state champ Reading.
“I’m excited to play Reading,” admitted Walker, whose Little Lions will play the Red Knights in a showcase at Trinity. “The more competition and high-level teams you play [makes you better].”
While Walker believes improved ball security and rebounding are keys to the Little Lions backing up last season’s championships with another successful run, the Commonwealth Division always features a series of stern tests that will give State High a really good idea where it stands.
“Game in and game out, all the teams are tough,” Drew Friberg admitted. “You never get an easy one and so that kind of helps us prepare. It prepared us for the state playoffs.
“Unfortunately we lost to Butler and they were a great team. It’s a confidence booster to know we were the top team out of that division, so we want to win it again.”
“Yeah, expectations are high,” Walker added. “When you’ve got a player like Drew coming back and we’re surrounding him with great athletes … [that means we hope to have] another high-ceiling, high year and high expectations. Goal is to win Mid-Penn. Goal is to win the district. And the goal is to win the state championship, but we’ll see how it goes.
“We won our first state game last year, but we didn’t play as well as we wanted in the second round,” Walker continued. “So, hopefully, this year will be different.”
One thing State High hopes doesn’t change is that positive hallway chatter, but the Little Lions know they have to win games to keep the good vibes flowing between classes.
“It’s still a small town, aside from the university, and you know everyone,” a grinning Drew Friberg said. “Last year when we were having success, teachers would say, ‘Congrats on the game.’
“That was really special and we want that feeling again. I’m excited.”