Demetrius Isaac (above) is one of three key seniors who will lead the charge for Chestnut Hill this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of our 2017-18 season coverage, which will run for the six weeks preceding the first official games of the year on Nov. 10. To access all of our high school and college preview content for this season, click here.)
Last year, Jesse Balcer hoped, would be the one his Chestnut Hill Griffins broke through.
His team was coming off a 13-15 season that was its best win total in four years, the last time it made the Central Athletic Collegiate Conference (CACC) postseason tournament. Though he had graduated leading scorer Luke Dickson, Balcer was returning a pair of talented juniors in Eddie McWade and Demetrius Isaac, and felt the addition of several transfers would make the Griffins competitive once again for a CACC title.
Instead, it was a disappointing season for Chestnut Hill, which dealt with chemistry and injuries issues during a 13-game losing streak that followed a 4-4 start to the season, resulting in a 5-21 season that was the worst in Balcer’s 14 years at the school, the last 10 of which have been spent as a member of the NCAA’s second division.
To get things going back in the right direction, Balcer will lean heavily on three seniors: 6-8 center Chris Evans (12.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg), 5-10 Demetrius Isaac (12.0 ppg, 3.8 apg) and 6-4 Ed Wade (9.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg). Wade won’t be ready at the beginning of the season after tearing his ACL and MCL during practice midway through last season, but Balcer is hopeful to have him back on the court at some point this year.
That trio, along with junior guard Liban Awl (9.3 ppg), sophomores Nasir Bell (5.3 ppg) and Keith Williams (2.6 ppg) and junior forward Tony Toplyn (4.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg) are joined by six newcomers: freshmen Trevonn Pitts (Cheltenham), Richard Dean (Bensalem) and Colin Flach (Roman Catholic) as well as JUCO transfers Roman Letterlough, Cartier Talford and Dexter Thompson.
CoBL recently spoke with Balcer about his hopes for a bounce-back year, another group of newcomers and what he learned from last season.
Here’s a (copy-edited) transcript of our conversation:
CoBL: Last year obviously did not go the way you guys wanted it to go. Now that you’ve had some time to reflect on it, where did you see things go wrong?
Balcer: I think last year was a great learning experience for me as a coach, there were just some things early on in the season that I could have nipped in the bud that I didn’t. You reap what you sow, and I didn’t do a good job early on, and it came back to haunt us. Nothing we didn’t already know, but everything has to do with the character of your kids, and last year I thought we had some questionable members of the team last year, and it hurt us.
But anybody that was a problem is not here, and the guys that we have returning played a lot last year through all that bad stuff and gained experience in the process. So we have a lot of new faces this year on top of the fact that we have addition by subtraction. I think the main thing I learned was more about coaching a program as opposed to X’s and O’s, because that wasn’t really what it was about.
CoBL: JJ Butler was only with you guys for one year, now he’s around as an assistant coach. I guess you liked him enough to keep him around?
Balcer: A lot of my assistants played for me. Brandon Williams played for me, Julian McFadden played for me, Dan Burke played for me. (Butler is) good, he’s going to be a good coach, he’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic. He’s a really good kid and he’s doing a real good job. He works with the guards, he did play Division I for three years so he’s got some knowledge.
CoBL: Last year we were focused on two important juniors, and I know Eddie’s hurt, but it seems like you have now three important seniors as Chris Evans took a big step forward. Is he now in that group?
Balcer: I think it’s huge, one of the positives that came out of last year was that I was forced to play Chris Evans as much as I did, and found out how much of a scorer he obviously was, and that’s forced him to continue to work hard in the offseason, he looks great this year. We have a legit center that’s got some size, and can really shoot it, and now has a lot of experience as well because of the way everything panned out last year. So some good did come out of it.
Eddie’s still rehabbing, he’ll be back this year, but I’m not sure when yet. He tore his ACL, his MCL, his meniscus. He did a number on it.
CoBL: With Eddie back, you’ve got your top four scorers back. After that, you’ve got a couple of sophomores who saw some time last year. Who are you looking to take a step forward?
Balcer: I think Nas [Bell] looks really good, a lot of what he did last year, very athletic, he’s worked on his jump shot, he’s a very good defender. He’s a Swiss Army knife who does a little bit of everything. He’s in good shape, getting up and down the floor well. I’m expecting a lot ut of Nas.
And Keith Williams [has] looked a little better as well. Keith also benefitted from all the playing time last year. When he did play, he was pretty productive. He put himself in a position that I’m taking a look at him in the rotation because of the way he played last year. I don’t know where we are yet in terms of where I stand, but he’s in the mix too, he looks good.
CoBL: Of your freshman coming in, anybody that you feel will play this year?
Balcer: Yeah, the kid from Cheltenham, Trevonn Pitts, he rolled his ankle so he’s not practicing right now, but he’s going to play. And Richard Dean from Bensalem. We’ll see when the time comings, we have our first scrimmage tomorrow night. Practice is one thing, get them into a game and things can change. And the other freshman I have is Colin Flach from Roman Catholic who does a nice job; I don’t think he plays much this year, but you never know.
CoBL: What about the JUCO transfers, Roman Letterlough and Cartier Talford?
Balcer: Letterlough is a junior college transfer from Lackawanna, I recruited him out of Susquehanna a couple years ago. He’s a left-handed lunch pail guy, played on a really good team at Susquehanna a couple years ago that went to the state tournament. He’s a good role player, a 6-5, 6-6 guy that hits the boards hard and can pass and kind of muck it up. And then we have Talford, out of Conrad Weiser, and he’s real good. He’s like 6-1. He’ll probably be our best player. He’s good. Real strong, can shoot, play defense. He’s good. And then a kid named Dexter Thompson who I recruited from the Hyde School in Connecticut and he ended up going to Lincoln Trail in Illinois. Three junior college transfers, three freshmen.
CoBL: So what do you want to see from this group early on in the season, what do you feel you need to focus on in practice, if you’re going ot get back to where you thought you should have been last year?
Balcer: I think that defensively we’ve been so bad that one of our main goals early on is just to develop a calling card, define what our defense is going to be like, right from the beginning. Find our identity on the defensive end. I just think offensively, we have plenty of guys who can score, it’s just a matter of [defense]. We still have Tony Toplyn coming back from his shoulder surgery, that’s going to be a big help off the bench. We do have a little bit of depth, and then Eddie will be coming back this year. I think chemistry is going to help, but early on we’re looking to see if our defense can keep us in games.