Amin Bryant (above) and Archbishop Ryan graduated a big senior class that led the Raiders to consecutive PCL semifinals. (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.)
The class of 2017 made history for the Archbishop Ryan basketball program.
Two years ago, led by a group of juniors, Archbishop Ryan made the Philadelphia Catholic League’s final four, it’s first appearance since 2008.
Last year, once again led by four seniors -- Izaiah Brockington, Fred Taylor, Chris Palantino, and Matiss Kulackovskis -- Ryan not only made it back-to-back PCL semifinal appearances for the first time since 2001-02, but the Raiders made it all the way to the final four of the PIAA 6A state tournament, falling to eventual state champions Reading Red Knights at Temple’s Liacouras Center.
“It was a fun team to be around,” head coach Joe Zeglinski said. “Getting to the final four at the Palestra and the final four of states was a great run for Ryan as a program and we’re looking to build off of that.”
Zeglinski, a member of Archbishop Ryan’s 2006 PCL semifinal team, is entering his third year as head coach of the Raiders. After making deep runs in both the league and state tournaments, he’s caught the attention of the rest of the Catholic League.
“People taking notice will come if you play the right way and win games the way we have been the last few years,” Zeglinski said. “At Ryan, we always have respect for the community, but after going to the final four we’re going to have a bigger target on our backs.”
Three of the four recent graduates have moved on to play hoops in college. Brockington was committed to NJIT during his senior year, but opted to decommit and go to prep school. Shortly after, he decided he would in fact graduate as a member of the class of 2017, and attend St. Bonaventure. Kulackovskis is at Bowling Green, where he’ll miss this season after tearing his ACL in practice, and Taylor is at D-II West Chester.
In addition to the sheer talent on the floor for Ryan last year, Zeglinski believes these seniors left a legacy at the Northeast Philadelphia high school.
“Every practice those guys gave it everything,” he said. “We didn't have many bad practices, and that comes from the leadership of the seniors. Some of these guys know how it was last year so we’re trying to bring that to this year’s team.”
Other than the seniors, only sophomore guards Amin Bryant and Ja’Quill Stone saw meaningful minutes last season. Through practice they have listened and learned from the group of seniors, and are ready to display that on the court this season.
Bryant in particular has modeled the way Brockington plays in practice. Even off the court, Brockington has showed Bryant what it takes to be successful in all aspects of life.
“He taught me always think quickly before you do things, and how to get an edge on players,” Bryant said. “How to take certain angles, how to defend players, always do better, even in school. I wasn’t always the brightest student, but Izaiah taught me how to communicate and stay on my books.”
Bryant, a 6-4 stocky guard, averaged 7.5 points per game last season, whereas Brockington and Kulackovskis scored nearly 35 points combined per contest in Catholic League play a year ago, meaning Bryant will need to take a step up in the scoring category this season.
As a freshman, Bryant had the opportunity to see some time for the Raiders, and can cite the final four in the Palestra meaning a lot to him.
“To be a freshman at the palestra is amazing,” he said. “We’re playing in front of thousands of people and student sections. It’s awesome.”
Bryant also has a knack for rebounding the ball. Arguably the best rebounding guard in the Catholic League, Bryant is phenomenal in the paint, creating room by moving around opponents and using his quick jump to grab the ball off of the rim. In July Hartford offered him a scholarship, his only one so far.
Amin brings that toughness,” Zeglinski said of Bryant. “The team follows his attitude. If he’s playing well, it seems like we’re playing well. He been a great leader this summer.”
As for Stone, you’ll find him out on the perimeter more often. Only 6-foot, Stone makes up for his lack of height with a quick first step and a smooth jumper.
After Bryant and Stone, the rest of the Raider’s rotation will have little-to-no varsity experience.
Senior Devin Vargas, a quick 5-11 guard, should play big minutes this season. Vargas also has a quick first step, and he also causes problems for opponents when he’s on defense.
Kulackovskis and Taylor, 6-7 and 6-9, respectively, made up one of the largest front lines in the Catholic League. With the tallest player on this year’s roster being 6-4, the Raiders will need to approach their inside game plan differently than past years.
“We’re going to fight and play harder,” Zeglinski said. “Just play a different style. We’re looking to be more aggressive defensively. We don’t have a rim protector like last year, maybe we’ll double the post.”
One player the Ryan coaching staff is very high on is junior Colin Reed. He’s sprouted up to 6-4, and his jump shot has improved mightily. Since this Ryan team is vertically challenged, Reed will also need to spend some time in the paint.
Ryan will start the year by hosting Boys Latin on December 9. Other notable non-conference opponents include Malvern Prep, Overbrook, Smyrna (Del.), and Shipley.
With new players coming in to different roles, this year’s Ryan team will be adjusting and learning to play with each other.
“We’re trying to figure out rotations and lineups,” Zeglinski said. “We’re young, which is good, and each day is someone different stepping up. They like playing with each other. They are a little undersized, but as long as they are playing our offense and taking the right shots we’ll be alright.”