Jon Bol Ajak (above) is a dominant force in the middle for Church Farm, which has to replace three starting guards. (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.)
Marc Turner may be working through some basketball-centric uncertainties as he heads into yet another season as Church Farm’s remarkably successful head coach, but his latest squad does have a number of things going for it as opening night rapidly approaches.
Considering Turner’s hoops-happy Griffins have reached the PIAA’s postseason playoffs eight of the past nine seasons since aligning with Pennsylvania’s statewide organization — including the last two in Class AA — one is history. Plus, six District 1 titles have been accrued during that stretch.
Yet while trying to piece together another terrific on-floor group — especially since a number of talented seniors departed at graduation — having a talented big man packing a wide-ranging array of skills such as 6-10, 220-pound junior centerpiece John Bol Ajak is a nice place to start.
And Turner knows it.
“We’ve lost a lot — three starters,” Turner said, referring to last season’s Church Farm outfit that finished 18-10, captured the District 1 Class AA championship and tumbled 53-49 in the opening round of the state tournament to eventual finalist Constitution.
“I lost three other kids that were major parts of our program as well due to graduation,” Turner added. “It’s a little bit of a rebuild, but no one’s gonna feel sorry for me because of John Bol Ajak.”
Already possessing somewhere between 10 and 15 Division I scholarship offers from schools up and down the Atlantic Seaboard — for instance, the big fella was in attendance just before Thanksgiving as Syracuse hosted Oakland at the Carrier Dome — Bol Ajak is one of those sizable talents who prefers to play facing the basket so he can take someone off the bounce, shoot it or find a teammate.
“He’s a very versatile big guy and can do a little bit of everything. Actually, he’s a Swiss Army Knife,” Turner cracked. “He’s not just a big kid you throw the ball to on the block and leave him alone. He can shoot it, pass it, dribble it. He’s laterally pretty quick for a big kid.
“He’s a versatile player, regardless of size. He works really hard. I know every player says they do, but he works very hard and over the summer or from last year to this year he’s paid the price for any success he gets. I’m looking forward to like a year from now, because if he progresses as much as he has the sky’s the limit for him.”
Ask Bol Ajak about the upcoming season and he’ll strongly suggest he won't be working alone — even though Turner and those on opposing benches might beg to differ — it’s simply a matter of allowing his untested teammates the time they need to adjust to varsity game speed.
“At Church Farm School, we play a team sport so it’s not about me,” insisted Bol Ajak, who was Church Farm’s No. 2 assist man a season ago. “It’s about the whole team. I think they’ll do well. I’ll just be there as John. You’ll hear a bunch of their names as soon as the season starts.
“People will put out there that we lost a lot of starters and nobody will know about them, but I think given the chance those are the type of kids that you’ll hear about,” Bol Ajak continued. “I’m not worried about it being all about me. It’ll be all about us.”
While Turner is fully aware he has a high-major talent on his hands, it’s Bol Ajak’s character and disposition that make him a hit with his teammates … and college recruiters.
“He’s doing that,” Turner admitted, referring to Bol Ajak’s influence on his up-and-coming teammates. “That’s actually the best part about him, is his personality and his leadership. In talking to these college coaches about him, I always lead with who he is as a person first because he’s special.
“He’s going to be a leader in whatever he does, that’s just who he is. It’s always nice when your best player, your most-talented player, is your best leader as well. That’s special. He reminds me a lot of a former player I had who played at Temple named Micheal Eric. Very similar. Just special young men.”
Since lead guard James Lawton and wings Augustus Veniukevicius and Faustas Kulbickas bounced off with diplomas last spring — all three started for at least the past two seasons — Bol Ajak and 6-3 senior guard Abdul Ogunsany are the returning starters Turner welcomed back.
Ogunsany actually is the lone senior on Church Farm’s roster.
“We’re a young team. We’ve got talent,” Bol Ajak said. “All the kids that are filling in for those starters are so talented, it’s just that we’re not experienced. It’ll take the first few games, but we’ll get caught up. They’ll do a good job. I trust them 100 percent.
“A few of the kids that are filling in are talented and they can do the same job that the other kids did last year,” Bol Ajak continued. “I have faith in them.”
“We just got started and we’re just figuring it out,” Turner added. “We’ve been fortunate to have had some success over a sustained period of time, and we’d like to think that’s because we do it the right way. When [these young kids] get an opportunity, hopefully they can step forward.
“Plug them in and play them at a position that makes sense for your team. I think this year is no different. John’s going to demand so much attention, it’s going to make lives a little easier for the young guys — but it also means they’re going to have to step up as well.”
While Turner continues to try to ascertain how deep his rotation can go, he has a pair of juniors in 6-4 forward Jimmy McAvoy and 6-3 guard Max Scott he believes are ready to take the sizable step up to varsity. Both spent last season on the JV squad, but they’ve been anxious for the chance to play.
“They’ve been waiting for this moment,” Bol Ajak said. “Last year, we had a lot of seniors so we didn’t see most of them. Now, given a chance, I think they will prove themselves. They’ll be fine.”
Plugged into the Bicentennial Athletic League’s Independence Division with a Valley Forge Military Academy program sporting loads of talent and experience, Turner knows winning a league championship might be difficult — yet he’s not about to concede a thing to anyone.
Nonleague scraps with reigning District 1 Class 5A champ Penncrest, Glen Mills, Neshaminy and Pottsgrove also dot Church Farm’s typically rugged schedule.
“We always do what we have to do to put ourselves in position to give us a chance,” Turner said. “I would anticipate that’s going to be the case again, just because that’s kind of what we do. Our young guys will figure it out. I think we’re going to be a tough out come the end of the season, but we’re going to have go through some lumps and understand who we are and how we need to play.
“That’s not going to happen until we get into the season. I would think that we would be competitive.”
History would seem to agree.
And it’s those past Church Farm’s successes that keep lofty outlooks squarely in place at the tiny suburban Philadelphia boarding school — regardless of the personnel on the floor.
“We've got high expectations, because of our history at Church Farm and what we’ve been able to achieve for the last two years that I’ve been here,” Bol Ajak admitted. “We can’t sit back since we’re a young team. We achieved some stuff last year that we want to repeat, like winning the District [1 Class AA] championship. We also missed out on winning the BAL, which means a lot to us.
“We really need to win that. It starts from low to high. If we win the BAL and the district championship, we give ourselves a good chance. That’s some of the stuff that we want to achieve.”
And to achieve some of the stuff Turner’s Griffins hope to achieve, getting solid backcourt play to complement what Bol Ajak will bring up front is a must.
“In high school, it’s about the guards,” Turner admitted. “I love John Bol Ajak, but in high school you can put five guys on him down low and make life really difficult. In college, you can’t really do that. In the pros, you won’t do that. So, at the high school level, it’s about guard play.
“If you have some good guards, you can put yourself in contention every day. So that being said, it’s really a function of, ‘I lost my guards, so it’s a function of these young guys getting up to speed and our guard play being able to stay consistent enough to play at a high level.’”
Let’s just say Bol Ajak is ready to help his guards mature … and quickly, too.
Especially if Church Farm hopes to add another chapter or two to its illustrious hoops history.
“My biggest goal this year is to just be the best leader I can be. Lead by example,” Bol Ajak said. “They’re expecting me to be special, so I’ve got to show them the way to be every night. Be special. When they need me the most, I have to show up. So it’s not just like talk, but put it into action.”