Matthew Dade (above) and Episcopal have to replace a big group of seniors, but there's plenty of talent left. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Matt Chandik (@MChandik26)
(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.)
Everything has changed for Craig Conlin, and he’s perfectly fine with that. As a matter of fact, he’d prefer if you just assumed that his Episcopal Academy team will take a nosedive this year and let the Churchmen sneak up on teams.
It’s not easy to lose the manpower that the Churchmen lost to graduation, not with post presence Nick Alikakos (Hill School post-graduate) and outstanding guard Conner Delaney (Johns Hopkins) leading the charge. EA lost five seniors, all of which are playing a sport in college, and none bigger than the All Inter-Ac duo. Of course, that’s also from the first EA team to win the Inter-Ac for the first time in 11 years. Conlin is acutely aware of that, and he understands any trepidation toward the Churchmen this year.
“We have a lot to replace and I’m hoping that a lot of teams will overlook us and write us off,” Conlin said. “We’re going to win some and we’re going to lose some, but the standard that we’ll judge ourselves on is, ‘have we played as hard as we possibly can? Did we play smart? Did we play together and play for our brothers?’ That’s going to be a great barometer.”
“We’re a younger team lacking seniors like we had last year, but I still think guys will step up,” senior captain Justin Hershey said. “We want to catch by teams by surprise and we’re really excited to jump on them out of the gate.”
Hershey is a 6-3 forward who can stretch teams out a little with a good shooting stroke, while fellow senior captain Colin Phillips is a 6-5 inside banger. Also a football player, Phillips has range out to 15 feet and the physicality to thrive inside. They’re joined in the front court by 6-5 junior Matt Dade. Well, maybe 6-5.
“With the hair, he’s probably 6-6 or 6-7,” Conlin cracked. “He plays the ‘2’ or the ‘3’ and we think he can really be a mismatch nightmare for teams. He can take bigger guys outside, he can take little guys inside, he can slash and get to the rim. That’s our eventual plan for him: a mismatch nightmare.”
A trio of sophomores will pave the way in the backcourt, led by returning starters Jack Fitzpatrick and Colin Chambers. Fitzpatrick is the brother of former Malvern Prep standout Joey Fitzpatrick, a current teammate of Delaney’s at Johns Hopkins. Fitzpatrick is a tough-as-nails guard who does a great job of playing within himself and putting his teammates in a position to succeed. Chambers drew praise from Conlin for his intelligence, ball-handling ability and shooting stroke, and he’s another guy who doesn’t back down.
Great Valley transfer Alex Capitano (above) adds length and scoring ability to the perimeter. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The transfer and reclassification of former Great Valley star Alex Capitano bolsters the Churchmen’s backcourt depth. Capitano missed a good chunk of his sophomore year because of injuries, but as a freshman, the 6-3 wing and Division I prospect started on the Patriots’ team that reached the Ches-Mont Final Four.
“He brings experience and athleticism,” Conlin said. “He can get up and down the court and he can really shoot the ball. I think he can be a huge, immediate help. We’re just trying to indoctrinate him into our culture. It’ll be a process, but I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
As is the custom at EA, a bevy of talented multi-sport athletes round out the rotation. Luke Lesher, Jack Purcell and Jack O’Reilly will all see extended minutes. Purcell is also a football player, while O’Reilly also plays water polo and is a Notre Dame baseball commit.
“Those guys are great team guys,” Conlin said. “They’re going to help get other guys open. They hustle, they bang, they play defense and rebound. They do all of the little things and they’re all smart. It’s great to be able to draw something brand-new up and have guys who can pick it up right away, and they do that.”
It’s clear that there are likely going to be some early growing pains, but it’d be foolish to write the Churchmen off. Hershey pointed to the coaches’ ability to get younger guys involved last year as a way to offset some of those replacement pains early, and it won’t exactly be like breaking in an entirely new wave of players. The Churchmen fell in Tuesday’s season opener, 52-50, against Abington Friends, but that’s just another stepping stone toward hitting their stride when it matters most.
“Our coaches did a great job of bringing up younger guys and getting them exposure,” Hershey said. “Our expectations are high. It’s next man up and we need guys to step up. We’ll look for lineups that work well and I think that we’ll be competing with anyone by the time the Inter-Ac schedule starts. We expect to be in the same position where we were last year.”
Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but either way, Conlin is confident in this group.
“I love our guys,” he said. “It’s refreshing and exciting to not just focus on Nick and Conner. We’ve got to teach differently and the methodology has to change up. We’re going to have to spread it out a little more, but I really like the fact that we have good depth in our program. It’s going to be different for us and an adjustment for the coaching staff, but it’s exciting at the same time.”
Uncertainty usually is.