Lucas Monroe (above) and Abington are the reigning District 1 6A champions. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)
(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.)
It is the elephant in the middle of the room. And Charles Grasty knows that the only way that the Abington basketball program is going to make that pachyderm go away forever is to talk about it.
After all, the Ghosts program has been one of District One’s premier upper classifications for the past decade. They have won the district title two of the past three years.
And yet, there has been failures at the state level after winning the district title. A 64-63 first round loss to Central Dauphin East last year in the Class 6A tournament echoed a 71-66 first round loss to J.P. McCaskey in 2015.
“We were 30 seconds to play in a state title in 2014 (in a semifinal loss to eventual state champion New Castle),” Grasty said. “People don’t even remember that- or they don’t talk about that. I’ve heard more about the first round loss in the districts (in 2016) than 2014.
“The motivation is to try and get yourself in position to play in that type of game or setting. That is the motivation. The negative is something that weighs in the back of the kids’ minds. It’s there- although I think it’s more motivation.”
And now, at the dawn of a new season, Abington carries the weight of great expectations once again. In many minds, they are not just the favorite to roll to another Suburban One League National Conference title. They are expected to make another run at a District One Class 6A title and to be a major player at the state title.
“We can look at (the expectations) one of two ways,” Grasty said. “We have our program going in the right direction in what we are trying to do. But we have to bring our A game every game. I think our league is going to be really good. Just because we have the bullseye on us with expectations doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. That makes it tougher because we know we’re going to get everyone’s best shot.”
And they are going to be led by a core group that is filled with that ultimate contradiction of youth and experience. The Ghosts best player -- Eric Dixon -- is a 6-7 junior that has received a slew of Division One offers and who can move around into different spots on the floor in the three guard, two forward offense. Dixon is expected to run the point for Abington out of the forward spot.
Eric Dixon (above) has over a dozen Division I offers as he enters his junior season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The biggest improvement in Dixon was – according to Grasty- his physical fitness. “He had to get his body together,” Grasty said. “Playing as a ninth grader, you don’t understand the varsity speed. It caught him a little bit by surprise. But he’s in much better shape this year. And he knows that he has to play hard every game and can’t take plays off. He’s getting it and he’s getting more vocal.”
Lucas Monroe -- the 6-6, 210 junior -- will be Dixon’s running mate in the starting lineup up front. Monroe’s primary strength is his length on the inside. “He’s got a lot more confidence,” Grasty said. “He’s shooting rebound and he’ll rebound. And he can really rebound.”
Robbie Heath also will return from the defending District One champions. The 6-3 senior guard was one of Abington’s top scorers last year. “He really got himself into the weight room,” Grasty said. “He was really solid and he had a really good fall in that sense. He’s a really good scorer, but he’ll handle the ball for us as well.”
Brandon Coffman and Brian Coffman – a pair of senior twin brothers -- figure to be a part of the rotation as well. “Brandon is more of a junkyard dog type of player with getting loose balls and crashing the boards,” Grasty said. “He plays hard and defends well. Brian is more of a natural shooter and slasher. He can really get his shot.”
Darius Brown – a 5-foot-10 junior- will also figure into the mix at the guard spot. “He shoots it really well and he’s got a really good understanding of the game,” Grasty said.
There are others that could figure into the mix- Grasty signed out senior guard Xavier Crawford and 6-4 J.P. Nolan -- as potential figures into the mix.
“With the guys that we have, it is not a me-first attitude,” Grasty said. “They get it. They love the game. We have some really good pieces.”
In the end, however, those pieces are only going to matter if Abington is able to get over that final hump. The landscape of winning a state title or even making a deep run in the tournament is not easy to navigate. Over the past decade, it has been made more complicated because of the demographics of the bracket that can send elite District 3 teams that maybe had one in-district slip-up into a tough matchup. (McCaskey and CD East were probably better than their district seeding would indicate).
Still, it is motivation and Grasty is willing to use it.
“Our guys are hungry,” Grasty said. “They bring that loss (to CD East) up a lot. We had two sophomores and a junior in our starting lineup for that game last year and we also played two more sophomores. They get it. But once in a while, I’ll stop practice and get them refocused with that. It stunned a lot of our guys. They felt like they let their brothers down. And they don’t want to do that again.”