PW center Naheem McLeod blocks a shot against Cheltenham on Friday. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Tyler Sandora (@tyler_sandora)
Head coach Jim Donofrio and the Plymouth Whitemarsh basketball team had high expectations for themselves heading into this season.
The Colonials scheduled a rigorous non-conference slate of games to help showcase their talented group of players and increase the competition level. They knew that if they wanted to come out on top in Hershey at the end of the season, they would need to be battle-tested.
What they have gotten out of the first 11 games are not only wins, but an opportunity to continually raise their ceiling in terms of growth and potential.
“We’re six to eight weeks into the season,” Donofrio said. “It’s what you need to learn. If you can learn while you’re winning these games like we are, it’s pretty special. If you are fortunate to be going long, there is always another thing to evolve into. A lot of this is situations. ‘How do we play this? What is the mismatch?’ You can take it to fun levels. Your team will always give you something to get better at.”
Winning games and getting better is exactly what the Colonials have done this year. They already have pocketed victories over “powerhouse” teams such as Archbishop Wood, Archbishop Carroll, and Bonner-Prendergast, among others.
So with all of the hype surrounding this successful Colonials bunch, how do they handle the spotlight?
“You wear it,” Donofrio said, “and you own it. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience it, all the way to the final game. You navigate properly, develop the right mindset, and you enjoy it.”
Plymouth-Whitemarsh sure did enjoy its 77-57 victory on Friday night over Cheltenham in front of a Panther-heavy crowd in a humid and damp Cheltenham High School gym.
Naheem McLeod, 7-foot-2 junior, led the way for the Colonials (11-0, 6-0) with 20 points and 10 rebounds, even though he missed the majority of the second quarter after rolling his ankle. Senior Ahmad Williams contributed 17, and his twin brother Ahmin Williams added 12.
For Cheltenham (7-4, 3-1), La Salle commit Jack Clark poured in 26 points to lead the Panthers. Senior Ahmad Bickley dropped 11, and sophomore point guard Zahree Harrison added eight.
The Colonials knew coming into the game that it would be a chaotic atmosphere; after all, it would be a matchup of the two undefeated teams in the Suburban One American Conference.
“Coming here is an emotion game,” Donofrio said. “Cheltenham always brings great emotion. You don’t know what kid is going to step up and have a great game, and that’s the mindset for this game. Be awake, execute the offense, and handle pressure.”
That’s exactly what Plymouth Whitemarsh did. Cheltenham, which checks in at No. 10 on the latest PIAA 6A state rankings, is no slouch. But with the aggressiveness in which the Colonials played, it would be hard for anyone in the Suburban One, let alone the state of Pennsylvania, to stop them when they’re rolling.
And just when you think you have the talented group of five or so key players figured out, Donofrio is ready to bring in three or four more guys off the bench that can do just as much damage, even if they aren’t getting the same amount of attention.
“Never underestimate the kids who are quietly sitting on your bench and practicing hard for two months,” Donofrio said. “That gets infectious. It’s more of a blessing now than it was a month ago. There was a big learning curve going on. Jason Cherry gives us good things and he’s not a little guy, (6-6, 240). Caelin Peters, sophomore, about to break out. There are guys under the surface who will break out if given the opportunity. I’m trying to give them those minutes.”
And on Friday night, they proved they are able to step in and make a difference.
When McLeod went down with an injury, senior guard Danny Cooper subbed into the game, and didn’t look out of place at all. He calmly ran the offense, and allowed Ahmad Williams to play off the ball. Williams proceeded to score seven points on the three possessions after McLeod’s departure.
“If Naheem happens to come out of a game, it goes back into the wheelhouse that I know best and that we know best,” Donofrio said. “Cooper plays a huge role for us. Now we can move Ahmad to a different spot and make Cooper the ‘2’. We are trying to have all the options.”
Then you put McLeod back in, and there aren’t many players in the area capable of slowing down the 7-foot-2, 230 pound big man.
“It says a lot,” McLeod said. When I went down, they kept it rolling. I’m the biggest attraction of the team, so if I’m not scoring a certain amount of points, I’m playing defense. Everybody wants to find a way to win. Everybody on the team can score, so we just play off of each other. Not to many things we can’t do."
The season is still young, but if Plymouth Whitemarsh can persistently grow as a team, while continuing to dominate their opponents, don’t be surprised to see the Colonials hosting a trophy come late March.