The start of the 2019-20 high school season begins this Friday, Dec. 6, for all teams in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA), the main governing body in the state. Several private schools which belong to the PA Independent School Athletic Association (PAISAA) began play within the last two weeks, but the vast majority of the 175-plus high school teams in the greater Philadelphia area begin play this weekend.
In the past –– and hopefully in the future –– CoBL has spent the weeks and months leading up to the high school season running individual team previews and league previews, giving an in-depth look into just about every program and player of note in the region. That wasn’t feasible this year, considering the site only re-launched five weeks ago, but I couldn’t let the season begin without writing SOMETHING about the local high school scene.
So here’s 10 thoughts on the upcoming season, split into two parts. This part will focus on the Philadelphia Public League and District 1; the other focuses on the Catholic League and private schools:
Donta Scott (above) and the rest of the Imhotep 2019 class are off at their respective colleges. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
6. A new era at Imhotep
Imhotep Charter’s last four years weren’t too different from those that came before them. Lots of wins, a Public League championship or two (or three), and deep runs in the state tournament. That’s become the expectation and a regular reality for the Panthers under head coach Andre Noble, who quickly built the northeast Philly school’s program into a breeding ground for college talent and has maintained that momentum for well over a decade. It hasn’t been a complete domination of the Pub –– Constitution, Math Civics & Sciences, Martin Luther King, Mastery North and others have all had their moments in the sun –– but there’s no doubt that Imhotep stands head and shoulders above all.
But what set the last few years apart for Noble’s Panthers was the core continuity. The team’s 2019 class of Dahmir Bishop, Jamil Riggins Jr., Chereef Knox, Fatayn Wesley and Donta Scott (and a couple others) went their entire high school careers without losing a single game on their home court. They all played as freshmen, jumped into the starting lineup as sophomores and were the main draw for ‘Tep for three straight years, though the school’s all-time leading scorer Fatts Russell was still a senior in 2017. Now they’re all off to college: Scott (Maryland), Knox (St. Joe’s), Bishop (Xavier) and Riggins (Quinnipiac) in D-I, Wesley at D-I JUCO Harcum College.
To keep alive Imhotep’s run of three straight Public League championships and three straight PIAA championships, it’ll have to be a different cast of characters doing most of the heavy lifting. The only starter back is in the middle, Notre Dame-bound big man Elijah Taylor, who’s certainly a good piece to build around. Combo guard Sami Wylie will have to take up a good chunk of the scoring load, and you can expect Noble to deploy some talented freshmen and sophomores who will make names for themselves this fall (remember the name Rahmir Barno). Don’t judge this team by how they play in December, but we’ll see just how good they are come February.
7. Star power in District 1?
Imhotep isn’t the only school in the CoBL coverage area that’s got to replace a large group of key seniors. In fact, throughout District 1, many of the top programs have big-time holes in their lineup thanks to graduated senior classes, including some of the best players in certain schools’ history. That includes Pennridge, which made it all the way to the PIAA Class 6A championship game thanks to a terrific team effort led by senior guard Sean Yoder. Now a freshman at Navy, Yoder averaged 20.3 ppg for the Rams as a senior, finishing as Pennridge’s all-time leading scorer and certainly one of its most impactful players of all time.
Also in the Suburban-One League, Abington has to replace two Division I freshmen of its own in Eric Dixon (Villanova) and Lucas Monroe (Penn), which helped lead the Galloping Ghosts to one of their best eras in program history. Abington won three straight District 1 6A titles while Dixon and Monroe were sophomores, juniors and seniors, the duo combining for 56 points in the championship win over Coatesville in overtime this March. Their SOL-American rival, Plymouth-Whitemarsh, has to replace 7-foot-2 center Naheem McLeod in the middle along with a large senior class around him. Lower Merion has to replace a senior group that made up most of its rotation for three years, including Columbia’s Jack Forrest, the prepping Steve Payne, and more. Sun Valley’s senior group, led by Vinny DeAngelo (Swarthmore), is gone as well; as are Lower Moreland’s Shane Cohen, Penncrest’s Malcolm Williams, Unionville’s crew led by Bo Furey-Bastian, Rustin’s Taj Asparagus and Jake Nelson, Chester’s Michael Smith, Pennsbury’s Gary Francis, and that’s just a partial list.
Methacton senior Jeff Woodward (above, right) is one of the best players in all of District 1. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
But the area’s public schools aren’t devoid of talent in 2019-20. West Chester East boasts Delaware commit Andrew Carr, a 6-9 wing who can shoot from distance, plus guard Tym Richardson, a talented scorer in his own right. Methacton, the overwhelming favorite in the Pioneer Athletic Conference, has 6-10 center Jeff Woodward, bound for Colgate, in the middle, plus last year’s breakout junior, wing Erik Timko. Coatesville has its terrific senior duo in the backcourt of Jig Brickus and Dapree Bryant, the latter bound for Villanova as a football player next year. A number of programs throughout the area will be turning to sophomores and juniors for their first varsity experience, and I’m sure by this time a month from now, a whole new group of stars (and future stars) will have emerged in the Suburban One, PAC, Central League, Ches-Mont and beyond.
8. Cheltenham’s turn in Suburban One?
There’s one team in District 1 6A we haven’t yet mentioned, and it’s on purpose. Cheltenham has been a strong contender in the Suburban One-American the last few years, but has never quite been able to get over the likes of P-W, Wissahickon, or newcomer Abington to capture either an SOL-American or overall SOL championship. The Panthers are always hard-working and talented, and this year they might just have what it takes to finally break through and capture either a regular-season or postseason championship under second-year head coach Pat Fleury.
It starts with a senior class led by Division I-bound duo Zahree Harrison and Jaelen McGlone. The two have taken very different paths to get to where they are: Harrison was a highly-touted middle schooler who’s been running the Panthers’ offense the last three years, while McGlone emerged as a real prospect after his sophomore season. Next year, Harrison will be at St. Francis (Pa.); McGlone at Rider, but they’ve got one season left to bring Cheltenham its first league title since 2005.
Along with Harrison and McGlone, Fleury has a deep cast of returning players that includes seniors Brandon Scott and Travis Coleman, juniors Mike McLain and Brandon Hawkins, and several sophomores such as Justin Moore. But that doesn’t mean the SOL-American will be a walkover; Abington’s Charles Grasty and P-W’s Jim Donofrio have too long a history of success through different personnel to make it a walkover for the Panthers.
9. Who are the emerging players and teams in the area?
If I hadn’t taken the last year off basketball, I probably would have a much longer section here. After all, under-the-radar teams and players are what we specialize in. Unfortunately, with high school rosters going through a whole lot of turnover in two years, I don’t have a ton of knowledge about many of the under-the-radar teams in the area, because…well, because they’re under the radar. But keep an eye on the standings, and by the end of December it’ll be clear which programs are exceeding expectations, who’s feeling hot, and who could make a surprise run at a league championship. There’s never a real rhyme or reason; it could be a young coach in their second or third year figuring things out, or a program that’s been developing one big class for a few years who’s now ready to take a big step, or a veteran coach who makes things click with the right group, while one star player rises above the rest.
10. Odds and Ends…
-- I figured I’d try something new with this last bit. Going to mention a few other players and programs I hadn’t gotten to yet, and if coaches read this and want to send me something on their program, I’ll throw it in. So I’m going to edit this piece throughout the day (and maybe into Wednesday) as more blurbs roll in. This could be a terrible idea, but we’ll see how it goes.
-- Math, Civics & Sciences has its next great guard in junior Nisine Poplar. Popular came out of nowhere last year to help the Mighty Elephants to the PIAA Class AA state championship, scoring 12 points in the championship game. A slippery-smooth 6-3 scoring guard, Poplar starred for K-Low Elite this summer, picking up nine Division I scholarship offers thus far, including from locals Temple, La Salle, and Drexel. He’ll have many more eyes (and defensive focus) on him this season.
-- Delco Christian is coming off a 14-win season, and the Knights will rely heavily on two seniors who will be playing sports in college. Jackson Piotrowski is a 6-6 wing forward who’s getting heavy attention from small-college types with some Division I interest as well, all who like his versatility and ability to play above the rim. Big-bodied 6-4 forward Obinna Nwodobo is a burly presence inside who will be playing football at Villanova next year.
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