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Confident, experienced Academy New Church has eyes on FSL title

12/18/2019, 3:30pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Kevin Givens (above) is in his 26th year at ANC, having last led the Lions to a title in 2009. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

There’s no doubt that when it comes to Friends’ Schools League boys’ basketball, everybody’s sick and tired of Westtown. At least, the other eight programs in the FSL, who’ve watched the Moose become a league powerhouse under Seth Berger, winning six consecutive and seven of the last eight FSL titles. In the last six seasons, Westtown has lost exactly two FSL games, both in the regular season. 

While every other FSL team has been plotting all summer to finally be the one to topple the league’s personal Goliath, there’s one program in particular that’s been extra-confident in their preparations. You see, Academy New Church was one of those two teams, knocking off Westtown last year once, and almost doing it a second time. And with all five starters back from a year ago, plus an intriguing new centerpiece, these Lions are ready for a rematch or two.

“I’m sure everybody in the league’s tired of it, everybody in the league’s fighting to beat Westtown,” said Kevin Givens, ANC’s 26th-year head coach. “You go into the season every year knowing that you’ve got to beat the lion if you want to win the championship.”

Givens has been around longer than any other coach in the FSL, now that Abington Friends’ Steve Chadwin retired. And he knows how to win: back when his sons, Samme Givens (Drexel) and Shannon Givens (West Chester) wore ANC jerseys, the Lions were the pride of the Friends’ League, winning league titles in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009. But they haven’t been quite the same since, though this is certainly Givens’ most talented and experienced team since.

“This year we came into the season with a different mentality,” senior wing Glenn Sabb said. “We knew that we were a good team, and we want to go back to the ‘chip –– and not only go back to the ‘chip, we want to win the ‘chip, too.”

Last year’s group was already a confident one going into an early-season matchup with the Moose, who came to visit ANC last Dec. 11. And despite going against a team that had future UConn point guard Jalen Gaffney on the ball, with a top-100 big man in Franck Kepnang in the middle and future Penn guard T.J. Berger and Pitt wing Noah Collier on the wings, it was the Lions who came away with a 48-47 victory.

When the two programs met a couple months later for the FSL championship, Westtown held onto their title–– just barely, 52-48, in a game that ANC lead in the fourth quarter, and was tied in the final minute. But with everybody returning, the Lions knew they’d get another chance.

Glenn Sabb (above) is one of two key seniors on the Lions' squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

It starts with a pair of seniors, Sabb and Isaac Marshall, who do a lot of heavy lifting for ANC. Marshall is the scorer, a lanky 6-foot-3 wing guard guard who can hit from deep as easily as he can take it to the rim, with a bevy of moves to get there. Sabb, a 6-2 wing forward who’s going to be playing D-II football in college as a WR/LB, is a physical wing presence who contributes on both ends of the floor.

In a win over Springside-Chestnut Hill Academy on Monday, the two put up a fairly typical line for each: Marshall finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds; Sabb stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, 11 rebounds, seven steals and six assists. 

And they both bring a similar intangible to the court: “Maturity, maturity,” Givens said. “They know how to win.”

Also back in the starting lineup are 6-1 sophomore guard Anthony McCall, who scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds in the win over SCH Academy, and 5-10 senior point guard Devin Bryant, who missed the SCH game due to a minor illness. There’s only been one change in the five that Givens throws out to begin every game: junior guard Jordaine Dawkins, who started last year, is now the team’s sixth man; in the middle is his classmate, Elijah Muhammad, who adds a very different element to the floor. 

At 6-8, Muhammad is a true ‘5’ in the post for the Lions, and the lanky, athletic young forward is built like a defensive-minded big man, with long arms and timing to make him an effective shot-blocker. It’s the first true center that Givens and the Lions have had since Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse) graduated in 2011. Muhammad might not quite be at that level, having only played organized basketball for two years, but he’s plenty effective.

“He doesn’t have to block every single shot,” Sabb said. “If he just changes the shot a little bit, Elijah can make a big impact on our defensive side.”

Givens has prepared his team to play and win high-level games, and scheduled accordingly; they’ve already played N.J. prep powerhouse St. Benedict’s (losing by eight) and beat Princeton Day (N.J.) by 20, and also played at defending PAISAA champions Haverford School. 

“We feel like we can win the Friends’ League, that’s how we feel,” Marshall said. “We’re going to give it our hardest and try to win it this year.”

Unlike last season, when Westtown visited Academy New Church early in the season, the teams won’t meet until Jan. 16 this year, with the game also at ANC. Depending on how things go over the next month, that game could end up being the de facto regular-season league championship, but that meeting won’t be the one that would matter.

It would be the one on Friday, Feb. 7 at La Salle’s Tom Gola Arena, for the 2020 Friends’ Schools League championship. 

“It would mean everything in the world to me [for someone to end their streak],” Givens said, “and hopefully it’s us that can do it.”

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