Damien Blair (above) and the West Chester Rams are ranked inside the Top 10 in D-II. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Mike Samsel (@MikeSamsel)
(Ed. Note: Mike is a broadcast journalist who, among other roles, serves as the play-by-play announcer for West Chester athletics).
On paper, it seemed fair to think that the West Chester University Golden Rams were heading for a rebuilding season. I mean, how could they not? Four of their six leading scorers had either graduated or transferred, and one of their most impressive young prospects, Kyle Thompson transferred and walked on at D-I La Salle.
The Golden Rams had graduated one of the winningest senior classes in program history losing 1,000 point scorer Jackson Hyland, who now plays professionally in England as well as Matt Penecale, who broke the school’s career assists record.
With five freshmen and two transfers, head coach Damien Blair’s preseason goals were simple: “Play hard, play fast…and try to get better everyday,” he said on the team’s preseason preview. The Rams were picked 3rd in the Preseason PSAC East poll.
The preseason hype was not of a team that would be one of only two remaining undefeated teams in all of Division II Basketball; the Rams were picked 3rd in the Preseason PSAC East poll. But they’d been plenty successful under Blair, just two years removed from their first-ever NCAA Tournament win and had been to the D-II dance three times in four years.
Despite dropping Wednesday’s showdown with bitter PSAC East Rival Shippensburg by a final of 79-70, the Golden Rams entered Wednesday with a 13-0 record, and ranked No. 8 in the NABC Poll released early Tuesday, the highest national ranking for the Golden Rams since 1983.
One loss will not derail such an impressive start, but one has to wonder, how did it come together so quickly?
Freshman guard Robbie Heath, an Abington Senior High product, has been WCU's leading scorer this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
To say Robbie Heath burst onto the scene would be an understatement. Game 1 vs. Claflin, the freshman guard scored 20 points to go along with nine rebounds. Game 2? Another 20 points, this time with 6 assists and 6 rebounds. By Game 7 at Chestnut Hill, the freshman fell just 3 points shy of the 7th 40-point game in program history. His encore? The first 20-point 20 rebound game for West Chester since 2008 vs. Mercyhurst.
Through West Chester's first 14 games, he's averaging a team-high 24.0 ppg, and he was inside the top 10 in the country –– tops among all freshmen and sophomores –– for D-II.
“I felt like I was overlooked in high school,” said Heath, who was a freshman on Abington’s 2015 district championship team and then was a junior and senior when Eric Dixon (Villanova) and Lucas Monroe (Penn) joined him to win two more district titles, and a third after he graduated. He was briefly verbally committed to UC-Riverside, but ended up going to a prep school in California before returning home and playing for Sam Rines at Rocktop Academy.
Blair, who had been recruiting Heath since his sophomore year at Abington and maintains a good relationship with Rines, told the sharpshooting guard that he had a standing scholarship offer.
But how did Robbie come to choose the Golden Rams? Simple. “West Chester is the only school who really recruited me," he said.
As good as Heath has been, he couldn’t do it all by himself, and this is a deep Golden Rams team. Senior guard Malik Jackson (17.9 ppg) has six 20+ point efforts in 14 games, and the emergence of 6-7 sophomore forward Josh Samec (11.6 ppg/6.6 rpg) has given the Golden Rams the most potent offense in the PSAC, scoring on average 88 points per game. That’s not just No. 1 in the conference, it’s more than five points clear of No. 2 Kutztown.
Those three are getting plenty of help. Freshman uard Kyle McGee has started 12 of the 13 games for the Golden Rams averaging eight points to go along with four rebounds and three assists. Senior center Tim Toro has bounced back from early injury woes to average seven points and seven boards per game. Antoine Lewis, a transfer guard from Allegany College, is shooting 41% from 3.
A big part of their scoring is not only the team’s effectiveness from the free throw line, but how frequently they’re getting to the free throw line. West Chester has attempted a staggering 420 free throws heading into Wednesday night. That’s No. 1 in the conference by 115 attempts, as well as tops in the country.
Senior guard Malik Jackson (above) is averaging 17.9 ppg and hitting more than 84% from the foul line, and is over 1,300 career points. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Heath has led the way at the line, with a staggering 118 attempts from the free throw line, shooting 81%. He has attempted the most Free Throws in the conference, leading Christian Kelly of Lock Haven by 30 attempts. Jackson is third in the league with 84 attempts from the line, shooting 84%.
“Robbie is unorthodox as he gets to the rim, he gets hit a lot…and Malik (Jackson) can hit perimeter shots, but if you get on him, he can get by you,” Blair said. “I think both of them do a great job getting to the rim…and part of that is we’re pushing the ball and were getting the ball up the floor and attacking the rim."
However, Wednesday evening was unkind to the Golden Rams, who suffered their first defeat of the year to a talented and capable Raiders squad.
Shippensburg (11-3, 7-1) played well defensively and held the Golden Rams to just nine free throw attempts. The Raiders were paced by senior forward John Castello, who scored 19 points, and former Shipley School guard Kiyon Hardy, who contributed 16 points. West Chester jumped out to an early 10 point lead, but the Raiders took the lead just before halftime, and would not surrender it again.
“Our game plan was to be as physical as them, beat them to 50/50 balls, we had to win the rebounding war, we had to guard the 3 point line, we had to make sure we played inside out and we didn’t do any of those things,” Blair said. “When you start to win games, I think you start to lose focus on what makes you good, and once we got that lead, I think that’s what happened tonight.”
The Golden Rams will travel north on Saturday to try and get back to their winning ways, taking on the 4-9 Mansfield Mountaineers in Mansfield. On Weds., Jan 15, West Chester travels to Lock Haven to face the Bald Eagles.
The Golden Rams have had an excellent start to the 2019-2020 season, blowing away even the most optimistic West Chester fans, but early season success can be quickly washed away.
“If you want to be great, you have to sacrifice something,” Blair said, “and there’s some guys right now that are teetering on whether they want to sacrifice something to be great.