Dylan (left) and Hunter Blair have had to lead Downingtown West this spring after Will Howard left for college. (Photo: Andrew Hayn/CoBL)
Andrew Hayn (@aghayn24)
Downingtown West finds themselves with their backs against the wall as their regular season winds down, but they’re hanging on to a chance at District playoffs by a thread.
Head coach Stuart Ross had to find a way to win without one of his best players, a task made more difficult by injuries.
The Whippets have had to adjust to losing senior Will Howard, who graduated early to play football at Kansas State. Howard left a hole to fill for D-West, who went 3-10 since the turn of the decade prior to Thursday night.
“It was definitely an adjustment. You lose a player like Will Howard, you can’t replace that. Not just the points and things of that nature,” Ross, who is in his fourth season at Downingtown West, said. “The leadership and basketball IQ, that’s the hardest thing to try to replace as a coach.
“We had Dylan (Blair) hurt right after he left, Jackson (Luneberg) got hurt, so we had some bumps in the road right after he left, which is why we’re in the position now, trying to fight to get into Districts.”
Ross and the Whippets survived the first round of that fight, a home game against cross-town rival Downingtown East. Behind 26 points from freshman Dylan Blair, the Whippets defeated the Cougars 68-61, splitting the season series.
With the win, Downingtown West (10-11, 5-6 Ches-Mont) now sits at No. 27 in the unofficial District 1 6A rankings. Only the top 24 teams in the district make the playoffs, leaving the Whippets vulnerable.
Downingtown West still has a slim chance at earning the final playoff seed. In fact, they won’t have any shot unless they defeat Harrisburg at home on Saturday, but senior Hunter Blair is confident in his teammates.
“We have to fight for what we want,” Blair, Dylan’s older brother, said. “If we get in, we get in, if we don’t, we don’t, but if we can win these next games then it’ll be really big. With the schedule we have, I think that is very possible.”
Harrisburg (13-7, 9-5 Mid-Penn-Commonwealth) currently sit in tenth in the District 3 6A rankings. They only played two other District 1 teams this season, defeating Norristown and losing by seven to Chester, the number four seed in the 6A rankings.
“We just want to give ourselves the best shot,” Ross said of the Whippets. “We can’t even consider being in the picture unless we win first, so we gotta give ourselves the best shot and see where the math falls at the end of the day on Saturday.”
Thursday night’s win was a necessity for the Whippets, who got off to a hot start thanks to Hunter Blair scoring 12 points while shooting 5-7 in the first half. The Blair brothers –– sons of Damien Blair, West Chester University’s men’s basketball head coach –– led the Whippets on their way to a 17-point lead late in the second quarter.
At the 1:22 mark in the second quarter, however, Hunter Blair went down with an ankle injury. This sparked a 7-0 run by D-East, bringing the deficit to 10 at halftime.
During the break, Ross kept his team together, stressing that the game they were playing was working.
“We just said ‘Everybody just do your job, do your role, don’t try to be what that other guy was,’” Ross commented. “If you’re not a break-the-guy-down-off-the-dribble guy, or if you’re not a shooter, just do what you do best.”
The ball almost fell out of West’s hands in the second half, though. Downingtown East senior Andrew King, a 1,000 point scorer and second on Downingtown’s (East & West combined) all-time scoring list, began to take over the game. Scoring 13 of his 29 points on 6-8 shooting in the third quarter, King put the Cougars back in the game, which everyone in the gym knew he was capable of, especially his opponent.
“Yeah, he’s a heck of a player,” Hunter said of King. “He’s definitely added some nice moves in the post. I feel like we have good, solid bigs and we try to contain him as much as we can. When he gets going, he’s very difficult to stop.”
However, Ross had coached against King before and knows how to stop him: physicality.
“We’ve guarded King now for four years, so we’re very familiar with some of the things that he does,” Ross said. “We just try to be as physical as we can and make him work for the shots.”
Shutting King down saved the game, and possibly the season, for Downingtown West, as they held him to just three points in the fourth quarter. Along with Dylan Blair’s 13, senior Jackson Luneberg, who plans to play football at Kutztown in the fall, added six points in the fourth and two crucial late steals to close out the game. The younger Blair soaked in his first win against Downingtown East.
“For my first time, it feels amazing,” Blair said. “The hype around the game and the atmosphere, especially at the first game, and now at our home floor, to beat them means everything.”
With one game left before their fate is decided, Downingtown West needs a win to have any chance at District playoffs. Even with the win, it’s still not a guarantee, but a loss guarantees the end of the season.
“We have nothing to lose at this point,” Ross said.
West and Harrisburg tip off Saturday at 2 p.m. at Downingtown West High School.
D-East: 4 | 22 | 18 | 17 | 61
D-West: 16 | 20 | 8 | 24 | 68
D-East: 18-40 FG, 6-25 3PT, 18-19 FT
D-West: 17-33 FG, 6-11 3PT, 23-28 FT
D-East: King 29, Rowe 12, Osik 9, Umberger 8, Belbin 3
D-West: D. Blair 26, Luneberg 14, H. Blair 12, Kaiser 11, Dever 5