Isaiah Mitchell (above) had 19 points, 7 rebounds and 5 steals in TCA's 61-58 win Thursday night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
BROOKHAVEN –– The Christian Academy doesn’t just play defense. No, the Crusaders play defense. In-your-face, full-court, not-going-to-give-you-a-foot-of-fresh-air defense.
And Thursday night, the TCA student section couldn’t get enough of it.
Every trap, every steal, every subsequent bucket, the roars and chants grew louder from an enthusiastic group of 50-or-so TCA students, who –– along with another couple hundred TCA parents, alumni and fans –– provided a nice extra boost to the Crusaders during a Bicentennial Athletic League semifinal against Delco Christian on Thursday night.
“They love when we’re playing defense,” TCA senior Grant Sareyka said. “Because, I mean, we pride ourselves on defense. So when the crowd gets behind us, when we’re playing defense, it just gives us all the more energy we need.”
“They’re behind us and they want us to do great,” added his classmate, Isaiah Mitchell. “It’s amazing to have them behind us and help us win.”
At the end of the night, the students finally serenaded Delco Christian with a rousing chorus of “Nah-nah, hey-hey, goodbye” after watching TCA advance to the BAL championship for the first time thanks to a 61-58 win over their league and county rivals.
That unrelenting defensive style has become a calling card for head coach Malik Walker and TCA, which only entered the BAL four years back but is now one game from capturing the area’s small-school league’s title for the first time.
And it all starts with Sareyka and Mitchell.
“We’ve played in numerous summer leagues, numerous preseason tuneup sessions, and that’s all we’ve been teaching those guys, to create easy opportunities off the defensive end,” the fourth-year head coach said. “And those two, being the leaders of the team, they’ve been going out there and doing just that.”
TCA forced 19 Delco Christian turnovers Thursday night, getting six steals from the 5-11 Sareyka (24 points) and five from the 5-9 Mitchell (19 points) as the Crusaders bothered the Knights up and down the floor. There were steals in the backcourt and in the frontcourt, on inbounds plays, on passes and on drives.
Both guards are excellent on-ball defenders, making it difficult for opposing offenses to get it to their sets or find open looks. Against Delco Christian, that job involved making it difficult for the Knights to get the ball inside to their senior forwards, Obinna Nwobodo (18 points/11 rebounds) and Jackson Piotrowski (14 points/10 rebounds), who still managed to have productive afternoons through stretches of empty possessions and turnovers, as well as foul difficulties.
Grant Sareyka (above) had 24 points, six rebounds, and three steals in the win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
But it was Sareyka and Mitchell who had the final push, forcing six Delco Christian turnovers in the final frame to overcome a five-point deficit and finish strong in front of the friendly crowds.
That defensive ability came earlier to Mitchell, who first came to TCA in fourth grade.
“I was always the smallest guy in the court, I shot up my 9th grade year, so I had to play with my heart, and defense was the only thing I could do,” Mitchell said. “I couldn’t really get shots on anybody. From the beginning, I told myself if I want to play basketball, I’ve got to play defense first.”
In middle school, he played tough games against Sareyka, who was then at Gloucester Catholic (N.J.). And while Sareyka could always put the ball in the bucket...
“I’ve never been a good defender, per se,” he admitted. “It’s only been the last couple years that I decided to step up my defense because I need it to play at the next level.”
Sareyka said when he first arrived at TCA in ninth grade, he and Mitchell “butted heads” at first, but quickly grew to become friends. And as they both worked their way onto the varsity team and into starting roles, Sareyka paid attention to how his classmate defended effectively.
“Constant on-ball pressure is something I’ve picked up on,” Sareyka said. “I used to always play guys back, not let them shoot, but be there, just not all up in (their) face. I see how effective (Mitchell) is on defense and his on-ball pressure, so I want to step up my defense and do it like that.”
Sareyka and Mitchell’s two-way abilities are a major reason that TCA is one win away from the BAL championship after bowing out in the quarterfinals last year. The last time the Crusaders won a league title of any sort was when Walker played for them back in 2001, when they won the now-defunct Keystone Athletic Conference.
“Feels amazing, I know when we were in the locker room, we were loud. It’s great,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t even born the last time we went there.”
Before joining the Bicentennial, TCA was the only Pennsylvania member of the Tri-State Christian Athletic Conference, and Walker called the move a “big step up” in competition to the likes of Holy Ghost Prep, Christopher Dock, Lower Moreland and other programs who have won multiple PIAA games in recent memory.
Saturday afternoon, on 3 PM at Morrisville, The Christian Academy will face Holy Ghost for the BAL championship. After that, they’ll play for a district title and their first-ever PIAA berth, in their fifth year as a member.
For a group of eight seniors, it’s the only send-off they can imagine.
“It’s our last stretch,” Mitchell said. “After games, it doesn’t really kick in...but the next day, when the game dies down a little bit, you think about yeah it’s our last (year). So we’ve got to leave our mark, play to our hardest and leave our mark (on) TCA.”
Delco Christian: 19 | 8 | 21 | 10 | 58
Christian Academy: 17 | 14 | 12 | 18 | 61
Delco Christian: 22-50 FG (6-13 3PT), 9-14 FT
Christian Academy: 26-50 FG (5-15 3PT), 4-9 FT
Delco Christian: Nwobodo 18, Piotrowski 14, Parks 13, Mitchell 10, Kees 3
Christian Academy: Sareyka 24, Mitchell 19, Greene 7, D. Jones 5, Geathers 4, P. Jones 2