Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It has been a record-setting year for Pope John Paul II.
The Golden Panthers first broke the school record for most regular-season wins, winning the Frontier division of the Pioneer Athletic Conference. Now, they get to add a trophy to go along with their accomplishments.
The Golden Panthers defeated Lower Moreland 67-56 in the PIAA District 1 4A Championship Saturday, earning the first district championship in school history. For head coach Brendan Stanton, it’ll be nice for him and his players to add a new decoration to the school’s gym.
“The district title was something that we talked about all year,” Stanton said. “There’s two blank spots for banners up in our gym that our kids always point to, and they’re like ‘There’s where one’s gonna be eventually,’ so we’re happy we got it tonight.”
After missing out on their first chance at a banner, falling to Methacton in the Pioneer Athletic Conference championship, Stanton and his squad finally get to add those banners after a long wait between the two games.
“I know we haven’t played since the Methacton game, which was eleven days ago or whatever, and you’re always worried when you have that big of a layoff,” Stanton, in his second year as the head of PJP, said. “But we’ve had a great week of practice, kids are making shots at practice, and I think by yesterday we were ready to not be in practice anymore and ready for the game to come. I think the kids were ready.”
The Golden Panthers wasted no time showing how ready they were, jumping out to a 23-9 lead at the end of the first quarter. Junior Justin Green and sophomore Jaden Workman both had seven points in the opening frame, and Green credits the team playing to their strengths as the reason for the fast start.
“Our strengths are definitely when we move the ball,” Green, who finished with 16 points and owned the glass, said. “At the beginning, when we were moving the ball, we were getting good shots, and that’s when we went on the opening run of like 9-0 or something. It’s just that when we move the ball, we’re unguardable.”
However, Lower Moreland wasn’t backing down easily, as junior Jack Doneker kept the Lions within reach with his 16 first-half points. Shooting 6-8 from the field at that point, PJP needed an adjustment on the back end to shut him down.
That adjustment came from junior Luke McCarthy, who asked Stanton to guard Doneker in the second half.
“I knew he was pretty good in the first half. He was hitting some tough shots over me and put up a lot of points in the first half, and I just took it personal,” McCarthy said. “I was like, ‘He’s not scoring anymore.’’
Stanton fully supported McCarthy’s gameplan, as he does with most of his players’ ideas, and it paid off for him tonight.
“At halftime, Luke McCarthy, when he came off, said ‘That kid’s getting going, do you mind if I just get up and deny him, try to be a little more physical?’ and I was like ‘You do your thing, Luke, if that’s what you think will work,’” Stanton said. “I trust all of our guys, and when they come to me with ideas, I usually let them run with it. Luke had a good one tonight, and it panned out in the second half.”
How well did McCarthy’s plan work out? Doneker only scored two more points the rest of the game, shooting 1-6 from the field in the second half.
With Doneker shut down in the second half, both teams basically traded baskets throughout the second half as the Panthers held their lead on their way to the first district title in school history. This milestone is appreciated in different ways by different PJP players.
As for senior Drew McKeon, he saw this as a victory for the entire history of the program, especially last year’s seniors.
“The seniors last year, all seven of those guys would’ve wanted this for us, and they knew that we were capable of this. They taught us so well,” McKeon said. “Great leaders last year, they helped build the program, they laid the foundation, and they’re just as happy about this as us because they’re a part of this team too.”
McCarthy, on the other hand, enjoys the bragging rights he now has over his older brother, Aidan, who also played basketball at Pope John Paul II.
“It’s nice, I get to talk a little trash to him,” McCarthy joked.
However, Luke doesn’t forget the credit Aidan deserves for his development.
“Yeah, he’s supported me a lot,” McCarthy added. “We always work in the offseason with each other to get me better, help my jump shot. He’s just been a huge support to me and some of the other guys on the team.”
As for Stanton, he reminisced about the end of last season, realizing things have come full circle with his team since then.
“At the end of last year, it was very cool, actually, when we lost to Lower Moreland last year in the district championship game, my favorite moment in my first year being head coach was on the way home hearing all of our seniors who graduated last year talk about how we’ll be back,” Stanton said. “It was a little bit of a weird game, but at the end of the day, we’ll definitely take a trophy and a district championship.”
The next stop for Stanton and the Panthers is the PIAA Class 4A state layoffs, which open on Fri., March 6, where they’ll play the No. 4 seed out of District 12 (Philadelphia). Regardless of their next opponent(s), PJP will play to their strengths, which is playing team basketball, and they can because their five starters are all capable of getting hot.
“I think you saw it for stretches tonight. I think driving, kicking and shooting, and just sort of playing good team basketball,” Stanton said. “When things are going well for us, I got five different guys that can score. I got five different guys that can shoot threes and take you off the bounce, and I think, no matter who we play, we’ll feel comfortable playing to our strengths.”
He then simplified his strategy, saying as long as the shots fall, anything is possible for the Panthers.
“If you make shots, you’re a tough out for anyone. Right?”
Pope John Paul II 23 | 13 | 13 | 18 | 67
Lower Moreland 9 | 18 | 11 | 18 | 56
Pope John Paul II: 22-49 FG, 7-18 3PT, 16-23 FT
Lower Moreland: 19-55 FG, 4-15 3PT, 14-16 FT
Pope John Paul II: McCarthy 17, J. Green 16, Workman 14, McKeon 9, K. Green 6, Baron 5
Lower Moreland: Doneker 18, Przybylinski 16, Morozin 9, Sander 5, Grant 4, Ung 2, Kroll 2