Zahree Harrison (right) has become a student-assistant for Cheltenham head coach Pat Fleury (left). (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
In Cheltenham’s District 1 6A semifinal win over Bensalem at Temple University, Zahree Harrison didn’t score a point. The Panthers’ point guard didn’t grab a rebound or dish out an assist, either. Just as he’s done for all but one game this year, Harrison was forced to watch his teammates pull out a 77-60 victory from the sidelines Tuesday night, in blue Cheltenham sweatpants and a long-sleeved Cheltenham t-shirt.
But that doesn’t mean Harrison didn’t contribute –– watch the Panthers play for even a quarter, and it’s clear the impact the Cheltenham senior still has on his team.
There he is, bouncing off the bench during a timeout, pulling aside sophomore point guard Justin Moore for a helpful tidbit or two while the rest of the team huddles around head coach Pat Fleury. Sitting between another sophomore, Saleem Payne, and junior Brandon Hawkins, Harrison’s pointing out what he notices, standing up to bark out orders right alongside Fleury on multiple occasions. Jumping up to urge on the Cheltenham cheering section; to celebrate a 3-pointer, a steal, a dunk.
“He’s an assistant coach now,” Fleury said, and it’s no stretch to say that Harrison’s role looks more like associate head coach. “I ask him questions, he pulls me aside, he has free reign to say what he needs to say to me.”
The brace now gone from his injured left knee, Harrison’s brought the same energy and zeal that turned him from an undersized freshman guard at Archbishop Wood to a Division I signee on the Panthers’ bench, becoming a voice in Fleury’s ear during Cheltenham’s run to the Suburban One-American championship now into the District 1 6A title game for the first time in 15 years.
It’s a role he’s taken to quite easily.
“It’s like second nature,” Harrison said. “I’m a point guard, so I felt like it was easy for me to step in and tell (my teammates) what I see on the side. I just felt like it came easy to me.”
But it’s not the role he was supposed to play, not for a while.
Harrison’s senior season on the court didn’t even last a quarter.
Just a few minutes into Cheltenham’s season-opener against Northeast High on Dec. 7, Harrison sprinted down the court to block a Northeast breakaway layup. And while he was successful in preventing the basket, Harrison kept his eyes on the ball –– not on the ground, which came up to meet his left knee sooner than anticipated.
Though he stayed down for a few minutes before heading off to the trainer, and sat out the second half of the blowout win for precautionary reasons, the initial diagnosis from the doctors the following day was a bone bruise.
“They said in 7-10 days he should start feeling like himself,” his father, Torre Harrison said. “It got better, we followed exactly what they told us in [the] emergency [room], we thought it was fine.”
“I got in the tub that night, soaked it, and I felt like I was good,” Zahree added.
Even Fleury, who didn’t like the way his point guard walked off the court after the injury, didn’t think it was too serious.
“I didn’t think it was going to be year-ending,” the Panthers’ second-year head coach said. “I thought it was going to be half the year.”
Of course, it wasn’t.
Though Harrison’s leg seemed steady enough, Cheltenham’s trainer encouraged the family to go get a scan of his knee, just to make sure. So on Dec. 17, before the Panthers went to play Upper Dublin, the Harrisons went to MossRehab at Einstein Medical Center to get an MRI.
That night, he warmed up with the team, but didn’t play.
Four days later, a doctor at Moss told them the diagnosis: a partially torn ACL, and a fully torn meniscus. The recommendation was season-ending knee surgery.
“It was heartbreaking, I’m not going to lie,” Zahree Harrison said. “I cried, I was in there for a while, had to let it all sink in.”
The Harrisons got a second opinion, on Dec. 31, from a doctor at Temple University. The result was the same. Harrison wouldn’t get to put on a Cheltenham uniform again.
“They were saying basically that my leg was strong enough to hold everything together,” Harrison said. “The strength in my leg was compensation for my pain...they were doing tests, (the doctor) was pulling my knee back and I wasn’t feeling any pain.”
But the scan results were clear. Harrison could attempt to play on his knee, but he risked a much more serious blowout, which would not only cost him the rest of his senior season but could likely wipe out his freshman year at St. Francis (Pa.), where he’s signed to play D-I ball next season.
The potential upside of playing a few more games in his hometown uniform wasn’t nearly enough to compensate for the potential downside, and so he had to shut it down.
“I’m not going to lie, I cried that night,” said Fleury, an ‘05 Cheltenham graduate. “I cried for him, I cried for the team, and then I cried because I felt like I think it’s just natural for a coach to think ‘what could I have done?’”
“When it first came to reality that he was not going to be able to play, when we decided to pack it in for the year, it hit him,” Torre Harrison said. “And that first day coming home from school, at practice, it really set in on him and it hurt, it hurt.”
Harrison told his teammates after he got the second opinion, filling in a few individually before breaking the news to the entire group. He had the surgery Jan. 20, but didn’t miss any time, sitting on the bench in a full knee brace for the first few weeks.
“He was like, I wanted to share this with y’all first, that I’m just going to be out the remainder of the season,” said Moore, who took over starting point guard duties from Harrison after the injury. “I contacted him, he was a little down at the time but I just tried to do everything to pick him up. I love him, that’s like my big brother and he’s helped me through so much."
Cheltenham senior Zahree Harrison (left) and sophomore Justin Moore (right) talk during a timeout. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
With Harrison and Rider commit Jaelen McGlone leading the way, the Panthers were widely expected to be one of the best teams in all of District 1’s large-school classification, the favorites in the SOL-American and a strong contender to advance to Temple University and capture the school’s first District 1 crown since 1968.
When Harrison got hurt, suddenly, there was a major question mark.
“Nobody expected us to go this far,” Harrison said. “They knew that we were a solid team, but when I went down, other teams and things like that were happy...they were waiting for us to fall down, and we didn’t really do it.”
The Panthers, now 24-3 after Tuesday night’s win, opened the season 13-1, the only loss coming by two to a Bishop McDevitt squad which finished in the top four in the Catholic League. Their only other defeats this year were against Inter-Ac champion Malvern Prep by (85-78) and to Pennridge, 52-50 in the Suburban One League’s combined tournament.
It’s not fair to say they haven’t missed Harrison on the court –– but they haven’t exactly struggled.
“Every game, like I wish I was out there,” Harrison said. “But I know these guys are going to pick it up.
“I’m very confident in Justin. I just know that he’s an extension of me, he played behind me for a year and he’s grown. Every game I go out there like yeah, I wish I was playing, the excitement of it, but I know that I’ll be fine with my teammates.”
McGlone, a 6-4 wing, took over the scoring lead, dropping 24 points in the district semifinal win over the Owls. Moore, a promising 6-2 guard, chipped in with 19 points, an effort that’s become more and more typical for him over the course of the year.
Harrison’s stayed in Moore’s ear all year long, the two sharing phone calls on a regular basis, where Harrison will help Moore study defenses, work on his skills, adapt his game to the next level. Payne, another point guard and the team’s sixth man, is another frequent target of Harrison’s advice.
“He’s been a huge help to everybody on the team,” Moore said. “He’s another coach on the team, he’s a second voice to Coach Pat, (echoing) everything Coach Pat says and even new things that help us out on the court and help us get by.”
“He’s been very positive, without any prompts from us at home,” Torre Harrison said. “You could just tell, it really hurt him, but he just loves his guys.”
Harrison and the rest of the Panthers celebrate a second-half 3-pointer during their win over Bensalem. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
For the first time in 15 years, Cheltenham will play a district championship game, 7 PM Saturday night against Methacton. The Panthers will have their hands full with a Warriors squad that handed Chester an 81-54 drubbing on Tuesday evening, led by Colgate-bound big man Jeff Woodward and backed by a supporting cast of guards who are much more than standstill jump-shooters; Erik Timko, Brett Eberly, Owen Kropp and more all pose serious problems.
But Cheltenham’s dealt with adversity all season long, and they know they’ve got the pieces to do more than just hang around for 32 minutes.
"I know that (Zahree) wants me to win it,” McGlone said, “[and] I want to win it for him.”
It’s the game that Harrison has been striving to play in since he transferred back to his hometown school before his sophomore year, since he proved that he was more than a well-thought-of middle school prospect who wouldn’t live up to the Division I expectations he developed early on. This was supposed to be the celebration of one of the best to ever put on a Cheltenham uniform, the 1,000-point season, the run towards a state title, not a story of what could have been.
And yet, despite the fact that the only shots he’ll take will be during warm-ups, that he’ll have to take comfort in one of the plush Liacouras Center bench seats instead of in his Cheltenham jersey, Zahree Harrison can’t wait to make it happen.
“It’d be very easy to look at myself, and be like ‘damn I didn’t get any points,’” Fleury said, “and he doesn’t care, he doesn’t care at all. I’m just elated that he’s part of our program, and he’ll forever be part of our program...and I’ll celebrate him till my last days as a coach here.”
“It’s a blessing,” Harrison said. “I know that everybody wants to see me play or see how far we would have got. I feel like those guys are picking it up, and I feel like everything happened for a reason. And the reason is, I feel like it’s to show that it’s not a one-man team, and everybody can play.
“I feel like this is a very special group, and I’m sticking by it.”
Bensalem: 16 | 10 | 13 | 21 | 60
Cheltenham: 16 | 16 | 18 | 27 | 77
Bensalem: 19-45 FG (3-13 3PT), 19-31 FT
Cheltenham: 22-52 FG (4-12 3PT), 29-41 FT
Bensalem: Ashford IV 22, Zeidler 9, Alexander 8, Johnson 7, Sanders 6, Kohli 4, Robinson 2, Unger 2
Cheltenham: McGlone 24, Moore 19, Emfinger 8, Scott 8, Coleman 5, Payne 4, McClain 3, Savage 2, Liedtka 2, Weiner 2