Holy Ghost Prep product Jack Coolahan (above) and Babson are in the NCAA D-III Tournament starting Friday night. (Photo courtesy Babson Athletics)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
They first played basketball against each other as kids in the driveway of their homes.
Then, they played together in grade school, winning a CYO state championship.
Now, Jack Coolahan and Riley Thompson are coming home to play in the biggest game of their lives.
“It’s poetic,” Coolahan said, “to say the least.”
“It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come,” said Thompson.
After going to different high schools, Coolahan and Thompson both left Newtown, Pa., to play college ball and four years later they will meet in the first round of NCAA Division III tournament, facing off once again like they did in the driveway.
But, unlike in the driveway days, Coolahan and Thompson are matching up against each other as the leading scorers on their Babson and Ithaca teams respectively.
“I saw they were moving through the conference tournament and I would text him, ‘good luck’ and ‘hopefully we will both be in the tournament,’ but I had no idea that we were going to play each other,” said Coolahan. “I never thought it would be possible until I saw it come up on the screen when watching the show.
“I just texted him right away, ‘hey will see you at Swarthmore,” said Coolahan, a 6-6 senior guard from Holy Ghost Prep.
Yes, incredibly, they will be squaring off Friday night at Swarthmore College with the winner advancing to the second round on Saturday night at Tarble Pavilion.
“I was talking to him before and he was wishing me congratulations that we had just won the league championship and I was saying, ‘I hope you guys get in, you’re right on the bubble,’ and lo and behold, we’re playing each other,” said Thompson, a 6-0 senior guard from Council Rock North.
Swarthmore (26-1) is the top-ranked seed in the tournament and will face Brooklyn College (13-15) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday. The Garnet, which was the last unbeaten team in men’s college basketball in any division, fell in the Centennial Conference championship game to Johns Hopkins on a buzzer beater.
Babson (20-6) and Ithaca (23-5) will play at 5 p.m. in the first game of the double header.
“We were really playing together at a young age, maybe in kindergarten,” said Thompson. “I know we would go over to each other‘s house and play on our courts. It was a fun time.
“It’s definitely tough, someone is going to have to lose, someone’s dream is going to have to come to an end on Friday,” continued Thompson. “But it’s pretty special that we’re going to get to play against each other and especially in a location that is 30 minutes from where we grew up.
“It’s something you could never have predicted happening, so yeah, it’s pretty special.”
Thompson (above, second from left) and Coolahan (second from right) celebrate their CYO Regional championship in 8th grade, 2012. (Photo courtesy Thompson family).
Coolahan and Thompson, who played on the St. Andrews CYO team that won the state championship with teammates Tim Guers (a second-team All-State selection from Germantown Academy and a 2,000-point scorer at St. Anselm) and Chase Kumor (Conwell-Egan and Salisbury University), used to play one-on-one for hours against each other.
“It’s really crazy, he was on my first basketball team and now we’re both going back to Pennsylvania towards the end of our careers,” Coolahan said, “I mean for one of us, it will be our last game.
“I think we were like 35-1, I think we lost in the Christmas tournament to some team from New Jersey.
“It was pretty easy for us to get together,” said Coolahan, “and with our friends, too.”
Not surprisingly, their friends and family are embracing the homecoming.
“I know kids that we played on CYO teams with and they’ve been hitting me up the last couple days, asking about tickets and he game because they want to watch both of us,” said Thompson. “It’s a cool thing to be a part of.”
“My family is really excited to see me play,” said Coolahan, who hopes to work in the financial service field in the Philadelphia area. “I’m really excited to go home.”
Coolahan, who won’t be networking for a job in the area this weekend, averaged 18.8 points on 52.6 shooting from the field to lead the Beavers, which went 9-0 to open the season and finished the year with a loss to WPI in the semifinals to settle for an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney.
Matt Pattyson, a 6-3 junior guard from Central Bucks East, averaged 4.4 points in playing in all 26 games coming off the bench in all but three games for Babson coach Stephen Brennan.
“I’ve been following (Jack) this year and he’s having a great year,” said Thompson, an economics major who will also be looking for a job after graduation. “I’ve always known how good of a program Babson was, they won the national championship a few years ago, and to see him rise to the level he has this year is awesome.
Thompson (above) averaged 18.4 ppg as a senior at Ithaca, surpassing the 1,400-point mark this year. (Photo courtesy Ithaca athletics)
Thompson scored 18.4 points a game for the Bombers, who are riding a 13-game win streak after winning the Liberty League Championship.
Coolahan, collected 15 points and seven rebounds in the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference 73-58 loss to WPI. He ripped off eight straight points to pull the 25th-ranked Beavers within 22-17.
“I just think I put it all together this year,” Coolahan said. “It’s been an interesting career, it’s been an exercise in preservation where I came into this amazing team and tried to hold on to that level of excellence and that culture and so I’m really proud that we were able to get to the tournament this year.”
As a junior, Coolahan played in 22 games, starting half the games and averaging 9.9 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 44.6 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s been a very interesting career,” Coolahan said. “I showed up to campus my freshman year and the team had six seniors and we went on to win the national championship.
“I had a couple tough first years,” Coolahan said. “I had some injuries, it took me a while but I just kept going.”
Thompson scored 12 of his 19 points in overtime to help Ithaca capture its first Liberty League conference championship since 2013, knocking off top-seeded Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 80-69.
“I had a pretty slow day up until that point, but those are the times when seniors have to step up and make big plays,” said Thompson modestly.
Thompson scored back-to-back baskets to open OT and then iced the game with six free throws, finishing 9-for-10 at the line.
In early January, Thompson scored a career-high 36 points against Montclair State shooting 70 percent from the field.
“I play with very skilled guys everyone can pass, dribble and shoot,” said Thompson, who scored 29 points in the Bombers’ season opener against Oswego. “ I didn’t think of the 36 as anything special because we have a lot of unselfish guys in the locker room.
Last year, Thompson was named All-Liberty second team and topped 1,000 career points against Bard in mid-February.
As a sophomore, he was selected Liberty League Honorable Mention after playing in all 25 games as a freshman, including five starts for coach Jim Mullins.
“When I got here as a freshman, we were 9-16 and we didn’t make the league playoffs, but ever since that point we’ve been chasing the league championship and we’ve been getting a little bit better each year,” said Thompson. “And this year‘s team is just really special. The league championship is something I thought we had the ability to accomplish but to go out there and actually get it done, it’s different.”
One of the Newtown natives will get it done move on to play next weekend.
“You only want great things for the kids you played with in the past and for someone who’s a good friend,” said Thompson, who named first-team All-Bucks County as a senior. “He’s a great kid, great player and a hard worker, so I’m not super surprised in the least that he developed into the player he is today.
“It’s one of those moments that feels a little bit surreal, to be able to walk off the floor regardless of the outcome, going toe-to-toe with the him, we were just playing rec league ball together essentially and now we are matched up in a game with the stakes very high in the NCAA tournament. It’s full circle. It’s not something I could’ve envisioned.
“He’s big, he’s strong, he’s athletic, he can shoot, he can dribble, there’s really no holes in his game offensively and he’s a good defender, too, ,” said Thompson, “and he’s a little bit more of a challenge now than he was when he was 10-years-old, I would say.”