Canaan Boswell (left) and Symir Priester are two of Sankofa's three captains as the Warriors look to go back-to-back (Photo: Mitchell Gladstone/CoBL)
Mitchell Gladstone (@mpgladstone13)
COATESVILLE — Isaiah Thomas had a very clear message he wanted to get across to his team.
No, Sankofa Freedom Academy’s season wasn’t over after losing at Olney 67-54 in the second round of the Public League playoffs. The Warriors knew they’d be playing again 15 days later for the District 12 Class 1A title.
But a year after running through state-playoff opponents on their way to a title, Thomas hoped his team could feel what it would be like for their season to end early.
“We shut the gym down for a couple of days after the loss so the guys could feel the pain of going straight home after school,” he said. “Then we asked them, ‘Do you like that?’”
Sankofa didn’t need to verbalize a response. The Warriors showed it.
They rolled past Robeson for yet another 1A city title, then throttled Linville Hill, winning by 52 in their state tournament opener.
And the good just kept coming Tuesday night at Coatesville High School as Sankofa cruised past Lancaster County Christian 85-50, earning itself a return trip to the state quarterfinals Friday night.
The 35-point win makes extends the Warriors’ streak of state playoff games in which they’ve won by double digits to eight games, and it brings them one step closer to capturing the very same title they brought home a year ago.
But most of the faces leading this Sankofa team are different. Last year’s entire starting five is gone, either to graduation or transfer.
That leaves a new lineup featuring two seniors, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman, with all three upperclassmen serving as captains.
It’s a role that, while important on any team, is vital for the Warriors given the expectations they shoulder.
“It really wasn’t a simple transition,” Symir Priester said when asked about adjusting to this new group. “We knew it was going to be a hard season — we had a young team that wasn’t really that big, and we had new people, so we had to learn all over again to trust each other.”
That challenge was evident early on. Sankofa lost its opener to Archbishop Ryan and began the season by dropping 10 of its first 13 games.
Granted, many of those losses came against much larger schools — the Warriors play against Simon Gratz, Imhotep, Lincoln and Martin Luther King as part of the Public League’s A Division.
But that’s not what anyone could’ve foreseen, especially given where Sankofa is now.
“Last year as a team, we always stayed locked in,” Priester said. “If somebody was having a bad game, we had to keep our composure and build them up so they could have good games.”
Tuesday, the Warriors showed just how far they’ve come since the start of the season. Lancaster County Christian was firing on all cylinders early, knocking down several long 3-pointers and jumping out to a 15-10 advantage.
That prompted Thomas to call a timeout, and though he wasn’t overly animated, it was clear Sankofa’s 11th-year coach wanted his team to understand what wasn’t working.
And whatever Thomas said clearly worked. The Warriors closed the half on 34-7 run, forcing 12 Lions turnovers before the break and 19 on the game.
Although Sankofa’s offense is clearly dangerous — 11 different players scored against LCC and four reached double figures, most notably 6-1 freshman Shemar Wilbanks who hit four triples — its defense is what very likely could win the Warriors another title.
“If you look at the way we played today, we played a lot of zone,” Thomas said. “And we actually looked better in it than any other defense. … We want to make sure we’re putting pressure on the other team no matter what defense we’re in.”
Like last year, Sankofa is running straight through opponents on its way to a title. It won its first three PIAA games in 2019 by 29 or more points, and so far this tournament, the Warriors have yet to see anything resembling a test.
But if that comes along, they’re confident they can handle the moment and ultimately repeat as state champions.
“It starts with us, me and him, being leaders on the court,” senior Canaan Boswell said of himself and Priester. “If we go down, the team goes down, so we’ve always got to keep our heads above water. We’re the glue. We’ll survive.”
Sankofa: 24 | 20 | 23 | 18 | 85
LCC: 15 | 7 | 13 | 15 | 50
Sankofa: 35-55 FG, 9-13 3PT, 6-14 FT
LCC: 18-42 FG, 10-29 3PT, 4-7 FT
Sankofa: Oliver 17, Willbanks 14, Whitaker 12, Priester 10, Boswell 9, Brooks 6, Million 4, Ahmad 2, Johnson 2, Saleem 2
LCC: Hall 17, Pelfer 11, Glessner 10, Senseng 6, Miklas 4, Gilman 2