Zach Hicks (above) in 5th grade with the Camden Partnership Schools program. (Photo courtesy Mike Mangold)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_Kcallahan)
From his hometown in Camden, Zach Hicks can see the towers of the Ben Franklin Bridge, rising like his childhood dreams into the sky.
Now, he will be crossing the span over the Delaware River, travelling less than 10 miles in his car but so much farther on his determined life journey, to play basketball at Temple University.
The 6-foot-7 swingman, a senior at Camden Catholic High School, started playing basketball as a wide-eye fourth grader with an easy smile for the Camden Partnership Schools, an affiliation of five Catholic grade schools in the city, with a basketball program started by Judyann Gillespie-McCarthy and coached that first season by Nancy Jerome, Joe DelDuca and Mike Mangold.
“I remember in one of the championship games against St. Rose (Haddon Heights) sitting with his devoted mother (Geanine) who kept saying, ‘don’t let them keep you off that mountain,’ ”Gillespie-McCarthy recalled. “It really struck me since what she was saying was so symbolic in more ways than one.
“I’m so happy to see Zach get to the summit. It took hard work, sacrifice, determination, great coaches along the way and most importantly the love and support of his family.“
And, it was the endless support of his mother and father, Jeff, that kept him tethered so close to home.
“Yeah, it was definitely one of the major factors for my parents to be able to come watch me play,” said Hicks, who made the official announcement at 3 p.m. Friday on Instagram after telling Owls coach Aaron McKie on Wednesday night during a Zoom call with his mother.
“When I told him, he just started clapping,” Hicks said. “He said, ‘this is what I’ve been waiting for.’”
Hicks chose Temple over offers from Richmond, Missouri and Siena for more than the proximity, since La Salle and Drexel also extended scholarships. He also picked the Cherry & White because of McKie and his legacy as a tough and smart Philly guard who starred on Broad Street under John Chaney.
“My dad used to watch Coach McKie play and he used to say, ‘he might not have been the most athletic, but he always outworked his opponents,’” Hicks said glowingly. “That kind of reminds me of how I am: not the most athletic person, or best ball handler, or [most] skilled person, but I do other things that other players don’t have to do, so he knows how I play and can get the most out of me.”
Just like how his loving parents nurtured and nudged him.
“They would tell me to work hard every practice and to work hard off the court when no one is looking,” Hicks said about his mom and dad. “They would take me to practice, take the train to get to places, and telling me to just work hard and hopefully it pays off.”
Zach Hicks (above, in summer 2019) brings immediate size and shooting ability to the Owls' perimeter. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
This last four weeks have been a pay off for McKie, as he also landed Neumann-Goretti 6-2 guard Hysier Miller in early August. Hicks and Miller join South Miami (Fla.) center Brandon Sanders in McKie’s second recruiting class at Temple.
Hicks will also join South Jersey’s Jahlil White from Wildwood Catholic, who will be a freshman this season at Temple.
“We played against him my sophomore year at Camden Catholic,” Hicks said about White, “but the only player I’ve talked to since we haven’t been on campus yet is Hysier Miller.”
Hicks is the first player from Camden Catholic, one of the most successful New Jersey programs over the last three decades, to join a Big 5 team on scholarship since Dave Slattery in 1982 for Saint Joseph’s. In his junior season for the Irish, Hicks averaged 20 points and 7 rebounds per game, shooting 49% from the floor.
“He is a great kid,” said Matt Crawford, who replaced his father, Jim, a Big 5 Hall of Famer at La Salle in the early 1970’s, as head coach of Camden Catholic seven years ago. “For me, it’s satisfaction as a coach and a teacher to watch kids progress and get better right in front of your eyes is just fun to watch. Anytime someone improves in life, it is just fun to watch, so to be a small part of that feels good. And I feel good for him and his family.
“He is one of those kids who came in as a freshman and played JV and he didn’t get on the varsity floor until he was a sophomore who grew seven inches and developed a jump shot and became a great rebounder and shot blocker,” Crawford said about Hicks. “Watching him progress as a player and a person is really enjoyable.
“I give credit to Zach and his family, he is such a talented player that he could’ve transferred to a bigger school,” Crawford added, “but he stayed loyal to Camden Catholic and our program.
“He has a lot of friends at Camden Catholic, and that is what it is about, he has a good core group of friends at Camden Catholic, he has just been a pleasure to just be around.
“Zach is a stud athlete, but I see him hanging around the hallway with regular guys, he is not conceited or anything like that.”
Hicks gives credit to Crawford –– who played at a Philly college, too, starting at point guard for the University of the Sciences –– and the Irish assistant coaches and his freshman year JV coach, Joe Murtin, who remarkably won his 500th game last February in his 36th season as the Irish junior varsity coach.
“At Camden Catholic, they make sure you play the game the right way,” Hicks said. “They value great shots, they taught me how to play the game the right way.”
Hicks, who plans to major in business, also praises his former coaches at Camden Partnership Schools.
“It was great fun starting there because everyone was friends from school, so it was fun to try and win games together,” Hicks said. “It was just a really good experience.”
An experience that pointed him toward the Ben Franklin Bridge and the shiny Liacouras Center just beyond.
“I knew it,” Nancy Jerome of the Camden Partnership School said about Hicks selecting Temple. “I watched the interaction between Zach and Aaron. You could see the respect.
“Congratulations to all CPS coaches and teachers. Plus congrats to his parents.
“I loved seeing his determination in 4th grade clinics and then I watched him evolved from there,” continued Jerome, a volunteer gym teacher for over 20 years at Holy Name School, which is part of the Camden Partnership Schools. “I loved his family and their commitment. And all along, I have loved his hugs!”