Octorara Area grad Tarojae Brake (above) found himself matched up against an old friend earlier this season. (Photo courtesy Saint Peter's Athletics)
Christian Ray listened as head coach Ashley Howard called out signals from the sideline. La Salle was playing Saint Peter’s in the Joe Lapchick Tournament at St. John’s (N.Y.) and was about to run an out-of-bounds play under the basket.
As the sophomore wing got into position, a familiar voice said, “What’s going on bro?”
It was former Octorara Area High School teammate, Tarojae Brake, now a graduate transfer for the Peacocks. It had been six years since the two last took the court together, when Brake was a senior and Ray a freshman, and only in practices that year were those two ever on opposite sides. Now, they were facing off on the D-I stage.
“It was crazy, never would have expected it, definitely wouldn’t have expected it,” Ray said. “I was just like ‘I’m good, how are you doing,’ and he’s like ‘I’m good,’ and the play happened.”
That interaction might not have seemed particularly interesting, but it meant a great deal to Octorara head coach Gene Lambert. Ray and Brake’s meeting is only two-thirds of the whole story, though, which Lambert calls “a dream come true.”
An 18-hour drive from Queens, Dominik London was participating in practice at Florida Gulf Coast. That trip pales in comparison to the magnitude of how far all three have come in the last six years, and what it represents for their hometown.
Christian Ray (above, in 2015-16) was one of the top players in the Ches-Mont even as an underclassman. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Octorara Area is about 10 miles west of Coatesville, in the town of Atglen in Chester County, straddling the border of Lancaster County, in an area Ray described as “not Amishland,” but “five minutes from it.” The school houses about 1,100 students betweens seventh and 12th grades, about 800 in the traditional high school classes (9th-12th).
When Lambert, a ‘91 graduate, played there, Octarara was not well-known in the area, though the school did win a pair of Southern Chester County League championships in the 1990s. When Lambert began his tenure as head coach in 2000, he wanted to make sure people knew that the school with less than 1,000 students had a respectable program.
The 2011 District 1 Class 3A championship team produced a Division II player in Dequan Newton (Cheyney) and two Division III players, Lamont Clark and Chucky Cooper, both of whom starred at Alvernia.
There was success, but not the type that brought wider recognition to the school. That was on its way.
Ray and London had known each other since they were seven, and began to push each other to become better basketball players while in middle school, Ray taking the sport more seriously than London did at the time. Their freshman year, they met Brake, a senior who had come over from Coatesville when he was in sixth grade, and though he’d originally wanted to get back to play for Coatesville, it was with the help of Lambert that he realized he was in good hands at Octorara.
“If you’re a good person and he sees that, he’s going to do what he can to help you,” Brake said. “I think one thing I took away from him was to work hard and the rest will take care of itself.”
Brake, Ray and London played together for just one year in high school, but it was a special season indeed.
With Brake one of the team leaders in his senior season, Octorara had one of its best seasons ever, finishing 24-2 and advancing to the PIAA Class 3A state playoffs. Brake averaged a team-high 22.5 points per game on his way to being named Pa. All-State Class 3A Second Team and finished his career with 1,219 points. His strong showing drove him to a prep year at the Phelps School before he committed to Division II Lock Haven.
“You knew what you were going to get with Tarojae, every single night,” Ray said. “You knew you were going to get 20 from him, you knew he was going to help lead the team and be that positive voice.”
Tarojae Brake (above, at Kutztown in 2019-20) was Octorara's on-court leader and leading scorer for the 2015 district championship run. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Ray was Octorara’s sixth man as a freshman, averaging 5.4 ppg, while London spent the season on JV and as a practice player with the varsity squad, not quite ready for varsity action.
Octorara wound up winning the Ches-Mont League American Division and the District 1 Class 3A titles that season. They put together a dominant run on their way to the district crown, notably pulling out a three-point triumph over Pottsgrove in the semifinals, where Ray helped seal the victory.
“We were up by two with eight seconds left and I got fouled,” Ray said. “I’m a freshman, I’m like, if I miss it and we lose, we’re done. And I just remember being on the line and looking over at Lambert, him calming me down, and looking at Tarojae and him calming me down, too. I was able to split it, we were able to guard and ended up winning. That’s one of those moments I’ll always remember.”
Octorara closed out the run with a 26-point statement over Glen Mills to lift Octorara to its first district title in four years. The season ended in the first round of the PIAA Class 3A Tournament at the hands of eventual runner-up, Archbishop Carroll, which boasted Derrick Jones Jr. (Portland Trail Blazers), Ryan Daly (St. Joe’s) and David Beatty, Ray’s teammate with the Explorers.
Following Brake's graduation, Ray took on more of the scoring load as a sophomore in 2015-16. He averaged 23 ppg as a sophomore and won the Ches-Mont League Player of the Year, but, after the season, he chose to transfer to The Haverford School and repeat his sophomore year.
It was the right move for Ray, who used that extra year to boost his basketball stock and prove himself as a sure-fire Division I recruit. His relationship with Lambert became tense, though it didn’t stay that way for long.
“When I decided to leave, me and him didn’t talk for over a year,” Ray said. “It was a rocky time, it was hard on both sides and both sides were hurt. Then, I saw him one day and things clicked back again, and ever since then he texts me all the time, tells me how proud of me he is.”
Ray blossomed into a star with the Fords, averaging 20.0 ppg over three seasons and winning two Inter-Ac MVPs (and titles). The 6-5 wing propelled the Haverford School to the 2019 PAISAA title and an undefeated 28-0 record, proving to be an almost impossible-to-defend inside-out presence, with an ever-running motor. He finished his career as the Haverford School’s all-time leading scorer (1,661 points), and picked La Salle over a host of other mid-level Division I offers.
“I always knew Christian was going to be good because of his work ethic,” Brake said. “We would stay after school and shoot before and after practice. When he grew a couple inches and got in the weight room, his game took off. He worked hard for it.
Dom London (above, as a sophomore in 2015-16) starred for two years at Harcum after graduating Octorara. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With his two former teammates having moved on, it was finally London’s time to shine. The 6-1, 145-pound guard with range to about midcourt took command of the team over his final two years, averaging 29 ppg as a senior and became Octorara’s all-time leading scorer (1,244 points).
Numerous D-II and D-III schools were interested in London’s services by the time his senior year ended, but his path changed after Lambert put him on his team for the Donofrio Classic in Conshohocken that spring.
“(Harcum College) head coach Drew Kelly was in the gym,” Lambert said. “Dom had a great game and shot the ball very well. Kelly walks up to me after the game and says, ‘Who is this kid? I want to offer him a scholarship.’”
At the Main Line junior college, all London did was become one of the best players in its short-but-illustrious history. He scored 1,051 points in two seasons, good for third-most in program history; despite the team being only 15 years old, the Bears have routinely pumped out Division I players thanks to the school’s designation as the area’s only Division I JUCO.
London became the latest in that group when he signed with FGCU, joined by classmates like Valdir Manuel (New Mexico), Nick Brennen (Manhattan), and Cantavio Dutreil (Sacred Heart). In doing so, he officially became the first Octorara grad to become a Division I signee.
“It was definitely special, because I was definitely the first one,” London said. “It just gives me more motivation as well (to inspire) the younger guys who are growing up in the Octorara community, really just chase your dreams, anything’s possible, no matter where you go.”
Brake, meanwhile, had transferred to Kutztown after two seasons at Lock Haven, departing after a sophomore year where he averaged 12.8 ppg. After sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules, he did not disappoint in his return, averaging 16.0 points while starting 27 of 28 games last season.
Heading into his final year of eligibility, Brake was unable to apply for a federal Pell Grant and chose to finish his degree somewhere that could offer him a full ride, entering the NCAA transfer portal afterward.
“When I officially entered the portal, I had about 25 Division I schools reach out to me,” Brake said. “In a humble way, I thought I could play Division I. If things had worked out [with the grant], I would’ve stayed at Kutztown because I loved it there.”
He was intrigued by the idea of playing at Saint Peter’s for head coach Shaheen Holloway, as the former Seton Hall assistant had the MAAC program on the rise, winning 18 games a year ago and returning a decent portion of its talent. So with his one year of eligibility left he made the leap, officially becoming the third member of that old Octorara squad to put ‘Division I player’ on his resume.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Brake said. “It’s something that we all dreamed of and it came with hard work.”
In the COVID-affected 2020-21 season, they’re all having an effect on the court.
Ray, the obvious D-I prospect of the three since his Octorara years, has become a crucial part of the La Salle program in his second year, playing an average of 22 minutes over his first 36 career games (12 starts). One of the team’s vocal and emotional leaders, Ray’s averaging 6.0 pts and 4.3 rebounds this season, playing the fourth-most minutes in a rotation that features no fewer than 10 bodies seeing 16 minutes each.
London (3.8 ppg) and Brake (3.2 ppg) have both become key reserves for their programs, getting their feet wet at the Division I level but each have yet to have a true breakout game; Brake has the highest output of the two, a 10-point, three-rebound effort in 15 minutes of a win over Stony Brook.
(Ed. Note: That was, until London had 22 points on Dec. 18)
Brake also got bragging rights over Ray, his Peacocks taking out the Explorers 62-51 back on Nov. 27. London, who’s planning on staying at FGCU for two more seasons as this one won’t count against his eligibility — Brake said he hadn’t talked to Holloway about playing beyond this year just yet — is hoping to get a chance to play La Salle at some point while he’s at FGCU.
Lambert is thrilled to see all of it.
“All three of their stories are very different but it’s crazy that they all played on the same team,” Lambert said. “This is where they are and it’s amazing that they’re all from a little school.”.
All three said they were keeping close tabs of the others, watching or streaming their games when possible and staying on top of their stats when not. They’re speaking regularly, sharing group texts between themselves and Lambert whether it’s game day or not.
“I’m always checking in on things outside of basketball with both of them because that’s what really matters most.,” Brake said. “One day, the basketball is going to stop bouncing.”
They also worked out together all summer during the COVID break, just as they’ve done the last few offseasons.
The three feel a special connection to their former teammates and all that they have persevered through to become the most heralded players in Octorara history.
“I don’t want to say everybody knows, but basically everybody knows who you are...it’s special when you see them and just want to have a conversation with you,” London said. “Now it’s like we’re the headline of Octorara, pretty much, for basketball, so that’s pretty cool.”