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Upstart Bishop Shanahan off to unexpected undefeated start

02/11/2021, 2:30pm EST
By Christy Selagy

Ryan Riotto dribbles the basketball

Ryan Riotto (above) helped Bishop Shanahan beat Avon Grove to maintain an undefeated record. (Photo: Laurie Scaggs)

Christy Selagy (@ChristySelagy)

When Bishop Shanahan tipped off this season, no one, including head coach John Dougherty, expected they’d run the table. After going 7-15 (4-8 Ches-Mont) last season, the Eagles weren't exactly on the league radar they'd been lately.

The Eagles’ best season in recent memory came in 2017-18, when the team went 23-6, winning the program's first league title in 15 years. Led by center Kevin Dodds, now a junior at Division II Gannon, Bishop Shanahan made an historic run, winning its first PIAA Tournament game since 1985.

A loss in the PIAA Class 5A second round ended that season. The Eagles couldn’t replicate their success the following season, going 6-16 (4-8 Ches-Mont). Dougherty wasn’t the coach then; that was Ken Doyle, who joined Haverford College as an assistant coach in the 2019-2020 season.

So, with the powerhouse 2107-18 team in the rearview mirror, Dougherty, who was previously the freshman boys coach at Bishop Shanahan, knew he had his work cut out for him when he took the reins last season.

“Last year was a transitional year for us,” Dougherty said. “I knew we had some decent juniors and seniors and then we had some good sophomores that were there last year. It was just an attempt to blend it all in. It was a very educational experience and a learning experience for me and my staff and I think even the players.”

Coming into this season, Dougherty knew his team would be better. He was optimistic they’d be over .500, but he never would have guessed they’d be 7-0. Not far into the season, the Eagles have already matched their win total from last season.

The most recent victory came on Tuesday, when Bishop Shanahan beat Avon Grove 54-50.

“The game was pretty much tight all the way through, really competitive,” senior Ryan Riotto said. “Probably our most hard-fought win. I think it was kind of tight the whole game, so we had to play smart and really focus. That’s why it felt good because it was competitive the whole way through and we’re happy about it.”

Hard-fought wins have been the story all season. The Eagles also never rely on just one player in any game. Riotto was one of four players to score double digits for the Eagles in their win over Avon Grove: Junior Zane Domsohn scored 13, Riotto and junior Will O’Loughlin each had 11, and senior Ryan Smyth scored 10.

“The beauty of our team this year is any of the guys on the squad are able to step up,” Dougherty said. “Everybody has a role. They might not score, but they’re doing what they’re supposed to and they’re helping the other players do their role.  … We don’t have a star. We have a group of guys that each step up. I think that’s why we’re harder to defend.”

Throw in guys like Cooper Jordan, Tommy Dougherty, and Evan Kapczynski, to name a few, and the Eagles have a recipe for success each game. It’s never just one player. It’s everyone working together to fill their roles.

Ryan Smyth drive to the basket

Ryan Smyth (above) has been a solid presence for a Bishop Shanahan team that relies on all players. (Photo: Laurie Scaggs)

One moment particularly stands out to Dougherty as a key to unifying and motivating the team. In their second game of the season, Riotto hit a 3-pointer with less than one second left to give his team the win over West Chester East. Dougherty sees that moment, and winning close games in general, as one of the driving forces in the team’s dominance so far.

The stellar but unexpected start to the season begins with last year’s struggles. With a better idea of the team’s strengths and weaknesses, Dougherty had a vision of what to do and how to enhance his staff coming into this season. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed any semblance of a typical season, but, once cleared to return, Dougherty and his staff pushed forward with changes.

“We developed different parts of our offense around our abilities as players,” Dougherty said. “We have plays, we have sets, but it’s more about teaching them movements as opposed to plays because if the play breaks down, they don’t know what to do. So we’re putting the responsibilities and the initiatives on the players to read the defense.”

The Eagles managed to have a few days of tryouts and five or six practices before increased COVID restrictions shut them down. Dougherty wasn’t deterred, though. He used FastDraw to keep track of all his plays and diagrams and held Zoom meetings with the team twice a week to keep them updated and engaged, hoping that would make the transition back to practices and games easier.

There are also less tangible factors to which the team has credited its success.

“If you don’t have trust then you probably won’t win any games,” Domhson said. “For me, personally, I have the time of my life playing with those guys. Last year and the year before, it was fun, but it was just like another day. This year, we’re all so competitive and we all want to win that it’s just like everyone has a different mindset this year.”

Those strong connections have even come from the players all adjusting to wearing masks during games. Just small things that help foster friendships and build trust.

Having a long run in the postseason is on the Eagles’ collective mind, but the team is focused on enjoying and improving in the present.

“We just take it one possession at a time,” Smyth said. “I think that’s good. We don’t look too far ahead for the next games… We’ve played together really well. We all really like each other on and off the court. We don’t really care who scores the most points or anything like that. We enjoy playing with each other.”

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