Eamonn Walsh (above) and Devon Prep have been the surprise success story of the PCL this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
When Eamonn Walsh says “basketball was never Devon’s sport,” the Devon Prep senior knows what he’s talking about. After all, his two older brothers both attended and played hoops for the small, all-boys Main Line Catholic school, which has a strong history in baseball and soccer, but not so much on the hardcourt.
That’s obvious from the banners hanging around the school’s gym, a couple state championship banners in baseball and other notable finishes in other sports over the last couple decades. But the basketball banner still has plenty of blank space, with only four league championships to its name. There are seven district titles, including back to back District 1 AA titles in 2011 and 2012, but those didn’t contribute to any long-running momentum.
Which made the scene at Devon Prep on Wednesday afternoon quite unusual, indeed. There was a rowdy student section, a couple dozen seniors let in for the first time all year providing an actual home-court atmosphere for senior day. Multiple reporters there to cover the game. Plenty of buzz in the building, even if the crowd was COVID-limited.
And there was a win, 67-51 over Father Judge. The program’s eighth win in nine games, a win that kept Devon Prep up near the top of the pack in the best hoops league around.
Who saw that coming?
“It’s crazy,” senior Chris Patton said after a 17-point, five-rebound, three-assist performance. “I had no idea it would be like this my senior year. I couldn’t really ask for more.”
When Patton and Walsh arrived at Devon Prep as freshmen in the fall of 2017, they truly had no idea what was in store.
Both came to Devon Prep with plans of playing on the Tide’s basketball team — not exactly a powerhouse in the Bicentennial Athletic League, coming off a 4-11 season the year prior and having last won the league title in 1990. Not that they weren’t planning on taking the sport seriously, but it wasn’t like they were expecting many eyes upon them during the following four years.
Then, before their freshman year even began, their situation changed dramatically: Devon Prep was leaving the BAL for the PCL, joining the Philadelphia Catholic League. In the span of a season, they went from playing in the area’s small-school league to becoming a member of not just the top hoops league in the state but one of the deepest and most talent-filled non-prep school leagues in the country.
“I was like ‘wow, I never thought this would happen,’” Walsh said, but despite the gauntlet ahead, Devon Prep’s players weren’t going to back down: “It’s a challenge, and that’s what we want as a program, as a team, a challenge every night.”
The Tide got that, and then some: though Devon Prep won its first-ever Catholic League game, against Father Judge, it lost the next four by 25+ points and finished 2-12 in league play, taking lump after lump along the way.
Chris Patton (above) had a 17-point outing in the win over Father Judge on Senior Day. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“For the kids, it was eye-opening,” said Jason Fisher, Devon Prep’s head coach and athletics director. “You could tell them as many times as you want that you’re going into a league that’s arguably one of the best leagues in the country and one of the best leagues in the state and you’re playing all these college athletes, but until they actually go through and do it, they don’t truly realize it.”
Fisher added that his group thought they were hard workers before joining the Catholic League, but had to adjust that expectation when they compared themselves against the Division I prospects they now faced on a regular basis. That second season, they made gains in the weight room and practice court, it didn’t change much in the record column; Devon Prep went 3-11 in the PCL, a one-win improvement from the year before, though four of the losses were by five points or fewer. They were figuring it out.
This year, the tide turned, in a big way.
Walsh and Patton kept their starting spots, while sophomores Lucas Orchard and Jacen Holloway stepped up into featured roles after flashing plenty of potential as freshmen. Junior forward Jake Kenney and senior Mike Ferry, two more 2019-20 varsity players, rounded out the returners.
Then there were the newcomers. Fisher added to his roster a pair of junior transfers, Argel ‘IV’ Pettit (West Chester Rustin) and Allen Cieslak (Haverford High), plus an impact freshman guard in Ty Mishock.
Suddenly, Devon Prep had a new wrinkle: quality depth.
“We have 10 guys that can actually shoot the ball, and in years past we haven’t always had that,” Walsh said. “(Teams) have to guard us one through five...we’re a tough matchup for every team that we play.”
Without a preseason or non-league schedule to get the pieces together, the Tide jumped into the deep end, opening the season with losses against Bonner and McDevitt. But they could sense something was different.
“I knew right from the stretch that this is our year,” Walsh said, “because you could just see the momentum and the team grow. Because we have a young team, we start a freshman, we start a transfer, they’re new to the system, I just knew it was going to take a couple games for them.”
Then came the hammer: a 68-34 win at Archbishop Carroll on Feb. 6, and the floodgates opened. They won at St. Joe’s Prep and Archbishop Ryan, returned home to beat Cardinal O’Hara and West Catholic. Neumann-Goretti and Temple-bound Hysier Miller put the Tide in their place a bit with a 67-39 drubbing, but that didn’t deter Devon Prep, which bounced back to win at Lansdale Catholic (by 23) and at home against Conwell-Egan before the Judge win.
Pettit, a 6-0 guard, was leading the team in scoring (16.3 ppg) before getting hurt before the Conwell-Egan game, and he’s expected to miss the remainder of the season. Patton (9.1 ppg), Mishock (8.8 ppg), Orchard (7.7 ppg), Walsh (6.7 ppg), Holloway (6.1 ppg) and Cieslak (4.2 ppg) have all had double-figure scoring outings, and Kenney (3.6 ppg) got close with eight points against Judge.
They’re playing efficient ball, too: they shot 24-of-41 (58.5%) overall and 10-of-21 (47.6%) from the 3-point line against Judge, with over 70% of their buckets (17-of-24) coming on assists.
The youth has been particularly impressive. Holloway (10 pts, 3 rebounds vs. Judge) and Orchard (7 points, 6 rebounds) are two physically adept 6-3 wings, and they’ll be ready to slide into the roles left by Patton and Walsh next year, when those two are playing for one of the multiple D-III programs recruiting them.
Ty Mishock (above) has been one of the area's standout freshman at point for Devon Prep. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Mishock had 15 points and a pair of assists against Judge, getting to the hoop for several nifty finishes, with a smooth outside shot and strong frame for his age. He had to replace a four-year senior point guard in Scranton freshman Nick Crowe, and has done so without missing a beat.
“He’s definitely proved that he can play in this league,” Patton said, “and he’s going to have a really good four years.”
The closing stretch of the regular season is brutal: at undefeated Archbishop Wood, at Roman Catholic (6-1) and at La Salle (5-4), any one of which would be a nifty notch on the belt for the Tide.
At the moment, it’s unclear what’s to follow: in a normal year, even an 8-6 record would mean a top-eight spot and a home game in the playoffs. But this isn’t a normal year, and the plan had been for the PCL to hold only a league championship game on March 13, and only if all the teams played all 14 games. But that’s not going to happen, and one PCL coach told CoBL later Wednesday night that the league’s athletic directors were meeting Thursday to discuss other playoff options given the ever-changing reality of this pandemic season.
Devon Prep is also in the running for a spot in the District 12 3A championship game, but it needs West Catholic to beat Bishop McDevitt on Friday and get some help in tiebreaker situations. If things break right, the Tide would face a 3A team from the Philadelphia Public League for a spot in the PIAA Class 3A field.
Even if they don’t, this year’s seniors know they have a lot to be proud of.
“We’ve definitely changed the program,” Patton said, “but after us, they’re going to be just fine next year.”
Devon Prep: 17 | 16 | 19 | 15 | 67 ||
Father Judge: 7 | 11 | 24 | 9 | 51 ||
Devon Prep: 24-41 FG (10-21 3PT), 9-13 FT
Father Judge: 18-50 FG (11-36 3PT), 4-8 FT
Devon Prep: Patton 17, Mishock 15, Holloway 10, Kenney 8, Orchard 7, Cieslak 5, Walsh 3, Ferry 2
Father Judge: Johnson 21, McCusker 8, Blythe 7, Flowers 7, Patton 5, Reinhardt 2, Lilly 1