Gregg Downer (above) coached his team to multiple upset wins this postseason. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Kevin Cooney (@KevinCooney)
In a normal season, having Abington or Lower Merion’s names standing on the final two lines of a PIAA District One Class 6A bracket would hardly be considered an unusual occurrence.
However, nothing about basketball or life in 2020-21 could be considered normal.
Every day brought the chance of finality and a season being canceled with just one outbreak of COVID-19.
“When my AD [Jason Stroup] walks into the gym, my heart skips because we’ve been testing and you wonder if someone is going to test positive and everything will stop,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer said in a phone interview on Wednesday night. “We all realize that the ball could stop bouncing at any minute. It did stop for a lot of teams. It stopped for us, and we were not able to compete for the Central League title.”
The Ghosts also had their season paused for two weeks in February due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
“We weren’t sure we would play or not,” Abington coach Charles Grasty said Wednesday. “Our school board voted [in December] and wanted to make sure about our safety- which is totally understandable. We weren’t sure if we would go forward [in December or February]. They talked about it a little more and gave OK to play. And our guys were appreciative. But once you get that OK, you aren’t thinking about what we could do in district playoffs or a state playoff berth. We just wanted to play the game and have fun.”
This most unusual season in District One will come to a close on Friday night when Abington travels to Bryant Gymnasium to face Lower Merion for the District One 6A title and the lone berth in the abbreviated PIAA Championships. (There will be no crowd allowed inside the building.)
The winner gets either Archbishop Wood or William Allen in the state semifinals on Tues., March 23.
“All these games are uniform games,” Downer said. “You win or you go home and collect the jerseys. There’s always urgency at this time of year, but there’s a bit more knowing there’s no tomorrow.”
“We’re looking forward to playing a great program like Lower Merion and to have a chance to keep competing,” Grasty said. “At the beginning of the year, it wasn’t about making a state run or winning a state title. It was about staying healthy. But having the chance that we have has been great.”
Even within the bracket, the two teams have taken different than normal paths in coming from the middle of the pack.
Abington has come from the 14th seed and the play-in round, beating Kennett (39-36), Plymouth Whitemarsh (66-48), West Chester East (50-49) and CB East (56-54) to reach the championship game for the quest of a fifth district crown under Grasty.
Charles Grasty (above, last season) and his Abington team won their semifinal matchup in double overtime. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Senior point guard Rob Bell — who hit the game-winning layup in overtime against CB East — and small forward Oreck Frazier have been through the journey before, but Grasty has used 11 different starting lineups in 17 games in trying to mix and match combinations that work.
“We don’t have that 1,000 point or 2,000 point scorer like we’ve had in the past,” Grasty said. “But what we’ve done is just trust our guys. We have really strong leadership on the floor and we’ve had guys who have stepped up to the challenge.”
Lower Merion was the No. 9 seed and has returned to its home gym in seeking its first district title since 1996’s legendary state title team was led by Kobe Bryant. (The Aces have lost four district titles since then — all to Chester.) Senior point guard Sam Davison and junior center Demetrius Lilley have been the leaders for the Aces.
Though the Aces get to host the championship game, they’ve so far won all their district playoff games on the road: at Downingtown West, Cheltenham, and Central foe Garnet Valley in the semifinals.
“We’ve got some good role players and some decent shooters,” Downer said. “Most importantly, we’ve done what you want to do and that’s play your best basketball in the playoffs.”
The fact that both teams have managed to survive to this point is a testament to the talent and atmosphere that both programs have developed. While Grasty and Downer are both veterans, the season has been one of adaptation.
“The practices are not as long and there’s so many moving parts with COVID that you try to focus on three or four areas that you do well,” Downer said. “When you have more time, you maybe work on five or six things that you do well.
“There’s a condensed feeling with this, so you want to make sure that you are working on the things that work. But you really want to make sure you leave the court with no infections. That’s the reality of the whole sports world right now.”
For Grasty, the impact has been one he’s felt from the Abington community.
“There are people in our community with health or a family member who have been impacted [by COVID],” Grasty said. “We know what’s been happening. Our players have been impacted. And we’ve been hearing from them that we’re giving them a couple of hours of joy and putting a smile on some faces. That’s been great, and it’s been bigger than basketball.”