New Hope-Solebury senior Alex Walinski (above) committed to D-II West Chester (Pa.) last month. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
There wasn’t anything particularly extraordinary about New Hope-Solebury’s 44-32 win over Central Bucks West on Feb. 13, 2021. It wasn’t for a championship or even meaningful for postseason positioning, nobody scored 30 points or hit a full-court buzzer beater.
But when CB West coach Adam Sherman watched New Hope senior Alex Walinski score 13 points, grab six boards and dish out four assists against his Bucks, he knew he had to make a call. So he dialed up his old buddy Damien Blair, head coach at West Chester, and made a recommendation. Call it an educated hunch.
“I’ve been coaching enough, you can see what skill sets are needed to play at certain levels,” Sherman said. “For some kids you can pinpoint the level they could play at or at least let coaches know that it’s worth them taking a look at.”
Blair and WCU assistant coach Dane Watts reached out to the 6-foot-4 New Hope senior shortly thereafter, getting to know him and his parents, Chris and Lynn. It wasn’t long before they offered him a scholarship to West Chester, which has one of the top men’s basketball programs in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC), with four NCAA Tournament appearances in the last seven years.
By the end of March, Walinski was committed to play for the Golden Rams.
“Having West Chester reach out was a really great thing,” he said. “I’m super-excited to get out on the court […] it means a lot to be able to play for a big school that’s local in the area that I’ve seen in the past, so I’m just super excited.”
West Chester wasn’t the only school on Walinski’s recruitment; D-IIIs Gettysburg and Franklin & Marshall were involved until the end, and D-IIs including Seton Hill (Pa.) and West Virginia Wesleyan (W.Va.) had talked to Walinski as well.
As it turns out, Sherman’s phone call wasn’t a random act of kindness: even though New Hope-Solebury High School was a brand-new member of the Suburban One League, Sherman was already plenty familiar with the Lions. For the last 26 years, he’s been a health and physical education teacher at the small suburban public school stashed up in the most northeastern reaches of the Philadelphia suburbs.
Walinski had Sherman as a teacher each of his four years at New Hope, and both said they see each other every day in the halls, at least during non-COVID times. Sherman had also gotten to see Walinski’s game during summer leagues, but their matchup this year was the first time he’d seen Walinski up close during regular-season action.
“I had pretty good tabs on him, what kind of player he is and what his strengths and weaknesses are, and I just thought it was somebody that was worth Damien taking a look at,” said Sherman, who coached at New Hope from 1996-2001 before taking over at CB West. “Kids from New Hope typically get overlooked because it’s a smaller school, but Alex [...] definitely (was) something worth taking a look at.”
“When (Sherman) reached out to (Blair) on my behalf, I was really appreciative because it meant he respected me and liked me as a player, so that meant a lot,” Walinski said. “I’ve talked to him since then and thanked him, and he’s always looking out.”
Walinski (above) puts up a shot during New Hope's game against Pope John Paul II in the 2021 District 1 4A championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
As a senior, Walinski averaged 15.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 2.4 apg as a senior for the Lions, who finished 6-13 in their first year moving from the small-school Bicentennial Athletic League to the Suburban One. One of only a few 4A schools in District 1, they were able to qualify for the district championship game against Pope John Paul II but couldn’t pull off the upset.
Going from playing largely small, private Christian schools to the big Bucks County and Montgomery County public schools was a massive jump for New Hope, which only has about 500 students in its high school.
“It was definitely a little bit of a shock early on,” said first-year head coach Derek Brooks, who’d spent the last three seasons as Sherman’s assistant at CB West. “We started off 0-5 [...] it was definitely a little bit of a ‘whoa,’ this is a new league, this is no joke. But after that I thought the guys did a phenomenal job, we went 6-6 in our next 12 games and they battled through adversity all year long.
“We knew we were the smallest team in the league and we had this poster we looked at all the time, a little cat looking at a reflection of a big lion and it just said ‘mentality’ on the bottom,” Walinski said. “We had to have that lion mentality, no matter how small we looked to the opponents.”
Going from District 1 to the PSAC is going to be another big jump for Walinski. Under Blair, West Chester is 224-112 (.647) in 12 seasons, going 20-10 in 2019-20, the program’s last year of competition. Though Brooks only coached Walinski for one season, he likes Walinski’s fit at the next level for his versatility, length, and three-level scoring ability.
“He’s a good athlete, can dunk off one foot, two foot,” Brooks said. “He’s long, he’s fast-twitch, he made some plays for us this year that you’re like ‘wow.’ He had high-level talent.”
It’s not a school with a ton of basketball history: former head coach Rick Fedele, who was there from 2000 until taking the job at Hatboro-Horsham last year, remembered only two of his players going on to the next level: 2015 grad Andre Garibaldi, who played at D-III Sarah Lawrence (N.Y.), and 2013 grad Matt Massimino, who walked on at Fordham, became a grad assistant at Villanova and is now a scout with the Phoenix Suns.
To Fedele’s knowledge, Walinski is the first boys’ basketball scholarship recipient in the program’s history. For a kid who’s been watching New Hope basketball games since well before he got to ninth grade, Walinski has now helped raise the bar for the program moving forward.
“[I remember] going and watching the [New Hope] basketball games and seeing all these guys and thinking how good they were and how crazy it was that someday I would be there,” he said. “To think that I was one of those guys who was looked up to by the younger guys and seen as ‘that guy’ as a basketball player in the school...it’s definitely really cool.”