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Battling back from injury, Lower Merion's Sam Davison headed to Franklin & Marshall

05/25/2021, 11:30am EDT
By Jeff Griffith

Jeff Griffith (@Jeff_Griffith21)

Sam Davison spent about 10 days sulking.

Given what he’d experienced, you wouldn’t have blamed him even for a second had he taken more time to regain his spirits. But that’s just not how he’s wired.

Davison, at the time a rising junior point guard in one of Pennsylvania’s most storied high school basketball programs — that of Lower Merion — entered the summer of 2019 poised to take the next step into the Aces’ main rotation; a handful of Lower Merion’s seasoned backcourt contributors had just graduated, and Davison was prepared to help lead the new guard.  

Sam Davison dribbles the basketball

Sam Davison (above) missed his junior season with a torn ACL, but made up for it with a strong senior season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Less than two weeks into that summer, he tore his ACL. It was a freak injury, as ACL tears often seem to be; it didn’t even happen in live game action, but in offseason 1-on-1 workouts. 

“The doctor told me I would miss the whole entire year, from the jump,” Davison said. “It was very defeating. And it was very hard to think about.”

But it only took another two weeks, give or take, to get the comeback started. Within a blink, Davison — who said he was in good spirits for “about 95 percent” of his recovery process — was laser-focused and ready to recover as quickly as his doctors and his body would let him. 

“Probably 10 days after surgery is when I was like, ‘Alright, let's get going,’” Davison said. “That's when I got a clear head with my goal in mind.

“I was like, ‘I'm gonna beat the odds,’” he added. “‘I'm going to try as hard as I can to get back to get my leg stronger again.’”

The short version of Davison’s story is simple; the 5-foot-10 guard battled back from an ACL injury ahead of schedule, tweaked it again at the tail end of his junior year, worked through an entire pandemic and ensuing pandemic-affected season — essentially missing out on not one but two full, normal recruiting cycles — and in the eleventh hour, landed at one of the region’s premier Division III programs. 

Following a recruiting process that started with just weeks left in his senior season, Davison was offered by and accepted the chance to extend his playing career for coach Nick Nichay’s Franklin & Marshall Diplomats.

But after a roller-coaster of a high school career, if you’d asked him about college plans anytime before his first conversation with Nichay — which came right after Lower Merion’s March 16 District 1 6A semifinal win over Garnet Valley — he’d tell you he was “probably going to walk on at a Division III.”

“I had no idea he was paying attention to me,” Davison said. “When I talked to him, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is, like, reality right now.’ And I'm just so grateful.

“Even in, like, late February, I did not think this would happen,” he added.

Davison’s head coach, Gregg Downer, didn’t exactly see it coming, either. 

That’s not to say he didn’t see Davison as a college player — he most certainly did, and it made Davison’s late commitment that much more enjoyable — but prior to Davison and Nichay’s first meeting, Downer was mostly unaware of Franklin & Marshall’s interest in his point guard. 

“I was very focused on the playoffs, and I didn't even really know that that was percolating,” said Downer, who’s been at Lower Merion since the early 1990s. “I mean, I knew that Sam was a really good, highly-academic Division III prospect, but the F&M thing developed pretty quickly.”

It was that March 16 conversation that ultimately catapulted Davison into college basketball. According to Davison, Nichay had been watching streams of his games toward the end of the 2020-21 season and into the postseason, while Davison helped lead the Aces to their first District title in 25 years.

During that run through the District One Class 6A playoffs, Davison posted 18 points in the Aces’ district quarterfinal win over Cheltenham, as well as a 13-point, eight-assist, four-steal, three-rebound outing in Lower Merion’s blowout title game win over Abington. 

Davison said his first conversation with Nichay was brief, but it was something. It was a step toward a college basketball roster spot, essentially his first major step toward that goal having missed out on 18 months’ worth of exposure opportunities. 

Five boys celebrate around a trophy on a basketball court

Davison (center) caught Franklin & Marshall's attention during a senior season where he helped the Aces win their first district championship in 25 years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“It was very fortunate that I played really well, senior year,” Daivson said. “With all camps being closer over the summer it made it tough. I was out of basketball for over a year and a half. And I thought, maybe I won't have it in the tank for this season.

“I sort of doubted myself a little bit, like, ‘Oh, I can't play college basketball at all,’” he added. “But I took it one day at a time during the season. I just worked on my game, got better every day with my teammates and with myself. And I just persevered.”

Once the season was over, Davison took an official visit to Franklin & Marshall, was offered a spot on the roster, and committed that same day. 

He noted shared characteristics between the program at Franklin & Marshall and his own high school program, as well as its wide range of academic opportunities, that contributed to his decision.

“Lower Merion is a great basketball program and they really prepare you for college basketball,” he said. “But setting that aside, the coaches, the two programs, they have a similar style.

“And they have great all around academics,” he added. “I'm not really sure what I want to do in the future, and F&M being a great little liberal arts school, it was the perfect fit for me because I’ll really get an all-around education.”

When Downer looks back at Davison’s career and his progression into a Division III athlete, he simply sees a “fearless winner.” 

On the floor, Downer spoke highly of Davison’s defensive abilities. He called the point guard an “acquired taste” in the sense that he’s not a highlight-reel volume scorer, but said he’s always seen Davison as someone with college-level potential.  

“I think the more you see him, the more you respect what he can do. I think he's one of the best two way guards in district one,” Downer said. “You know, offense is 50% of the equation, and 50% of the equation is defense. And his defense was absolutely outstanding. I always knew that, that he could definitely play Division III ball.”

Downer, of course, acknowledged what he referred to as a “double whammy” in Davison’s career — that being the ACL tear, coupled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — as a major roadblock. But he put a positive spin on it; in his eyes, the lack of exposure turned Davison into a “hidden gem.”

He saw a silver lining for Davison, too, within the pandemic itself. 

“If there was a positive of COVID, you know, it was that it gave his leg the ability to really get to 100 percent,” Downer added. “If he would have rushed back, right around when COVID was beginning, I don't think he would have been 100 percent. But he was just playing better basketball for us as the season went on.”

Ultimately, Downer had highest praise for Davison’s fighting spirit. He sees Davison as a player and person that doesn’t back down from a challenge, as he’s proven on and off the floor.

“His resilience coming back from the ACL was probably as good as you'll ever see,” Downer added. 

That’s the major lesson Davison took from the situation as well.

There was no way of knowing when or if he’d receive the college offer he’d hoped for. But there were plenty of other goals on his plate in the meantime, so he attacked each one as best he could. 

And in the end — right at the buzzer, really — it paid off.

“I just took it one day at a time,” he said. “I didn't really think about, ‘Am I gonna play college basketball?’ I just tried to be the best me.”

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