Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This story is the first in CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2021-22 season preview coverage. As we publish more, the complete list of schools previewed will be found here.)
The sight at the beginning of Westtown’s practice on a Thursday afternoon in late September is the type that has head coach Seth Berger knowing his team’s in good hands. Star forward Dereck Lively II, bound for Duke next year and likely the NBA after that, was on one end of the court, running a drill for half the squad; Berger’s son Quin Berger, a senior guard, was directing another.
Dereck Lively II (above, in May) is the latest in a long line of impressive Westtown centers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Lively’s drill had players sprinting from the baseline out to one of two chairs set up at each elbow, a basketball on each, players alternating sprinting from the baseline to one of the chairs, grabbing the ball, then attacking the bucket. Lively, the 7-foot-1 center and top-two prospect in his class, was giving nonstop instructions through sets of six reps each.
“Spin left, get to the rim,” he implored one freshman forward. “Next one, next one. Dunk it with both hands.”
It’s no surprise to Seth Berger that his stars run the show; that’s the culture he’s built up at Westtown in his decade-plus at the high-academic West Chester boarding school with an international flair. From the likes of Daniel Ochefu (Villanova) and Yilret Yiljep (American) through Mo Bamba (Texas), Jalen Warley (Florida State) and Franck Kepnang (Oregon), it’s been high-level talent helping developing high-level talent, year after year.
That’s how the Moose have rolled to seven consecutive Friends’ Schools League championships. It’s a run which went on hold last season but which they have every intention of continuing this time around, along with defending their Pa. Independent School Athletic Association (PAISAA) state title.
“When your best player is a great leader and your heart of the team,” Berger said, “you've got a chance to be pretty good.”
Such is the talent at Westtown that even a projected future first-round draft pick like Lively has +to earn his spot and wait his turn, behind the likes of 7-footers like Kepnang, who went to Oregon last year — and whom he started alongside as a sophomore — or John Bol Ajak, now in his third year at Syracuse.
Even last year, during a somewhat-abbreviated COVID season, it was a team led by Warley and Albany pledge Ny’Mire Little, Lively knowing he had one more year to wait until it was truly his time to take over. That time — if it wasn’t clear enough from his massive summer with Team Final that saw him win a Peach Jam championship and skyrocket up the national rankings — is now.
“It’s a new role, going from just being a role player to being the main focus and the leader of the team,” Lively said. “Since this year I'm taking the role of the main player, I’ve got to bring the most energy, the most leadership [and] communication. Make sure that people who are just getting on the team, freshmen and sophomores, know their roles and just know how the system works.”
Lively doesn’t have to shoulder the burden on his own. Quin Berger, the younger brother of T.J. Berger (San Diego) and one of the team’s starting guards, has been preparing for this year for more than a decade; forward Alpha Bangura, and guards Wade Chiddick and Diego Uribe are three more seniors in the top eight.
It’s a group that all returns from last year, when the Moose went 19-5, though the Friends’ Schools League mostly took the year off. Instead of playing a national-level schedule as has become the norm during Berger’s tenure, they played schools like Perkiomen, Olympus, Rocktop and Phelps multiple times, giving the team plenty of live action against quality competition, even if it wasn’t the type they’d hoped for.
On top of that returning core, they’ve now added Penn State commit Jameel Brown, a 6-4 shooting guard who’d previously been at the Haverford School, to the roster. Brown will slot right into the starting lineup along with Quin Berger, Lively, the 6-8 Bangura and 6-6 junior Matt Mayock, a sharpshooter in his second year in the program. Chiddick and Uribe, as well as junior guard Seyphon Triplett and freshman forward Ben Rill, should eat up the majority of the remaining minutes.
Quin Berger (above), whose father Seth coaches the team, is one of the Moose's senior leaders. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“[In] Dereck, Jameel and Quin, I have three seniors who only care about winning,” Berger said. “They're not going to take any opponent lightly. And I think that those three kids fear losing more than they love winning, which is a great mix.”
This season should also present a different challenge for Westtown: a much-improved Friends’ League.
Westtown has seen some close calls in its run of championships, including a 57-55 triumph over Academy New Church in the title game two years ago, but the regular seasons have seen more blowouts than not. However, that ANC program which has regularly been the second-best squad in the league now has a high-major junior guard in Elmarko Jackson and another D-I bound junior in Deywilk Tevarez, plus an experienced senior class; in addition, the George School is a worthy contender under Ben Luber with a high-major big man of its own in 6-9 junior Kachi Nzeh, a terrific sophomore guard (Christian Bliss) and more.
Shipley, under former Villanova and NBA guard Alvin Williams, and Friends’ Central, under Pitt alum Mike Cook, also have talented youngsters playing for coaches with big visions ahead.
“ANC’s been good for years, but now George is fantastic, Shipley’s going to be good, Friends Central is getting better,” Seth Berger said. ““The top of the league now — ANC and George, any of us could win the league.”
Though the competition is tougher, Westtown is confident. This is a group that’s going to be playing in the likes of the Hoophall Classic in Springfield (Mass.), at an event hosted by Kevin Durant in D.C., at Delaware’s Slam Dunk to the Beach, and other high-profile events throughout the season, playing top programs from across the country.
“We always want to have fun and competitive games,” Quin Berger said of the increased talent in the FSL, “but I think we know what we have and we know who we are and we are expecting to win again.”