Ty Daubert (@TyDaubert)
(Ed. Note: This story is the latest 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.)
Sophomore guard Christian Bliss (above) is part of an on-the-rise George School program. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Royalty has sat atop the Friends School League for seven seasons in a row, but the George School Cougars hope 2021-2022 is the year they can rise up and steal the throne.
Westtown has claimed the league title each season since 2014, and its star-studded roster gives it a tremendous chance to win it once again. However, if one team can give the reigning champs a run for their money this season, George School might be the one to do it.
“I think we can beat anybody when (our players) are the best that they can be,” third-year Cougars head coach Ben Luber said last month at the City of Basketball Love Interstate Shootout.
While 7-foot-1 Duke commit and No. 2 prospect Dereck Lively II and Penn State-bound Jameel Brown will lead the way for Westtown, George School has its own big man and guard combination as headliners in power forward Kachi Nzeh and point guard Christian Bliss.
It’s a new level of talent at the co-educational private school in Bucks County, which has a mix of boarding and day students. For too long one of the bottom-feeders in the Friends’ League, looking up to the likes of Westtown, Abington Friends, Friends’ Central and others over the years, George School is no longer one to be taken lightly.
An athletic 6-foot-8 junior with a chiseled frame, Nzeh is the anchor of the Cougars defense and the focal point of their offense, offering size, strength and a variety of ways to score from the post. Bliss is a new-coming reclassified sophomore added from Archbishop Malloy (N.Y.) who can complement Nzeh’s game with a pass-first mindset, but also has length at 6-foot-4 and can shoot from the outside.
“Everything starts and ends with Kachi,” Luber said. “He’s really come onto the scene as a known player -- not only in the community, but nationally.
“And Christian Bliss, … he’s a leader. He shows up three times a day to get in the gym. He works on his game, and he’s a brilliant student.”
Both are high-level Division I prospects who’ve already attracted the attention of a ton of coaches.
Nzeh enters the season with college offers from New Mexico State, Siena, Bryant, TCU, La Salle, Creighton, Penn State, Hofstra, Miami, VCU, Maryland and Iowa. Bliss has offers from Siena, Saint Peter’s, Bryant and Drexel, and he’s seen interest from all the Ivy League schools, NC State, Pitt and La Salle.
Kachi Nzeh (above) pulled in offers from Maryland and Iowa in September. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Both of the Cougars’ top players have taken on leadership responsibilities heading into the season. The two typically run the first 20 minutes of George School practices and set the tone for the team, vocally and with their intensity. Nzeh and Bliss have also forged a close friendship with each other and speak glowingly about one another.
“Well, No. 1, I think Christian Bliss is a phenomenal point guard. I think he’s underrated as hell,” Nzeh said of his teammate. “He’s a great player for our team. He can drive, he can finish and he can also see the plays. He’s a very smart player and defensively he’s really good. … Christian is my guy. Without him, I probably wouldn't be the player I am right now. He’s a great fit for me and a great fit for our team.”
“We’re great friends off the court, and it helps on the court,” Bliss said of Nzeh. “The best part of our team is Kachi in the inside. I think my job as a guard is to just find him in the right places for him to excel.”
With the top-end talent present for George School, perhaps the most important factor this season is getting the most out of the surrounding cast next to Nzeh and Bliss. Dante Weise comes to the Cougars as a reclassified junior point guard from Allentown (N.J.) who brings a strong defensive presence. Seniors Evan Effelfinger, a 6-foot-7 forward, and Gestin Liberis, a 6-foot-9 forward bring more size to an exceptionally tall starting lineup. Senior guards Zach White and Kyle Anderson, along with freshman Luke Melniczak, round out the rotation with quickness and 3-point shooting.
“Our role players are definitely going to be the key to the season,” Luber said. “And it’s important to have those guys when you have guys like Christian and Kachi in your program who teams are going to be focusing on.”
Additionally, the team will need to stay locked in defensively throughout the season to reach their full potential. With all the size on the George School roster, perimeter-centric opponents could give George School trouble at points this season. It’s an aspect of the game that can only get better with experience.
“Overall, (we need to) just keep getting better defensively,” Nzeh said. “Offensively, we’ll get there, but right now we just have to be a better disciplined team.”
After playing just four games and going 2-2 last year, the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association competitors will open their schedule -- which includes their Friends League matchups and an invitational at Widener University -- on Dec. 1. It’s a tough slate of games for the Cougars, but Luber said he believes facing quality opponents can help his team improve to a greater degree by season’s end to compete for a Friends League title.
“That’s the challenge,” he said. “Getting to that point and competing at that level. Then you’ll be in a spot to compete for a championship at some point.”
That’s not to say George School is a lock to beat Westtown in a potential Friends League title game, or even to make it there. A team like Academy New Church and its impressive guard play could knock the Cougars out come playoff time, and Shipley and Friends’ Central won’t just roll over either. But with Nzeh, Bliss and the size around them, George School could have a fighting chance against Westtown’s firepower if the two teams end up meeting there. It’s a daunting challenge, but the Cougars will be prepared.
“Obviously, we have Westtown in the league, so it’s going to be a tough matchup,” Bliss said. “But as long as we continue to play hard, work hard, we’re going to be ready for them."