Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
(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. The complete list of schools previewed can be found here.)
Kaseem Watson (above) and his identical brother Kareem are two big reasons West Catholic has its eyes on a PCL title. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
If there is any season that can thaw an over-half-century freeze, it’s this year for the West Catholic Prep Burrs.
And they know it.
It’s a team that’s heard ad nauseam how it’s been since 1959 that West Catholic last won a Philadelphia Catholic League championship, led by legends Jim Boyle, Herb Magee and Jimmy Lynam. The Burrs are quite aware of their 62-year drought.
It’s a team that feels it can create new legends in 6-foot-7 senior twins Kaseem and Kareem Watson, 6-8 senior forward Nasir Griffin, 5-9 junior guard Adam “Budd” Clark, 6-5 junior Zion Stanford and 6-4 junior guard MJ Branker Jr. Add 6-5 freshman Isaac Cole and 6-3 junior guard Shemar Wilbanks-Acqui, a transfer from Sankofa Freedom Academy, and the Burrs have both depth and length.
What the Burrs will need to compensate for is the transfer of 6-7 junior forward Anthony Finkley, who left in September for the proving grounds of national prep powerhouse Huntington Prep (W.Va.). Finkley’s star was rising, receiving offers from Rutgers, La Salle, St. Joseph’s, DePaul, UMBC and Marquette.
It stung Burrs’ head coach Miguel Bocachica, who has been building a competitive program over the two previous years. He saw the Burrs go from 6-17 overall (3-11 in the Catholic League) in 2018-19, to 9-14 (5-9) in 2019-20, to 7-5 (6-4) in the pandemic-plagued 2020-21 season—marking the Burrs’ first league winning record since 2009.
West Catholic reached the 2021 District 12 3A championship, where the Burrs lost to Math, Civics and Sciences (61-50).
They’re on the road to the Palestra.
They just have to get there.
“With experience comes confidence, with consistency comes confidence, and these guys have been consistently playing with one another and we’re just trying to play the right way to get to where we need to go,” Bocachica said. “They’re confident in how we want to express how we want to play. Even throughout bumps, we’ve maintained a winning mind frame.
“We’re very versatile. We call it one small—four talls. Other teams don’t have our size. We have guys who can post up and a 5-10 point guard. We have four, five guys who can score 14, 15 points any night. We pass and cut, we share it, we play defense. These guys see the bigger picture. They see a championship at the end.
Shemar Wilbanks-Acqui (above) adds some immediate scoring punch to the Burrs' backcourt. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“But it’s going to take everyone. We don’t have that point 20-point-a-night guy. We do have guys who can score and can defend—and it’s all of them. We have guys who are getting college looks. If we do things the right way, which means pushing them everywhere, in the classroom, off the court, the Palestra will come. We can be pretty good. We’ve tried to chase the Palestra since I’ve been here.”
Making up for Finkley, who averaged around 4 points, 3 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots a game as a sophomore last season but looked in for a much larger output this winter, will be prominent. The Burrs were running their offense through him over the summer.
Bocachica may go with the two-headed concept to compensate, between Stanford and Wilbanks-Acqui.
This is a program that is now expected to win. Every season is an odyssey of growth. The Burrs are still growing. They’re a tall, rangy team that will need to be physically imposing to win. Bocachica says his team is still struggling in understanding their size, understanding where they are, as opposed to where they were.
West Catholic is going to score off its defensive pressure. Their intent is to cause controlled chaos. Because of their length, they can cover large areas of the court, and unhinge opposing teams with traps. The Burrs can also come at you with interchangeable parts.
Junior guard Adam 'Budd' Clark should step into the starting lineup for the Burrs this season as their point guard. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Clark will hold the answers as the point guard. He’ll run the offense—and be counted on to settle things down the times the Burrs are in the half court.
“It’s really simple, we just want to prove we can win, that’s all this season is about—just to win,” said Kareem, who along with his brother have received offers from a number of mid-major programs like Drexel, Delaware State, Eastern Michigan, Niagara, St. Francis, Cleveland State, Bryant and Robert Morris. “We were a team everyone stepped on, and we were stepped on. Now, we know we’re supposed to win.
“Adam Clark is going to be our key. He’s very good, and he’s going to be very important for us. After Finkley left, we’ve had the attitude of next-man-up. It hurt us, but we should be fine. I think really MJ steps up for us there.”
West Catholic is coming off a great summer. The Burrs are counting on continuing that run.
“We all matured from the times we lost in previous years,” Kaseem said. “We have a different kind of swagger. I think our two keys will be Clark and Wilbanks. He comes over from the Public League and I think he’s coming over with a lot to prove.
“It’s going to be a good change for him and a good change for us. We have the size. We have the athletes. We have the experience. We just have to do it. The talking is done.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.