Math, Civics & Sciences senior point guard Jaheim Bethea (above) is one of the Mighty Elephants' leaders this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Math, Civics & Sciences has not been short on heralded players in recent years. The backcourt of Malik Archer and Tymair Johnson propelled the Mighty Elephants to consecutive semifinals, including a 2016 state title game appearance. Three years later, Jihad Watson, Zahir Jackson, Semaj Mills and Tvon Jones lifted MCS to the PIAA Class 2A title.
Heading into this season, the Mighty Elephants will be without perhaps their most accomplished player ever. Nisine Poplar, now a freshman at Miami (Fla.), only played three seasons but he will be remembered for decades to come. He scored 1,490 career points and made two All-State first teams, including winning 2A player of the year in 2019-20.
He scored 12 points in the Mighty Elephants’ triumph over Bishop Guilfoyle in Hershey as a sophomore, then became the catalyst for the program’s first Philadelphia Public League title in 2020. He made the game-winning 3-pointer against Lancaster Catholic in last season’s state quarterfinals before his illustrious career came to a close versus eventual champion Loyalsock in the semis.
What Poplar accomplished in three seasons in the Public League was historic and head coach Lonnie Diggs knows his presence will not soon be forgotten.
“He was probably our most decorated player in program history,” Diggs said. “What he meant to us these last three years is immeasurable with the impact he had on our guys and those still on the team, especially the seniors. We look forward to what he started and hope we can keep pushing it forward.”
Also gone from last year’s group are guards Josh Holloman and Tayshon Nixon, who is now playing at Shippensburg. The 2021 class compiled a 62-22 record over the last three seasons, including beating West Catholic in the District 12-3A championship last year.
Diggs is not expecting one player to replicate the numbers and influence Poplar bestowed upon the program, but he still has plenty of options to continue this line of succession that has been built at Math, Civics & Sciences (15-8, 6-1 Philadelphia Public League).
Senior point guard Jaheim Bethea returns for his second season as a starter after manning the point for one of the deepest teams on the Nike EYBL circuit in the last few years. The 6-foot-1 lefty facilitated the offense for a Team Final 17U team that included Dereck Lively II (Duke), Jalen Duren (Memphis), Emoni Bates (Memphis), Justice Williams (LSU), Corey Floyd (UConn), Jameel Brown (Penn State) and Otega Oweh (Oklahoma).
That group claimed the program’s first-ever Peach Jam title in North Augusta (N.C.). Bethea, who holds offers from UMass-Lowell, McNeese State and St. Peter’s, had 14 points in a win during that run, then dished out eight assists in each of the last two contests, including the championship win over Bradley Beal Elite.
It was the continuation of a stellar year for Bethea, who had 12 points and seven assists in the Mighty Elephants’ win over Lancaster Catholic and 16 points in the season-ending loss to Loyalsock. He averaged 8.7 points and 4.6 assists and while the offense was built around Poplar, Bethea made it work to perfection.
“He’s the epitome of a floor general,” Diggs said. “He’s completely selfless and always puts the team first. The experience he gained from playing on Team Final is incredible, and he’s been at the highest level now. He brought that back to us.”
With the departure of Poplar, Bethea understands his pass-first mentality will need to subside in order for MCS to have success this season.
“I don’t think it will be hard because I know how to do it, but I have to do it at this point,” Bethea said. “I like to pass the ball more but as I score more, the facilitating will be there.”
Joining Bethea in the backcourt will be 6-3 senior Trent Middleton, who began his career at now defunct Bishop McDevitt. He averaged 11.9 points per game last season, including a 22-point performance against Class 6A champion Reading and a 31-point outburst against Maritime Academy Charter. Diggs said that Middleton “knows how to put the ball in the bucket and how to play. In my opinion, he’s one of the more under-recruited players in the area so he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder.”
The Mighty Elephants have a flurry of guards that they will interchange throughout the season. Chauncey Pressley, a 6-1 junior combo guard, scored 9 ppg, and Diggs is expecting him to take a major step forward. Aasim Burton, a 6-2 sophomore, played in nine games as a freshman and “he’s one of those guys we’re going to look to on offense, whether it be as a starter or coming off the bench. He’ll have a big role on our team this year,” Diggs noted. Nayeem Johnson, a 6-2 junior, Isaiah Griffin, a 6-4 junior, and Jeff King, a 5-11 junior, should all see increases in minutes and production.
Khalif Crawley (above) is one of the best forwards in the city regardless of league. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Down low, MCS boasts one of the most imposing frontcourts in the Public League. Khalif Crawley returns after averaging 9.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2 blocks per game as a junior. The 6-8 forward holds offers from Howard, UMBC, Stony Brook, St. Peter’s, Radford, North Carolina A&T, NJIT and Mount St. Mary’s.
“He’s come along a lot as a player and person,” Diggs said. “He played on the Nike EYBL circuit with Team Durant so he got very good experience this past summer. We’re hoping he can build off that and see how far he can take it.”
Alongside Crawley will be 7-foot senior Darryon Prescott, who recently committed to play at Florida International. His size is what caught scouts’ attention, but his ability to run the floor and move at his height is what makes him an intriguing prospect. “He’s a late bloomer, but to have a guy at 7-foot that can move, there aren’t that many players that move like that,” Diggs says. Hadir Boswell, a 6-4 senior forward who transferred in from Bonner-Prendergast, will also see time in the frontcourt.
Diggs has loaded the schedule with premiere events, such as Quincy Shootout (Ill.), where MCS will take on St. Louis University High School (Mo.) and Pebblebrook High (Ga.), the Burger King Classic in Erie (Pa.), the Word of God Invitational (N.C.) and the Battle of the Bay in Atlantic City (N.J.). They will also have a difficult road through the Public League A Division with Imhotep Charter, Martin Luther King, Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, Sankofa Freedom and Simon Gratz on the schedule.
Bethea is excited for what this year’s group can accomplish, as long as they work as a cohesive unit.
“When we play together, we’re really good,” Bethea said. “We need to stop doing so much one-on-one. We all know we have to play through each other, make an extra pass and do the little things to make us better.”
Still, he did not sugarcoat what the Mighty Elephants are focused on.
“We’re only focused on Imhotep,” Bethea said. “We’re not going to sleep on anyone, but we know we should be meeting them in the Pub championship.”