Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
(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.)
Since taking over as Chester’s head coach in 2017, Keith Taylor has gone through his share of rebuilds. Heading into his first season at Chester High School after taking over for Larry Yarbray, he had to replace three double-digit scorers in Jamar Sudan, Ahrod Carter and Jordan Camper. Two years later, he had to replace Michael Smith (Kutztown), a standout floor general and the unquestioned leader of that Clippers team.
As he transitions into his fifth season at the helm, Taylor may be in store for his biggest rebuild at one of Pa. most legendary programs, starting with one of the best Clippers in recent memory: four-year starter Karell Watkins.
Karell Watkins (above) departs after scoring more than 1,400 points in a Chester uniform. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The 6-foot-5 forward finished his career seventh in program history with 1,424 points while adding 781 rebounds. He was a Pa. All-State Class 5A First Team selection after averaging 22.5 points and 12.2 rebounds as a senior. That followed a junior season where he was a Class 6A Second Team pick.
Watkins was as multifaceted as any player to come through the Clippers program in Taylor’s tenure, which began as an assistant in 1993-94, and his presence will be sorely missed.
“A guy that gave you 23 and 12 each night, you're definitely going to miss that,” Taylor said. “He was a monster each and every night. You just had to worry about what everybody else was going to do. This year, we have to find that person and those other people, as a matter of fact.”
Taylor, a 1987 graduate, scored 1,048 points during his career at Chester and is a member of the school’s Hall of Fame. Watkins may someday be there after what he helped accomplish in his illustrious career: three straight trips to the state quarterfinals, including an appearance in the PIAA Class 5A semifinals last season.
While Chester (13-2, 6-0 Del Val League) fell to Archbishop Ryan at the Clip Joint, it did not diminish their success during a shortened season brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Clippers won their fourth consecutive Del Val League crown and captured the District 1-5A title with Watkins scoring 24 points in the victory over West Chester Rustin.
Watkins was part of a strong contingent of players that the Clippers will need to find replacements for heading into the 2021-22 season. Fareed Burton, who avg. 16.3 points, 4.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game, is doing a prep year at Taylor Made Prep Academy (Ariz.). He led Chester with 27 three-pointers made a year ago. His cousin, Jameel Burton Jr., who began his career at Cardinal O’Hara, avg. 9.9 points per game and is now playing at East Stroudsburg.
Shaquan Horsey, a 6-7 forward, was part of the front court with Watkins and is playing at Butler Junior College (Kan.), a program that has produced players like former Boston Celtics and Memphis Grizzlies guard Tony Allen. Also gone is Kyree Womack, who averaged 5.1 ppg as a freshman and made three clutch free throws to force overtime against Crestwood in the Class 5A quarterfinals; he transferred to Roman Catholic.
Taylor has his work cut out for him and he is looking forward to the challenge of getting this brand-new group of Clippers to band and play together.
Chester celebrates winning the 2021 District 1 5A championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“We had a bunch of guys who were hungry last year because they had a taste of it the year before,” Taylor said. “We were right there but didn’t get it and now we basically have a brand new team. Our core group is basically sophomores and it’s going to be a learning experience because it’s new to them.”
“We want them to come in, play hard and give us everything they have. We may take some bumps but at the same time we’re going to be there to play. I want these guys to give us everything they have and have the cards fall where they land.”
The versatility Taylor saw in Watkins, he sees in 6-5 sophomore forward Larenzo Jerkins. After playing in 11 games as a freshman, Jekins will move to the starting lineup and be called upon to do a bulk of the scoring and rebounding. According to Taylor, “he’s one of the hardest workers we have and he’s always in the gym. He’s going to be a phenomenal player. Since he’s only in tenth grade, by the time he’s a junior and senior he will be a monster. He’s going to have all types of offers, I believe.”
Quadir Lowrie was the Clippers sixth man last season and will move to the point guard spot. The 5-9 senior guard averaged 3.2 ppg and started a number of games when Horsey was out with an injury.
“He has plenty of heart and needs to make good decisions,” Taylor said. “He will be holding the ball for us all the time.”
Isaiah Freeman, a 6-3 senior guard and the talented starting quarterback for the Clippers’ football team, averaged 4.2 points and 5.8 rebounds while playing in every game a season ago. Kevin Rucker Jr., a 6-5 sophomore guard, played JV and varsity as a freshman and Taylor states, “he can knock it down, but he has to get stronger.”
Two players who saw limited action last season but will see their minutes increase immensely are 6-5 sophomore guard Dominic Toy and 5-10 senior guard Yinka Itabiyi. Taylor has high hopes for 6-4 junior guard Tahkwel Walker, who is “fairly new to playing ball. He’s getting used to the organized game of knowing where to be on the floor.”
Quadir Lowrie (above) returns for his senior year as one of the more experienced players on the Clippers' roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
While youth is the biggest question mark, Taylor is excited to teach this team about the history of Chester basketball and what it means to don that Clippers uniform.
“These young guys are going to have to grow up quickly,” Taylor said. “We tell them all the time: you have a target on your back. These teams want to beat you, not just from this year but from years past with what other Chester teams have done to those teams.”
Chester will open its season at home on Dec. 14 against Chester Charter Scholars Academy in the Fred Pickett Play-by-Play Classic. They will also meet Archbishop Carroll, Downingtown West, Coatesville and Cardinal O’Hara in nonleague play. Despite four straight titles, the road through the Del Val League will be tough once again against the likes of Academy Park, Penn Wood, Chichester and Interboro.
Taylor was a longtime assistant under Yarbray and the Clippers secured two PIAA Class 4A titles in that time. He has been an integral part of Chester basketball history as a player and coach. He understands this season will be one of trial and error but his goal is to get this year’s group to play the style that has made Chester one of the premiere programs not only in Pa. but nationally.
“In the past, playing for Chester made it feel like you were up 10 when you walked in a gym,” Taylor said. “Now, these guys feel as though it’s still that way but no one is afraid of you anymore. That’s what I’m trying to get through to these guys. It’s no longer the days where you just come in and somebody is lying down for you. They’re going to have to earn everything they get.”
“We talk about the history of the program each and every day. We show them the banners and pictures of some of the former players. Some of the older guys come in and speak to them. We’re trying to keep them abreast of what’s going on as well as what they have to look forward to and expect.”