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.)
Two years removed from taking team-to-beat Westtown down to the wire in the most recent Friends School League title game, Academy New Church intends to make noise in the league once again in 2021-2022.
With the Moose still atop the FSL and a much-improved George School also vying for its shot at a championship, contending won’t be an easy task. But with a pair of talented guards leading the way, the Lions should have the pieces to stay right in the mix.
Kevin Givens (above) and Academy New Church made it to the FSL championship in 2019 & 2020. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“The Friends League is very tough,” head coach Kevin Givens said. “It’s very competitive this year, so we have our work cut out for us.”
Juniors Elmarko Jackson and Deywilk Tavarez headline this year’s ANC team, making a strong duo on the perimeter. Both can handle the ball and shoot from the outside, while Jackson, who has 12 Division I offers from schools such as Penn State, Minnesota, Maryland, VCU and La Salle, especially has the ability to penetrate and get to the rim.
Outside of Jackson and Tavarez, who has an offer from Hofstra, ANC has the floor spacing on the rest of the court to make this a potentially dangerous offensive unit.
“One of the good things about us is we can shoot,” Givens said.
Gabe Harris, a 6-foot-8 senior forward, senior forward Anthony McCall, junior guard Isaiah Millien and junior guard Al-Amin Ajibade, who has a D-I offer from Monmouth, are all expected to be major contributors, and they can all shoot from long distance to help the offense flow as needed.
“If they hit a couple shots,” Jackson said, “it opens up the lane for me to potentially get a dunk or dish it off.”
Senior guard Taj Odhiambo, senior forward Dylan Coq and junior guard Jarell Keel will round out the supporting cast for the Lions, and those three each have a 3-point shot as a part of their games as well.
“Having good shooters on this team is one of the keys to our program,” Tavarez said. “... The whole team is shooters. We’re just a well-oiled machine.”
Elmarko Jackson (above, right) has offers from Maryland, Penn State, VCU, Ole Miss, Seton Hall, La Salle and more. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The perimeter-based, 3-point-heavy style on offense could work against teams like Westtown and George School, built around star big men Dereck Lively II and Kachi Nzeh, respectively, by keeping the ball away from the opposing defensive anchor. Where ANC may run into trouble in the matchups is its own time on defense.
With Harris as their tallest player, the Lions are undersized, and simply matching up man-to-man against these bigger teams won’t work in most instances. Givens has instead placed an emphasis on locking in and going all out on team defense to make things more difficult for the opposition.
“We have to play team defense, and we have to bring a physical presence,” he said, “especially when you have the Westtowns and the George Schools. They’re big, they’re athletic, they can shoot, so our defense is going to have to improve a lot.”
Teams like Shipley and Friends’ Central should be solid in the FSL this season as well. However, ANC’s offensive prowess and its history of success in the FSL under Givens — who’s coached the likes of Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse), Malcolm Gilbert (Pitt) and his sons Samme Givens (Drexel) and Shannon Givens (West Chester), among others during an extended run as the Lions’ coach — appears to put it above those schools and into the same tier below Westtown as George School.
Deywilk Tavarez (above) arrived at ANC this offseason from Shipley. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Cougars are still likely the team with the best shot of taking down Westtown head-to-head, mainly due to having Nzeh on hand. But that doesn’t mean ANC, which opens the year on Dec. 4 against Malvern Prep, can’t finish as the second-place team in the Friends League this season and return to the championship game.
Before the pandemic canceled the postseason last year, ANC had made the previous two FSL title games and given Westtown a tough matchup both times, losing 52-48 in 2019 and 69-66 in 2020.
Making it back to the championship for the third straight time after missing out on the chance to do so last season would be quite an accomplishment for ANC. Of course, Westtown is the undisputed top FSL program, having won seven league titles in a row, but ANC has a claim to be considered the next best program in the Friends League. Securing another meeting with the Moose at the end of the season would quite possibly cement that.
“Westtown is that powerhouse in the Friends League,” Tavarez said. “Westtown is who everybody talks about, but I feel like after this year, Academy New Church is going to be up there.”