Damien Blair (above) has won just shy of 65% of his games in 12 years at West Chester. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The thought of entering a season with nine freshmen and no seniors seems crazy. That fact isn’t lost on the man who has to coach them.
“It seems crazy to me, too,” Damien Blair said with a laugh.
A pandemic and a lost year has shaken up the blueprint for West Chester’s men’s basketball team. The Golden Rams aren’t starting over, necessarily. They have some familiar faces back. But they are taking on a much different look. An inexperienced look.
That can be energizing and exciting for a coach. It’s also challenging and can cause the occasional headache.
“We’re teaching everything from, ‘You have to put the balls on the rack,’” Blair said. “How to warm up the right way. How to prepare for practice. How to put your reversibles and gear in the laundry bin. We’re literally teaching everything. It’s refreshing, but at the same time irritating.”
Some comfort can be drawn from seeing the players who were there when West Chester played its last game on March 4, 2020.
Josh Samec, a 6-7 junior forward from Hazleton, started all 30 games and averaged 9.4 points and 6.0 rebounds. Kyle McGee, a 6-4 sophomore guard from Jersey City, averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 assists. Matt Dade, a 6-5 wing from Episcopal Academy, provided some instant offense off the bench with 6.7 points. A couple other part-time starters from that 2019-20 season, junior center Marcus Littles (3.8 ppg) and sophomore wing Malik Slay (2.6 ppg), should be more significant pieces as well.
Josh Samec (above) is one of only a few returning players for the Golden Rams. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
That’s the end of the list of notable returnees. That group stuck it out until basketball returned to Hollinger Field House.
“We’ve been waiting for so long,” McGee said. “Everybody is so hungry to get out on the court to prove themselves. To show everybody what they’ve been working on over the quarantine. A lot of guys on our team have been grinding.”
One newcomer is a freshman in name only.
Elijah Allen, a 6-3 guard from Dover, transferred from Wagner, where he averaged 6.8 points last season. Allen was Delaware’s Player of the Year in 2019-20. He still has four years of eligibility because of COVID and is expected to be a major contributor.
Jamil Manigo is ready to make his college debut. The 6-5 forward was recruited out of Bishop McDevitt and will join former high school teammate Robert Smith, a 6-1 guard.
Other rookies to watch include Reading’s Moro Osumanu, a 6-6 post player who helped the Red Knights win the PIAA Class 6A championship in March, and Cam Polak from Steel Valley.
“Freshmen are going to be up and down,” Blair said. “Hopefully we can get them to be more consistent and play every night. But the future is really bright with that group. They can definitely do some really nice things on the floor. They all bring something different to the table.”
The year off makes it easy to forget that West Chester lost Robbie Heath, who averaged 24.6 points, to Pepperdine (he’s now playing professionally in his native Australia) and reserve Colin Daly to Temple.
Despite all of the turnover and inexperience, West Chester was picked third in the PSAC East behind Shippensburg and East Stroudsburg. The Rams finished 20-10 two years ago and won at least 20 games in four of their previous five seasons.
“I think the teams in our league see that we got some of our core back from two years ago,” Blair said. “I think they know Elijah is a pretty good player. Maybe they’re banking on that. I think a lot of that is because we’ve been successful in the past and we’re going to figure out a way to get it done.”
Bishop McDevitt's Jamil Manigo (above) is one of the many talented newcomers Blair has on his roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Blair, who’s second on West Chester’s all-time scoring list and started his coaching career in high school at Downingtown West, has a .647 winning percentage in 12 seasons with the Rams.
McGee said West Chester’s place in the preseason poll is a source of motivation.
“A lot of people on our team feel like we were slighted,” McGee said. “We feel like we should be No. 1. We really feel like that. We put in a lot of work every single day. We feel like we all have something to prove. We deserve that No. 1 spot.”
The lost season was especially tough at WCU because students were virtual for the last academic year. There was no face-to-face interaction between the coaches and their team on or off the court.
McGee chose to stay put during a time when many players have bounced around. He’s committed to keeping West Chester successful.
“It’s just another chance to prove myself,” McGee said. “I feel like my freshman year I didn’t do everything I wanted to do. I know if I stay here I can build a name for myself instead of just jumping from place to place. I didn’t want to start over.”
If West Chester’s freshmen come of age, there’s a chance for this group to stay together and build something special over the long haul. That’s the hope in this tumultuous college landscape.
The Rams have already played a few exhibitions. They will return to the court for real against Elizabeth City at Kutztown on Friday. There’s a countdown on the school’s website waiting for that opener.
Never has the wait been so long.
“I feel like we’re ready to go,” Blair said. “That first scrimmage those juices were flowing. Now I’m in full season preparation mode. I’m trying to figure out how we can tweak things to get better on both ends of the floor. Now it’s anxiety, stress and everything that goes along with it.”
Those emotions are normal. After a year away, normal is the best feeling of all.”