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Prepping for Preps '21-22: Phoenixville (Boys)

11/09/2021, 1:15pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

(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.)


All-PAC Frontier selection Zavier Mayo (above) is one of 11 seniors on the Phoenixville roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

It was two years ago that Eric Burnett sat down his sizable sophomore class with a simple message: stay the course.

“We typically meet with kids one-on-one and talk about their roles on the team; with this particular group as sophomores, we met with them all at one time,” the Phoenixville boys’ head coach said. “[We] talked about their potential...keeping the eye on the long term.”

Burnett knew the reality: his Class of 2022 was nearly a dozen deep, comprising almost the entire JV roster at the top. But his eight-member Class of 2021 was going to eat up the majority of the varsity minutes over the next couple years, meaning that group of sophomores needed to wait until they were seniors to really make an impact.

The group didn’t waver, not a single one.

“We were all committed,” said Jake Stec, one of 11 seniors on the Phantoms’ roster this fall. “We all knew that was going to happen most likely, because of that class last year. I was okay with it because I was always looking towards the future.”

The future is finally here for Stec and his classmates. With former starters Will Allain (Ursinus), Mike Memmo (York), Dallas Maloney (Penn College) and their five classmates off to their respective colleges, the Class of 2022 gets to show what they’ve been working on since well before their high school years.

It’s a group that has some connections as far back as first grade, when they began to form friendships around the Phoenixville school district’s three middle schools. Several began playing on hoops teams together in fourth and fifth grade; by sixth grade, when they were all at Phoenixville Middle School together, it was clear to all there was some real depth on the court.

The high school years have just taken some time, and some patience.

Jackson Kuranda (above), a 6-3 wing, was one of the Phantoms' top reserves last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Three of Burnett’s seniors have varsity experience, but only so much. Zavier Mayo, a 6-foot-5 wing guard, and Jackson Kuranda, a 6-3 wing, are back from last year’s varsity squad, where Mayo was a starter and all-league talent while Kuranda was one of the team’s top reserves. Chase McDonnell, a 6-0 guard who played varsity for the Phantoms as a sophomore as a deep reserve — as did Mayo and Kuranda — started off his junior season at Kiski Prep (Pa.) but returned to Phoenixville midway through the COVID year.

The rest — Stec (5-7), Zach Bruni (6-0), Justin English (6-0), Gabe Massenburg (6-6), Gavin Matta (6-4), Zach Pekofsky (6-2), Zahaire Savage (6-0), and Ben Smith (5-7) — went through all the steps: freshmen squad, two years on the junior varsity, waiting their turn. Now they’ve got one season to put it all to use.

“From ninth-grade year, I’ve been looking forward to playing varsity, that’s been my goal,” Stec said. “And to see it come true now, it feels great.”

Burnett has high expectations for this class despite that lack of varsity experience, as his Phantoms have continually been at or near the top of the Pioneer Athletic Conference during his tenure. Their last senior class led the way to an 11-5 (8-1 PAC Frontier) season, which ended in the District 1 5A semifinals against Chester; in a non-COVID year, those marks would have qualified them for the PAC and PIAA playoffs, but limited fields in each kept them out. 

Defending champ Pope John Paul II has a senior-laden backcourt returning, but the Phantoms have depth few District 1 teams can match, especially in 5A. Burnett plans on using the majority of his roster, including sophomores Max Lebisky and Aidan McClintock, who stand 6-4 and 6-5, respectively, and will give the Phantoms a nice boost in the frontcourt.

For many of the seniors, it’s about filling a role, each bringing something different to the table. Though that role might not be called for every game, in some it could be the difference between a win or a loss. Mayo will handle a good bit of the scoring load, as will Kuranda and McDonnell, but there are several others who could hit double-figures on occasion.

“Any given night, it could be Ben Smith’s role to pick up full-court defense, or Zach Bruni could have a night where he comes off the bench and makes a couple 3s,” Burnett said. “Gavin Matta proved it last year, when we called him up from JV and he took two charges against Chester in our district run.”

Gabe Massenberg (above) gives Phoenixville a physical rebounding and scoring presence in the post. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

They also have one of the PAC’s best forwards in Massenburg, a 6-6, 240-pound forward/center who missed last season but has impressed all offseason as a space-eater in the post who can score in bunches around the bucket. In Phoenixville’s various offseason leagues and shootouts — and there have been quite a few — Massenburg has been consistently productive, bringing a totally new element to the Phantom offense.

“There’s no question about it, Gabe is an outstanding player,” Burnett said. “Great hands, great footwork, he can score any way around the basket, obviously very strong and athletic at 6-6 and 240 pounds. He’s certainly going to be a focal point of our offense.”

Burnett said he still wasn’t sure what he was going to do about team captains or Senior Night, saying they could switch up captains game-by-game or week-by-week, making sure everybody gets some opportunities to represent the program: “it would almost be impossible to label somebody as a true captain with this group,” he said said. “They all hold each other accountable and they’re not afraid to call each other out.”

Of course, the three with varsity experience have had to do some teaching, especially during the offseason.

“We know what it’s like to just every single day, getting better at practice, not taking practice for granted,” Mayo said. “Varsity, everything’s a lot harder, just teaching them all the little stuff. They know how to play basketball, they’re all talented players.”

Phoenixville gets its season underway Dec. 10, like the rest of the PIAA, with a four-team tournament at home. It opens PAC play at Pottsgrove on Dec. 21, hosting defending division champ PJP II two days later. The key stretch comes in late January, where four consecutive road games — at Boyertown (Jan. 20), OJR (Jan. 22), PJP II (Jan. 25) and Upper Perkiomen (Jan. 27) — will show if Phoenixville’s ready to make a run at league and district titles.

They’ve been waiting long enough. 

“Now it’s our time,” Kuranda said. “We don’t have to wait behind any other seniors, we’re not the juniors waiting next in line, we’ve got one chance and we’ve been working for the past five or six years to get there. So we really want this year to be ours.”

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