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Prepping for Preps '21-22: Lower Merion (Boys)

11/10/2021, 2:00pm EST
By Ryan Coyle

Ryan Coyle (@RyanCoyle35)

(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.)

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During the 2020-21 season, Lower Merion and longtime head coach Gregg Downer captured their first District One title since 1996, when the legendary Kobe Bryant brought the district crown back to Ardmore. 

Entering the upcoming season, the goals and expectations set for the Aces are sky-high.


Demetrius Lilley (above) and Lower Merion captured their first district title in 25 years last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“We have a really good team and a lot of good pieces returning from last year,” senior center Demetrius Lilley said. “I think we can go really far this year and have a chance to win all three championships. The Central League, District One, and the PIAA. In my eyes I think we can win all three.”

The Aces only accomplished one of the three goals last year, losing in the Central League semifinals and PIAA semifinals, but not before giving Archbishop Wood all it could handle in a 72-68 loss to end its season. They’ve got the pieces to get back.

Lilley, the 6-foot-9 center and Penn State signee with a tremendous offensive game around the rim and a growing perimeter game, will be the centerpiece for the reigning district champions and should be in the mix for the Player of the Year in the state of Pennsylvania. 

“I think Demetrius is potentially the best big man in the state,” Downer said. “He is a monster near the rim, a guy who can quite often go 25 points and 15 rebounds. He is just a heck of a player down low.”

Although Lilley returns for his senior year after a standout junior season where he was named to the PIAA 6A second team, Lower Merion lost five seniors to graduation, including starting forward Zack Wong and starting point guard Sam Davison, who is now playing at Franklin & Marshall. 

The other two starters from last year’s District One championship team were 6-2 lefty sharpshooter Sam Brown and the team's lockdown defender in guard Jaylen Shippen, who will be entering their junior and senior years, respectively. The trio of Lilley, Brown, and Shippen will make up the core of players for Downer due to their talent and experience as they aim to bring home the three respective titles. 

“Sam Brown had a great offseason, like a really great offseason,” Downer said. “He got a lot stronger and is scoring now at all three levels. I think he is going to be one of the best guards in the district.

“Shippen is our swiss-army knife, he does a little bit of everything to help us. He is our best defender, a real gritty tough kid, he can score when we need him too, and he is a senior who has started a lot of games and will come into the year with a lot of experience.” 

Junior guard Sam Brown pulled in his first Division I offer this summer, from Albany. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

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With Davison out of the fold due to graduation, the starting point guard spot opened up and Brown, who's on the Division I radar, will be settling into that role for the maroon and white.

“Sam has grown so much since he came in here as a freshman,” Lilley said. “When he first came in, he was a real skinny kid and the only thing he could really do was shoot the ball. Now he is our point guard, he has the ball in his hands a lot, he is a great facilitator, and he is definitely a much improved player. Now he can do a little bit of everything on offense, to go along with his ability as a strong shooter.”

Another player to keep an eye out for that is in position to make a leap for Lower Merion this season is junior guard Sam Wright. The 6-2 wing guard got limited minutes as a shooter off the bench last season, but put in the necessary work to step into a bigger role after the graduations of Wong and Davison allowed for minutes in the rotation to open up. 

“He’s a very good shooter and his athleticism has really increased,” Downer said. “I think Sam has the opportunity to be one of the top 15 players in the league and really step up. I think the rest of his career is really going to be big.”

Other players that will be fighting for minutes are athletic junior guard Justin Poles, junior guard in Andrew Coyne, and senior forward Peter Gribbin. 

With Lilley returning, the improvement of Brown and Wright, and the experience of guys like Shippen and Gribbin, what is potentially standing in the way of Lower Merion making a run at the league, district, and state titles?

Besides Lilley, it’s not a team with much in terms of size. Henry Bard, a 6-3 senior and Duke lacrosse commit, would be the team’s other power forward, but he’s currently dealing with an injury, and Downer isn’t sure if he’ll be available this season.

“If he isn’t able to play, we fear that in some spots we could be small out on the floor,” Downer said. “We don’t know what we are going to look like if Demetrius gets in [foul] trouble. Or who is going to get rebounds when Demetrius isn’t getting them.”

Some of the top programs in District One have high level big men that could pose problems for the Aces if Lilley is forced to miss time on the floor, as Central League foe Conestoga has 6-11 Richmond commit Michael Walz, while Downingtown West of the Chest-Mont League has 6-9 junior Jake Warren who holds an offer from Saint Joseph’s. 

“We have to be committed to rebounding, because there are going to be many times when we have four guards out on the court,” Downer added. 


Senior guard Jaylen Shippen (above) is the third returning starter for the Aces. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

To go along with their bevy of talent on the floor, it doesn’t hurt to have an experienced coach with 30-plus years of coaching experience at the high school level, amassing over 600 wins in that time. Downer knows how to keep players focused on knocking down one goal at a time and making necessary adjustments as the season goes along. 

While Lilley and his teammates have set lofty goals for each other for the 2021-22 campaign, playing at an elite program like Lower Merion there are always expectations to be contenders.

“We need to have a one step at a time mindset,” Downer noted. “If we are as good as we hope we should be in the mix for the league and district title. In order to make a run in states, you have to do well in districts to position yourself to be there. District One is a difficult district. Other than the Catholic League, District One is probably the most difficult district in the state.”

Standing in the way of Lower Merion and their goals are the always dangerous programs of Conestoga, Plymouth Whitemarsh, Cheltenham, Garnet Valley, and Methacton to name a few in District 1 6A. But, when you combine elite coaching with one of the best players in the state and strong pieces around them, reaching the top is certainly achievable yet again.

“All I have to say is watch out this year for Lower Merion,” Lilley said. “We are coming for all three of those titles.”


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