Matthew Ryan (@matthewryan02)
(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. The complete list of schools previewed can be found here.)
After spending most of Sean Tait’s 12-year tenure in the bottom half of the Catholic League, Judge now hands the keys of the program over to Chris Roantree, who hopes to usher in a new era of Crusaders basketball.
For the past half century, most notably under head coach Bill Fox, Judge has focused on developing hyper-local talent in Northeast Philadelphia, relying on the local CYO teams as feeders. Tait was known around the league as a strong coach who got the best out of his teams, but his program stuck to that same ‘neighborhood’ mentality. Roantree’s net will be cast much further.
Chris Roantree, a Father Judge alumus, is a first-year head coach at the varsity level. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The 1999 Judge graduate takes over a squad that went 2-10 in the PCL (4-12 overall) and finished with the second-worst record in the league. But the first-time head coach is no stranger to building up a Catholic League program.
Roantree spent the last eight seasons at Archbishop Wood as the top assistant under John Mosco. When Roantree arrived at Wood, the program had not yet taken home a PCL title and had spent the previous decade-plus bouncing around the league standings. Once Roantree left the Vikings, they had won two PCL championships and established themselves as a powerhouse in one of the country's top leagues, with alumni including Collin Gillespie (Villanova), Rahsool Diggins (UConn) and more.
“It's just kind of taking everything that I learned and kind of putting my own spin on things, but there’s a road map there, and it really started with development (at Wood),” Roantree said. “Developing the first class that kind of came in that maybe wasn’t necessarily our class, they were there, which is the same situation this year, but that group developed into a championship team in four years; (we’re) really just trying to replicate that.”
The top two scorers from last year's Judge squad graduated: Nahseer Johnson (Arcadia/18.7 ppg) and Justin Blythe (Alvernia/13.2 ppg). The departure of two starters, one being Judge’s second-ever 1,000-point scorer in Johnson, leaves dozens of shots on the table and plenty of opportunities for a youthful team.
Senior guard Jalen Flowers (above) was a starter for the Crusaders last season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Losing Johnson and Blythe has left a hole in the leadership department, but senior guard Jalen Flowers has stepped up and filled that role over the offseason.
“Leadership wise (Flowers) has really kind of bought in and does things that a winning basketball player does and can kind of push that down through our program,” Roantree said.
The 6-foot-1 Flowers has been a varsity starter at Judge since his sophomore year; last season as a junior, he started all 16 games, averaging 5.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and over a steal and assist. He is a pesky defender and is more than willing to step in and take a charge. Flowers will continue to play in a starting role for the Crusaders and will be a focal point in an offense that has shifted to more of a dribble-drive style — which fits Flowers’ play better — opposed to the Princeton offense Tait ran.
While playing with Johnson and Blythe, one of the things he learned is the next play mentality, something he’s trying to show the younger players now that his voice in the locker room has grown.
“I’m trying to teach them not to always get discouraged,” Flowers said. “Like, next play, move on. Not trying to keep thinking about the bad things that happen. It’s always move forward.”
Roantree also mentioned that 6-4 forward Tearran Peete, who came over from Bishop McDevitt, has stepped up vocally. Peete is joined by Nolan Waldon, Ernest Shelton, and Paul King as players who enrolled at Judge following McDevitt's closure.
“Will (Chavis) did a great job at his time with McDevitt, so guys that can come in and help us right away,” Roantree said. “I think that’s important. … I think (those) guys came from a winning program with Will and that’s helping us.”
Junior classmates King and Kyle Jones will join Flowers in the starting five.
Paul King, one of several newcomers from now-closed Bishop McDevitt, is expected to slide right into the starting lineup. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Jones is a 6-4 guard who returned to Philadelphia after playing at Langston Hughes High School in Atlanta. The cousin of Wood graduate Rahsool Diggins, he currently holds offers from Virginia Tech and DePaul. King played sparingly last season for the 8-7 Royal Lancers, but the 6-3 guard who can shoot and score inside will get plenty of opportunity for Roantree’s squad.
Roantree didn’t mention which two players will round out his starting lineup; that’s still to be determined. But he did say that Laquan Bryd could be one of them. Byrd is a 6-1 sophomore guard who came to Judge from Constitution High School. Regardless of if he’s a starter or not, Byrd will play significant minutes for the Crusaders.
Two soccer players, Mike McCusker and Mike Browning, and football player Jordan Rhinehart, will all compete for minutes this season. The three multi-sport athletes have not been around the basketball team much due to their other athletic commitments.
Rhinehart, a 6-0 senior guard, started seven of his nine games last season, yielding averages of 5.9 points, three rebounds and 1.8 assists before an injury ended his year. Only playing in five games with four starts, sophomore McCusker scored eight points per contest last year, adding 2.2 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.8 assists. Browning, a junior played in a limited role last season, appearing in 11 games.
As a freshman, 6-5 forward Anthony Lilly started nine of 15 appearances, averaging 3.7 points and 2.5 rebounds. Christopher Brennan, a 6-1 forward, started 10 games last season where he averaged 3.3 points and 3.8 rebounds. Both players will get time down low for a Crusaders team that lacks size.
The other two McDevitt pieces will also push for time: Roantree mentioned that Shelton and Waldon will compete for minutes, and made sure to add that there is still a lot of competition to see who will make his rotation that will be about eight players deep.
This season will be one growth for Judge. They’re young and have a first-time head coach. Coming from such a high-level program in Wood, Roantree is used to competing for PCL championships. And although Judge isn’t at that level yet, that championship mindset is still one that remains for Roantree.
“I think expectation wise, every coach has got high expectations,” he said. “I’m used to competing for championships and I want that to be our expectation from day one.”