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.)
The Cheltenham Panthers are coming off a season that saw them go 14-2, win the Suburban One Freedom Division league title with a 9-1 conference record, and earned the number one seed in the District 1 playoffs, where they eventually fell in the quarterfinals to Methacton.
What does this year's Panthers’ squad need to do to replicate those results and make a run at a district title?
Senior wing Justin Savage (above) returns to the Cheltenham starting lineup. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“We need to be more consistent,” fourth-year head coach Patrick Fleury said. “We have watched these kids grow up and play together, so they have some great chemistry and camaraderie amongst each other. If we can combine that chemistry with everyone from the coaches, to the players, to the managers and if we can be consistent everyday, it will make us a dangerous team.”
Cheltenham does return a lot of key pieces, but lost some valuable members of last year's SOL Freedom Division championship roster, including two first team all-league members with Mike McClain and Saleem Payne. The graduation of McClain, now playing for Damien Blair at West Chester University, means Fleury will be without his leading scorer and a versatile 6-foot-5 wing. Payne, last year's point guard for the Panthers, transferred to the Phelps School.
Also graduating for the Panthers was Brandon Hawkins, who was a second team all-league selection last year. Ife West-Ingram, another 6-5 wing, transferred to Abington Friends.
With all that turnover, this season's Cheltenham team is poised to look different from last year’s, but Fleury knows this team's foundation sits on one specific end of the floor.
“We are probably going to score a little differently than we have in the past, which I am excited about from a coaching position to take on that challenge,” Fleury said. “But, we are definitely a defensive team, a defensive program, and we want to be able to consistently get those stops and play from there.”
Although three all-league players departed, two are returning for this year's roster at the Wyncote school in honorable mentions Rasheem Dearry and Justin Savage, a pair of wings will be entering their senior season.
Rasheem Dearry (above) is another senior with experience the Panthers will count on. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Dearry, a 6-3 wing with a strong ability to put the ball in the bucket, knows with the departures of guys like McClain and Payne, he is being counted on to step up this year for his squad.
“I think a big step for me this year is to be more of a leader,” Dearry said. “I know I have to step up and encourage my teammates to do their best. It hurts to see guys leave the program that you grew up playing with. But, we got a new group of guys and we have to just work together to win games.”
Senior wings Brandon Bush and Savage are going to be counted on to bring their experience and winning mentality to the table this year, along with their energy on both ends of the floor as Fleury tries to assemble a solid rotation and allocate roles to help get Cheltenham to where they want to go.
The primary ball-handlers for Fleury are going to be senior Elias Walker and freshman Josiah Hutson. Cheltenham has a long history of having great guard play, headlined by guys like Ahmad Bickley (Chestnut Hill College), Zahree Harrison (St. Francis Pa.), and Justin Moore in recent years. With Walker and Hutson running the point this year for the Panthers, expectations remain high.
“When I first started here, my first point guard was Zahree Harrison, so the bar has been set pretty high for the point guard spot,” Fleury said. “We had Justin Moore and Saleem Payne as well, so the bar has been set pretty high for both Josiah and Elias. We have to make sure that we coach him [Huston] and prep him the same as the others. He will have a similar role to what the others have had, along with Elias. We are very excited for Josiah.”
Elias Walker (above) will be one of two point guards that Pat Fleury will turn to this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
While the Panthers have a bevy of slashing, athletic guards for their lineup this year, a question that remains to be answered is how effective this team will be able to be down low. They don’t have a guy like the 6-5 McClain from last year, 6-8 Jack Clark (La Salle), or 6-5 Branden Mack (Temple football) from several years back either.
“Down low, we are going to have to work as a collective unit,” Fleury said. “I think at some point in every game, all five positions on the floor are going to be counted on to do some work down low.
“Defensively, we are going to ask our guys down low to work together and defend as a unit. We are a guard-oriented roster, so it will be an area of focus to work on being effective down low with what we have and we have to be smart in how we attack that area of the floor on both offense and defense.”
Cheltenham competes with Upper Moreland, William Tennent, Lower Moreland, New Hope-Solebury, and Springfield (Montco.) in the SOL Freedom Division, which they should be in position to repeat as champions. But, they built a tough non-league schedule with perennial District 1 championship contenders Plymouth Whitemarsh and Abington, as well as West Catholic, who will be contending for a Catholic League crown this year. That schedule figures to prepare the Panthers for their ultimate goal of hoisting the District 1 trophy in 2022.
But as this new-look team gets ready to take the floor in December, it is all about coming together.
“We are preaching that we are a team first,” Fleury said. “The individual accolades don't always get you the ultimate success that you want. Basketball is all about the brotherhood that you have with your teammates and being consistent with the work you are putting in to reach those goals that we set out each year as a team.”
The talent is there, the chemistry is there, now it is all about putting it together day in and day out for Cheltenham. Until then, Dearry and his teammates are ready to make a statement to the rest of the area's hoop scene.
“I think a lot of people are sleeping on us,” Dearry said. “But when they start to see us winning, progressing through the season, coming together as a team, I think we can really be something this year.”