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.)
Chris Williams (above) is hoping to help guide La Salle to the Palestra in his final year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Last season put La Salle College High School on the verge of a Catholic League breakthrough. This year’s Explorers are hoping to take the next step.
“The attitude of the team is, we just want to win,” senior guard Chris Williams said. “I think this is the year to do it. We just want to win.”
It’s been a little more than 40 years since La Salle last won the Catholic League championship, a rarity for the all-boys school in Wyndmoor with a rich athletics history in just about every sport it fields. There have been numerous close calls along the way, including semifinal appearances in 2014 and 2015 under Joe Dempsey and a run to the championship in 2019, the first under Mike McKee, but the 1981 championship — the program’s eighth all-time but only one since 1963 — remains the last time the Explorers brought it all home.
McKee’s second season was a down one, the departure of the talent-filled 2019 class leading to a 10-12 (3-11 PCL) season. That put them in 11th place in the PCL, a long way from the Palestra. But there was a young core that used that season as a learning experience, and showed last year that they’d absorbed plenty of lessons.
The Explorers bounced back to finish 8-5 in the COVID-shortened ’21 season, tied with Bishop McDevitt for fifth place, just one game behind Devon Prep and Archbishop Ryan. In a normal year, that would have been enough for berth in the league’s quarterfinals against either Devon or Ryan; with the PCL holding only a semifinals and championships last year, La Salle’s season ended prematurely.
“My sophomore year, we were really bad...junior year, we came in knowing how good we were going to be,” Williams said. “This year, we think we’re way better than what we were last year.”
Gone are 2021 grads Charles Ireland and Jackson Conroy, two starting guards, but McKee’s got plenty left in the tank to contend at the top of the PCL. The Explorers return their top three scorers in senior Sam Brown (15.6 ppg), senior guard Nix Varano (12.8 ppg) and junior wing Horace Simmons (12.6 ppg), all of whom have quite a bit to be proud of in terms of their athletics accomplishments.
Nix Varano (above) has been one of the most improved players in the area over the last 18 months. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Brown is the two-sport star, a Rutgers football commit who’d certainly be good enough to earn a Division I hoops scholarship if he’d spent his time focusing on the hardwood instead of becoming one of the best running backs in the region. The strong-bodied combo guard was the team leader in assists last year (4.1/game) and shot 93 free-throws, more than twice the number of any of his teammates, while converting at a 73% clip on his freebies.
La Salle’s football season ended with a loss to St. Joe’s Prep earlier in November, so Brown should be all set to go when the hoops season begins Dec. 10.
Varano is one of the most improved players in the area over the last 18 months, going from a pure shooter to a Division I guard, having committed to Army earlier this month. The 6-2 senior guard was 37-of-94 (39.4%) from deep last year — and while his quick-release, high-arcing shot remains one of his best weapons, his ability on the ball and strong defensive effort has been noticeable since the end of last season.
“Nix is seen as more of a scorer and shooter, and I think the area’s that he’s really grown and continues to, and this is why Division I schools like him, is his lead guard and floor game, and his athleticism,” said McKee, who spent more than two decades coaching at the collegiate level, including over a decade as a Division I assistant, before taking the La Salle gig. “He’s faster than you think.”
The more obvious Division I prospect last year was Simmons, a 6-6 wing who was both the team’s most versatile defender and its best outside shooter, going 22-of-43 (51.2%) during his breakout second year. That continued over the summer, where he showed his value as a high-level defender as well as a three-level scorer. He enters the fall with nine scholarship offers, picking up George Washington and Richmond in October to go along with Penn, St. Joe’s, Drexel, and more.
A close game against N.J. powerhouse Gill St. Bernard’s, which features some of the top prospects in the country — including five-star junior Mackenzie Mbagko, a 6-8 wing — was further proof to La Salle that it could hang with anybody, as well as individual validation for Simmons.
Horace Simmons (above) has nine D-I offers heading into his junior season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I was matched up with Mackenzie… it was just me and him going back and forth. To show the scouts that I could run with somebody who’s top of my class, that really opened up my recruitment,” Simmons said. “It shows you that you’re actually good, it gives you more confidence, to show you that these Division I schools believe in you.”
One element the Explorers didn’t have much of last year was size. That’ll change this season, with junior forward Caleb Bryant ready to enter the starting lineup after a couple years on the JV squad. Bryant’s still a developing post player, but he’s a muscular 6-8 presence who got plenty of court time this summer with the Explorers as well as Team Final’s 16U group.
La Salle also has 6-7 junior Tim Jennings and 6-3 sophomore Joe Shields to help up front, with guards Connor Seiberlich, James Bartchak and Ryan Sorge all in the mix as well.
“We should have some depth,” McKee said, “and some really competitive practices, which should prepare us for the Catholic League.”
As good as that top three are — and they’re as talented and tough a trio as any in the Catholic League — they can’t win a title by themselves. Last year, it was the shot-making of Ireland (10.0 ppg) and Conroy (3.5 ppg), who combined to hit 34 3-pointers on 66 attempts (51.5%) that was a major spark for the Explorers, significantly increasing how difficult it was to guard the pair.
This year, it’ll be Williams in the role, and it’s one he’s been waiting for his entire life. His father, Dan Williams, is a religion teacher at La Salle, and Chris Williams has been coming to Explorers games as far back as he can remember.
Calling it “his dream” to suit up for La Salle as a senior, he’s got bigger plans ahead, including his own trip to the Cathedral of College Basketball, the host site of the PCL semifinals and championships.
“I just pictured myself being there one year,” Williams said. “Even my freshman year, we were like, ‘Yeah, when we’re seniors, we’re going to be in the Palestra, playing on the big stage.’”