Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
CHESTER — Every time Chester and Reading play, Rick Perez knows it’s going to be a fight to the finish.
The Red Knights’ coach has been there for enough battles with the Clippers — like the one two years ago that saw his Reading side escape with a four-point win thanks to a late Moro Osumanu block, or the five-point Chester win a year before that.
So even though Reading’s the defending PIAA 6A state champs and even though Chester’s dealing with a mix of youth and inexperience, Perez wasn’t fooled into thinking his Red Knights would have it easy Wednesday night at the Clip Joint.
Reading coach Rick Perez guided the Red Knights to state titles in 2017 and 2021. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“You’re coming to Chester, what do you think you’re going to do up here?” he laughed. “You’re going to come up here, you’ve got to earn your stripes.”
For both sides, playing one another is a bit like looking in the mirror.
Each program represents not just one town but an entire city, two hoops-hungry populations who provide their respective teams with some of the most passionate fan bases in the state. They both have a history of winning state championships — Chester with a double-digit win total in its long and illustrious history, Reading winning two PIAA titles in the last five years. The two were scheduled to meet in the 2020 PIAA Class 6A quarterfinals, before COVID shut that season down.
“The respect that we have for the Chester community, the Chester program, we’ve always idolized them for what they stood for,” Perez said on the floor of the Clip Joint, surrounded by Chester’s numerous league, district and state banners. “You walk in here and you can feel it.”
Every young ballplayer who puts on the Chester or Reading jersey is playing for something much bigger than themselves, and it’s both known and understood by all involved. Playing one another regularly — something that can’t happen in the postseason as Chester’s now a 5A school and Reading 6A — is a no-brainer worth the hour-long drive down 422 and 476, both sides agreeing it makes each of them better in the long run, if not somewhat more bruised the day afterwards.
As to how that comes out within the 94-by-50, Chester coach Keith Taylor put it best: “we’re both two teams that play hard.”
Reading did indeed have to earn their 10th win of the season, Chester staying with them every step of the way in a 67-63 win that wasn’t decided until the final seconds.
Reading's Myles Grey (3) attacks the Chester defense in the first half of Wednesday's game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
It was 36 minutes of back-and-forth, barely-contained insanity, though there was definitely some method to the madness. Both teams ran a relentless full-court press at every opportunity; and there were several ping-pong plays or rebound battles that didn’t quite end until someone wound up with the ball 45 feet away, the flow of players going from one end to the other.
Chester and Reading both had their share of turnovers, but there’s no doubt Chester coughed it up more often.
“We welcome anybody to try to run with us,” Perez said. “If there’s one thing that I will put our staple on, I feel that we’re the best fast-breaking team that’s in the state. We’ll stand on that — we’re in very good shape, we know how to share the ball. It’s beautiful to watch them play at that pace.”
The Clippers (4-2) were playing their second game in two days after missing nearly a month, a Dec. 19 loss to Archbishop Carroll their last competition before a Tuesday night, double-overtime win over Penn Wood. Reading (10-1) jumped out to a 23-14 lead after one quarter, and it looked like the visitors were ready to run away with it.
“Earlier, I thought they were winded,” Taylor said. “But they caught their second wind in the second half.”
Chester closed the gap to four by the break and knotted it up by the end of the third. Sophomore forward Larenzo Jerkins (15 points, 11 rebounds) was effective inside, as was senior guard Isaiah Freeman, who grabbed 13 rebounds along with his nine points.
But the fourth quarter went just enough in Reading’s favor. Senior guard Joey Chapman (12 points, seven assists) was effective in both the open court and half-court offense, finding junior guard Ruben Rodriguez (20 points/4 rebounds/4 assists) on several occasions. Junior guard Myles Grey (12 points) joined the two in double figures.
Larenzo Jerkins (above) had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I think the beautiful thing we have with our three guards is they all bring a different aspect to the game,” Perez said. “Ruben, scoring at so many different levels, Myles shoots the ball extremely well and he’s just extremely poised with the basketball, Joey’s our strongest ball-handler, he finds people and I mean, he’s tough as nails, he goes and rebounds, so they bring in just three different dynamics.”
All three of Chester’s double-digit scorers were sophomores; Kyree Womack (12 points) and Kevin Rucker (11) joined Jerkins, with Freeman right behind. But a turnover count well into the double-digits was too much to overcome.
“I felt tonight when they were pressing us, we threw some passes and our guys just stood there and waited for the ball instead of going to the basketball to get it,” Taylor said. “I thought we just waited there and they just, playing hard like they normally do, went right through ‘em.”
The Clippers will play their third game in three days when they host Chichester on Thursday, and there’s another two games to be played this weekend. Nine games remain after that on the regular schedule, assuming no last-minute schedule additions, though in these COVID times, anything can happen.
“Can’t cry over spilled milk, can’t worry about things that you can’t control,” Taylor said. “They give you lemons, we’ve got to make lemonade with it.”
Reading: 23 | 12 | 12 | 20 || 67
Chester: 14 | 17 | 16 | 16 || 63
Reading: Ruben Rodrigeuz 20, Joey Chapman 12, Myles Grey 12, Justin Walker 8, Xavier Davis 8, Amier Burdine 4, Daniel Alcantera 3
Chester: Larenzo Jerkins 15, Kyree Womack 12, Kevin Rucker 11, Isaiah Freeman 9, Qadir Lowrie 8, Breilyrd White 8