Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
ROYERSFORD — Spring-Ford forward Jake Kressley took his spot at the right elbow with fellow big man Gavin Schauder directly across from him. EJ Campbell initiated the offense and swung the ball right to Cole Turner. As Turner was on his side, Kressley set a screen and rolled to the basket, where his longtime teammate found him for an easy finish.
The double-high set has been a staple in head coach Joe Dempsey’s arsenal dating back to his accomplished tenure at La Salle College High School, and Kressley has been a key component in its success in Dempsey’s first year at the helm of the Rams.
Jake Kressley (above) has become a featured scorer in his senior year under new head coach Joe Dempsey. (Photo courtesy Madison Warkentin/Spring-Ford athletics)
Since taking over at Spring-Ford, Dempsey has dramatically changed the offense and Kressley has been perhaps the biggest beneficiary.
“Coach Dempsey has expanded our offense a crazy amount,” Kressley said. “With him, it feels like everything is so much more fluid.”
Kressley poured in 19 points and six rebounds Thursday night as Spring-Ford held on for a decisive 51-47 victory over defending Pioneer Athletic Conference champion Pope John Paul II. Kressley scored nine points in the fourth quarter and kept the Panthers potential comeback at bay in the final minutes.
He started with a pair of free throws, then a few possessions later he sealed his defender and scored off an inbound pass to give the Rams (6-3, 2-1 Pioneer Athletic Conference) a five-point advantage.
A year ago, Kressley was an afterthought as the offense was catered to the Rams backcourt of Nate Santiago (Moravian) and Zack Skrocki (Washington College) but, under Dempsey, he is finding a plethora of ways to be effective.
“I was the starting big man, but I was only there to get rebounds and dump-off passes,” Kressley said. “Being out there during my senior year as the number one option feels great.”
The 6-foot-4 senior big man showcased the ability to finish on either side of the rim, pass out of double teams and even secured a few steals when Pope John Paul II guards penetrated into the lane. Dempsey spoke with Kressley prior to the start of the season and learned a little about what he wanted his final season to be like.
“He didn’t have the greatest year last year and he’ll be the first one to tell you that,” Dempsey said. “He really wanted to get that taste out of his mouth and he’s been one of the hardest workers. He’s leading by example and we’re fortunate that he’s with us because he’s a terrific scorer.”
From being used sparingly to transitioning into the focal point of the offense, Kressley played his best late in the game. With the Rams up by 10, the Panthers made their push as leading scorer J.P. Baron, who shot 3-for-15 from the floor, drained his second three-pointer of the night to cut the Pope John Paul II deficit to 45-38 with 1:34 left to play. On the ensuing possession, Alex Lewis caught the ball in the high post and found Kressley deep in the paint for the smooth finish.
Jaden Workman, who scored eight points in the first quarter before being held scoreless in the second and third, came alive down the stretch with seven in the final eight minutes. The Panthers’ guard sank two free throws to make it a seven-point game, but Kressley was fouled going to the basket at the other end where he converted 1-of-2 at the line.
Kressley is running and seeing the floor better than he has at any point in his high school career and that is directly attributed to his improved psyche stemming from Dempsey’s tutelage.
“The biggest improvement is my confidence,” Kressley said. “I was a good player, but I didn’t have it mentally. I took that step and now everything is good.”
Freshman Jacob Nguyen (10 points) sank two free throws of his own but Trey Rogers answered with his fourth three-pointer of the game to put the Panthers within five with 14.7 seconds left. Pope John Paul II (7-4, 3-2) forced a five-second violation but Kevin Green’s stepback trey was short and the Rams walked away with the road win.
Kressley’s 19-point performance was the latest example of his maturation under Dempsey. Earlier this season, he erupted for 25 points in a triple overtime triumph over Freedom High School.
He’s not the only forward finding success, as Schauder has taken a huge leap forward in his final season. The 6-9 senior had four points but corralled nine rebounds. During a stretch in the second quarter, Kressley and Schauder combined for nine consecutive points with the forwards converting and-ones on three straight possessions. Also during that stretch, the Panthers were limited to just one basket.
The combination of length and versatility has given Dempsey plenty of options, especially on that vintage double-high set.
“I learned a long time ago that you play to the talent of the kids,” Dempsey said. “Gavin is working hard on his inside but is much more comfortable on the outside with a great stroke. Jake is comfortable on the inside and it’s rare to have a guy like him in this age where everyone wants to shoot the three.”
With Kressley leading the way and learning on the fly from Dempsey, Spring-Ford is a much different team with a much different outlook on the season ahead.
Spring-Ford: 14 | 9 | 11 | 17 || 51
PJP II: 14 | 2 | 8 | 23 || 47
SF: Kressley 19, Nguyen 10, Lewis 7, Campbell 6, Schauder 4, Turner 2, Huntington 2, Little 1
PJP: Workman 15, Rogers 12, Baron 8, Russ 7, Green 3, O’Brien 2