Sean McBryan (@SeanMcBryan)
Avery Close remembers that skinny Phoenixville kid who categorized himself as a spot-up shooter as a Phantom.
He always had the height, checking in at the same 6-foot-6 he did in high school; the difference is the muscle (180 to 207 pounds), midrange game and footwork that has developed him into a post player as he continues his senior year as a captain for Gettysburg.
Avery Close (above) and Gettysburg are in the mix for a Centennial playoff berth. (Photo: Sean McBryan/CoBL)
“Definitely down-low moves,” Close said about his biggest improvements from his high school days. “I’m much more of a presence in the post in college than I was. I was more of a spot-up shooter at Phoenixville. I’ve packed on so much more weight, got better footwork in the paint and have developed a good midrange jump shot.”
All of those aspects were in full effect as Close scored 14 points and the Bullets (4-2 Centennial, 8-4 overall) defeated Franklin & Marshall 73-65 to pick up their third straight win Thursday night at Mayser Gymnasium in Lancaster.
Close’s role with Gettysburg has gradually shifted into him becoming the leader of the team, as one would expect from a senior captain, but it hasn’t taken a usual trajectory.
Close played in 22 games as a freshman during the 2017-18 season averaging 2.7 points and 1.8 rebounds as the Bullets went 7-18; those numbers skyrocketed to 13.6 points and 6.0 in his sophomore season, yet the Bullets went 6-19.
The team looked like it was turning a corner in the 2019-20 season as it went 12-13; Close averaged 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Then the inevitable happened: COVID made its impact; the Centennial Conference canceled the 2020-21 season.
“It’s really funny man, you know, you go 12-13 and we were really excited about the group we had,” Gettysburg third-year head coach B.J. Dunne said. “Then COVID canceled the season.
“We had a lot of returners and younger guys who had grown with us when we went from six to 12 wins and we felt like we were going to go and take that next step. Those are the guys on the Zoom calls and doing the workouts and then poof: you only have four guys left on your roster out of 20 that actually played meaningful minutes two years ago.”
Close, along with senior Jack Rooney, junior Elijah Williams and sophomore Ryan McKeon were the only four players to get significant minutes on that 12-win team. This season’s team gives meaningful minutes to six freshmen, including having five of them on the court during crunch time Thursday night.
“I think in a lot of ways we had to start over, but with our returners I think the foundation was laid of what our cultural blueprint really wanted to be,” Dunne said. “Those guys did a phenomenal job in the fall when [the freshmen] got here showing them what we do here. And obviously we have a lot of younger guys that are talented and you saw that here tonight.”
Close said he became more mature and disciplined as a player during the season shutdown utilizing his elite work ethic to pack on more strength in the weight room and continue to work on that aforementioned post game. When he returned, he didn’t have a choice but to lead with all of the moving and incoming parts; he cherished it.
“I think I’m definitely a leader on this team,” Close said. “We don’t have a lot of experience at all. By nature, guys are looking up to me. I’m really enjoying bringing the best out of them. We’re clicking on all cylinders right now and it’s really fun.
“They’re all really good and so willing to learn. We go at it every day in practice. They’re getting a lot of good experience. This team’s going to be nasty in the future.”
Those freshmen include top scorer Colin Farrell (16 points on Thursday), 6-9 forward Rassoul Abakar (6 points, 6 rebounds) and guards Carl Schaller (Garnet Valley), Jordan Stafford and Akim Joseph all of whom played at least 16 minutes Thursday.
“We believe in those guys,” Dunne said. “We’ve given them confidence. They’re going to make mistakes, miss shots, and turn the ball over. At the end of the day, it’s just part of the process and they’re going to continue to learn and grow.”
The game was a microcosm of all the changes within the Gettysburg basketball program. The Bullets trailed by 12 at one point in the first half and 36-30 at halftime. The team had 14 turnovers, shot 32% and had trouble on defense picking up 11 total fouls and entering the double bonus with about eight minutes left in the first half.
Changes needed to be made during the break.
“Coach Dunne helped us change the gameplan a little bit,” Close said. “They were really pressuring us and denying us and it was messing up our offense and causing a lot of turnovers in the first half. In the second half we switched it up, switched some of our plays a little bit to set up our guards more for baseline drives with the big in the middle and we ran that for most of the second half.”
“We were just trying to have our guards create a little more space and get better attack angles so they could utilize the ball screen and attack the hard hedge,” Dunne said on the second-half adjustments. “We tried to reconfigure how we initiated offense a little bit by setting some step-up ball screens which are a little harder to hedge as you're attacking that baseline. Then we were playing middle ball screen and were trying to pop.
“We went back to how we traditionally try to guard. We thought the game was moving a little too fast for our guys to try and communicate effectively defensively about different ball screen coverage on different personnel. I thought we were more solid [in the second half] and we came out with the victory.”
The Bullets slowly chipped away and took their first lead since being up 4-2 on Close’s midrange jumper to make it 46-45 with 10:27 left. F&M’s Josh Parra made a layup that gave the Diplomats their final lead 63-62; the Bullets finished the final 2:54 on an 11-2 run.
McKeon had a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds for the Bullets; Freshman John Seidman (Haverford) scored 16 points to lead the Diplomats (2-4 Centennial, 5-8 overall).
Gettysburg has put itself in a great position to secure its first winning record and get back to the Centennial Conference tournament for the first time since 2016.
The team felt good after a 77-57 loss to No. 2 Randolph-Macon in late December, a game in which Gettysburg only trailed by two at halftime. Next up is No. 16 Swarthmore on Saturday.
“We’re still forming an identity but right now I know we’re tough,” Close said. “We’re ready to take on anybody, and we won’t back down.”