Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
WEST CHESTER — Jack Kushner knows all-too-well what it’s like to be a freshman in the starting varsity lineup, thrown right into the deep end on a team that couldn’t afford for him to play like a first-year high schooler. The West Chester East junior went through it two years ago, coming up with numerous big shots, rebounds and even a couple blocks as the Vikings won the District 1 Class 5A championship.
This year, he’s had to turn around and help East newcomer KJ Cochran make that same jump.
West Chester East freshman KJ Cochran (12) has jumped right into a starting -- and starring -- role. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“He’s a great leader,” Cochran said of his older teammate. “He’s in my head all the time, telling me about stuff, preparing me for this, just talking to me through it all. I’m grateful for it.”
Based on the way Cochran’s been playing, what Kusher’s saying has been working.
A 6-foot-2 combo guard, Cochran is quickly emerging as one of the top young talents in District 1, and he’s a major reason why expectations are quickly rising for a young East squad. Playing well beyond his years, Cochran made big play after big play down the stretch on Saturday afternoon as East held off a hot Great Valley squad to emerge with a 69-65 home win.
It was a matchup of the current No. 7 squad in the District 1 6A rankings and No. 10, East with the higher ranking entering the weekend. Both Ches-Mont squads, GV from the American division and East from the National, both led by some of the best freshmen around.
The son of former West Chester Rustin head coach Keith Cochran, who stepped away from the sidelines after last season to be able to watch his children play hoops — Kayla Cochran is a seventh grader at Fugett Middle School — KJ Cochran led the Vikings (9-2) with 20 points, shooting 7-of-12 from the floor (1-2 3PT, 5-6 FT), while grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out four assists.
“I mean, he’s got talent,” Kushner said of his younger teammate, and he’s not wrong. “He does his thing, I do mine, we just put them together. At first [...] we didn’t know how to play great together. But now that I work off of him, he works off of me, it’s perfect.”
Kushner played his freshman season alongside some of the most talented players in East’s hoops history, including current Delaware sophomore Andrew Carr and West Chester University guard Tym Richardson. He didn’t have to be a star then, just a complementary piece, but he made his mark as a bouncy rebounder who hit open 3s.
Cochran doesn’t have the luxury of being brought on as slowly, but he’s been ready for a featured role. It helps that he’s been around varsity hoops his whole life; his dad was Rustin’s coach for 15 years, the only one in the school’s history.
“I think I’ve been around it a long time, since my dad was coaching, so it just got me prepared for it,” said KJ, whose name is Keith, though he’s not a Junior, as he (Harrison) and his father (Lamar) have different middle names. “I’ve been around it so long so I was just ready for it, ready for my opportunity, and I’ve been working for it.”
KJ Cochran (12) converts a layup in the fourth quarter of East's 69-65 win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Down the stretch of the fourth quarter, as Great Valley was making its push to close what had been a 16-point deficit in the second quarter down into single digits, Cochran made smart play after smart play. There was the dish to sophomore guard Bryce Cox (4-4 FG, 9 points) for a layup and another kick-out to sophomore wing Josh Sherlock (6 points, 4 rebounds) for a corner 3-pointer, and two tough, acrobatic finishes, all of which helped West Chester East maintain a cushion.
“I want that ball in my hands because I know I make smart decisions,” said Cochran, whose lanky 6-2, 170-pound frame still has plenty of room to fill out.
“As coach [Tom Durant] would say, it’s savvy,” Kushner said. “Because he’s not being selfish, he’s passing it, opening it [up], and they can’t help anymore so he gets the easy bucket every time. He’s making acrobatic layups, he’s tough.”
The Patriots (10-2) never had a chance at a game-tying possession.
Kushner had a strong game of his own, finishing with 17 points and nine rebounds, making two clutch foul shots with 12.2 seconds left to put East up six and extinguish all hope for Great Valley. Kushner was most effective in the mid-range, where he showed off a terrific pull-up jumper; the 6-2 wing uses his impressive vertical to get clean looks over defenders, and he was 7-of-15 from the floor.
“I had a big leap from freshman year to sophomore year,” he said. “I had to implement a lot of different things to my game, because we lost Andrew and Tym [...] I worked on it a lot during the offseason into junior year, and junior year is when I’m starting to put it in my game and really get it going.”
Jack Kushner (L) and Cameron Wallace both had strong outings in Saturday's game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Great Valley was led by its own standout freshman, Cameron Wallace. The 6-4 wing guard only had five points at halftime but exploded in the second half, getting to the line time and again and knocking down a few jumpers and layups to finish with 29 points (7-15 FG, 1-3 3PT, 14-18 FT).
Wallace and Cochran are plenty familiar with one another, teammates with K-Low Elite on the summer circuit for four years. That meant there was more on the line than just a win and some points in the District 1 6A rankings; there were bragging rights at stake.
“We’ve been doing this every day in practice, competing, so we just do this all the time,” Cochran said. “We’re always talking [on the court] — he’s going to say his stuff, I’m going to say my stuff. But we’re good, we’re real close.”
Max DiMedio was the other Great Valley player in double figures; the senior guard finished with 19 points on 7-of-14 shooting, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and 3-of-4 from the line.
West Chester East finds itself in a promising spot, off to a good start this season without a single senior amongst the top seven. With Kusher and Cochran, plus Cox, Sherlock, sharpshooting sophomore Ryan Price (13 points), point guard Jose Ramos and forward Stanley Parker all back for at least another year, the future looks bright for the Vikings.
“We have a lot of improving to do, but it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be fun,” Kushner said. “Even this year, we’ve still got a lot of games to get better and we’re going to have playoffs, hopefully make districts, states, and we’re just going to keep getting better every day.”
WC East: 15 | 17 | 15 | 22 || 69
Great Valley: 10 | 9 | 16 | 30 || 65
WC East: 26-48 FG (5-9 3PT), 12-16 FT
Great Valley: 20-52 FG (6-21 3PT), 19-24 FT
WC East: KJ Cochran 20, Jack Kushner 17, Ryan Price 13, Bryce Cox 9, Josh Sherlock 6, Jose Ramos 2, Stanley Porter 2
Great Valley: Cameron Wallace 29, Max DiMedio 19, Connor Gal 11, Tyler Markowski 3, Matt Peduto 3