Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
ROYERSFORD — As Pope John Paul II was preparing to inbound the ball, Brendan Stanton called out a play to senior J.P. Baron, who then motioned to his Panthers teammates on what to run. After Stanton finished speaking, a faint voice could be heard from the bleachers just above the left wing, giving Baron direction on what the defense was in and how to attack it as he set up for this possession. That voice was his father, John Baron, the head coach of the Gwynedd Mercy University men’s basketball team.
The 20-year veteran coach of the Griffins has taught his son everything he knows about the game and basketball has always been an escape for the two. Basketball has been at the center of their bond, especially considering everything the two have been through over the last six-plus years. Back in May 2015, Baron’s mother, Jane was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer and passed away a year later.
JP Baron (above) has become one of the leaders for Pope John Paul II as the Golden Panthers chase threepeats. (Photo: Rich Flanagan/CoBL)
Baron was 11 years old at the time and, when he laces up his shoes and walks onto the court each night, he plays for more than just the PJP etched across his chest.
“I’ve been around my dad’s teams all my life and those guys have been like my brothers,” Baron said. “I have a lot of big brothers, you could say. Every night, I go out and play for my mom. I know she would be proud of me right now.”
To say it’s difficult to lose a parent at such a young age is an understatement but it also taught Baron even more about the family aspect of the game. Since becoming a starter as a junior on a team that won its second Pioneer Athletic Conference (PAC) title in school history followed by a second straight District 1 Class 4A crown, he has felt more and more ensconced in the culture that head coach Brendan Stanton and Panthers have created following several successful seasons.
“It’s definitely one of the reasons I enjoy playing on this basketball team,” Baron said. “I know I have a family together and we’ll play together. Hopefully, that will lead to big wins and we’re trying to go back-to-back and we’re working to get it done.”
John has seen a lot in his time as a coach and seeing his son play in the PAC, where he got his start in 1996 at Owen J. Roberts, while rallying the Panthers is something he relishes, as his smile after made baskets or defensive stops echoes.
Baron poured in 14 of his game-high 18 points in the second half as Pope John Paul II held on for a 56-53 victory over Phoenixville on Tuesday night to remain in sole possession of first place in the PAC Frontier Division. Baron sparked a huge three quarter where the Panthers outscored the Phantoms, 16-3.
Teammate Kevin Green (13 points) converted an and-one with 4:07 mark of the second quarter to give Pope John Paul II (10-6, 6-1) a two-point lead then Phoenixville went on a run of their own, finishing the first half on a 13-3 run. Heading into the locker room, Stanton knew his team needed Baron to lead the comeback, and the 6-foot-2 guard did just that.
“J.P. was the one who really led the charge,” Stanton said. “He had two transition threes and grabbed boards for us. He gets a lot of credit for his scoring but one thing he does is rebound for us. He’s our leading rebounder, which means, with how undersized we are, as much to us as his scoring.”
Baron scored on a floater then hit a long three-pointer from the wing to cut the deficit to 32-31 with 5:37 left in the third. Trey Rogers hit one of his three treys then Baron drilled his second deep jumper of the night on the ensuing possession and the Panthers were in front by six.
For a player who was seen as the “tertiary guy,” according to Stanton, behind PJP grads Luke McCarthy and do-it-all guard Justin Green (Catholic University), Baron has transformed into the go-to guy who can fill up the stat sheet, but he admits that it has taken some time to adjust to.
“It’s definitely been a transition for me since we had five great starters and great leadership,” Baron said. “I wasn’t one of the leaders and this year I knew myself, Kevin and Jaden [Workman] had to step up. We had to be great leaders and I feel we’ve done a great job of that this year.”
That leadership was evident at the end of this one. Kevin, Justin’s younger brother, hit two free throws to begin the final quarter then Workman (12 points) drove past the defense and finished with his left hand to put the Panthers up 44-39. Rogers hit his final trey of the night on the ensuing possession. With starting big man Gabe Massenberg out, the Phantoms (10-5, 3-2) looked to their perimeter depth and Chase McDonnell, who scored eight of his 13 points in the fourth, led the way. Baron converted a pair of tough finishes, the last of which put Pope John Paul II up by seven.
Two more free throws by Green had the Panthers lead pushed to 55-50 but McDonnell converted an and-one and it was a two-point game with 10.4 seconds remaining. Workman hit one of two at the line then the Panthers defense held by forcing a missed 3-pointer from Zavier Mayo (10) at the buzzer.
Pope John Paul II won 33 games over the last two seasons and is looking to be in the mix for a third consecutive trip to the PIAA state playoffs. With leaders like Baron stepping their game up in crucial moments like he did against the Phantoms, Stanton believes that’s a realistic possibility.
“Those guys got to play last year and play with Luke McCarthy and Justin Green, and they learned a lot from that experience,” Stanton said. “That’s a big spot because they’re the only guys who have big game reps under them and tonight, we saw what happens when those three guys take the lead and do it by example.”
Kevin and Workman are pivotal to the Panthers success, but Baron brings everything together, particularly since he tends to defend players who are taller than he is, which in turn tasks him with controlling the glass where he is avg. 8.5 rebounds per game. It’s a responsibility Baron has handled for the last two seasons and the one Stanton feels could be the difference in how far the Panthers can go this season.
“He has done a really good job of fronting the post this year and his motor is nonstop,” Stanton said. “I think there are only a handful of minutes in which he has not played so far this season and never once does he ask to come out. He’s been going through some hot and cold streaks but as long as he keeps staying aggressive and being a good leader, that’s all we can count on him for.”
Stanton and the Panthers consider Baron’s scoring as an additive, but the rebounding and interior defense are what sets him apart on this team. That’s why games like his 3-for-15 shooting performance in a loss to Spring-Ford can be overlooked, and he will occasionally have prolific nights like his school-record 34 points against Upper Merion on Jan. 7.
With an offer from D-II West Chester University along with interest from Bloomsburg and California University of Pa., Baron is starting to reap the benefits of his basketball progression and the tutelage his dad has given him every step of the way. For Baron, who is also receiving interest from several Florida D-II schools such as Lynn University, Eckerd College, Barry University and Saint Leo University, his development with the help of his father is another aspect of how their love for the game has been intertwined.
“He’s helped me a lot, specifically on when to take the right shots and the right space,” Baron said. “He also has taught me when to go to that space, getting the ball and getting shots for my teammates and myself.”
As he further explores his recruitment options, Baron is also considering doing a post grad year with the Peddie School (N.J.), Mercersburg Academy (Pa.) and Millbrook School (N.Y.) as potential options.
Regardless of where his next destination is, the familial connection he has made within the Panthers program stemmed from his mom and dad. His mom was a professional dance instructor and Jane Baron’s Academy of Dance in Limerick keeps her love and passion going, just as Baron and his dad do the same with theirs on the hardwood. Basketball comes from his father but leaving a lasting impression of others came from his mother.
“She was a basketball fan, not necessarily a basketball player,” Baron said. “She was a great dance teacher and really affected a lot of people in this community. Many people have been touched by her and I just try to reflect that. I want to go out and do the same as she did.”