Zak Wolf (@ZakWolf22)
The energy was palpable inside the Spring-Ford High School gym on Friday night for the PAC semi-final matchup between Pope John Paul II and Phoenixville. With two jam-packed student sections, you could feel the intensity radiating from the crowd. The players on the court were feeding off the atmosphere, but there was one player whose energy was different from the rest and made the difference for PJP in their 55-43 victory.
Dylan Russ, an undersized big man for the Panthers, was the ‘X’ factor as they clinched their berth to the PAC championship game. Russ had to defend against 6-foot-5 Phoenixville big man Gabe Massenburg, who had a few inches on him, but the 5-11 senior hung tough and made life difficult for Massenburg.
Dylan Russ (above) was a crucial component in PJP II's semifinal win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Some Phoenixville fans even nicknamed Russ “The Gabe-stopper” after they faced off against each other earlier in the season, limiting Massenburg to just a minimal output, though he shook off the moniker.
“I’m always going to be undersized so that’s what I’ve got to do,” Russ said. “I’ve got to bring all that energy and be able to match the difference in size. I just had to give it my all and put my body on the line, be able to box out and grab rebounds.”
Russ did not stop working all night, whether it was trying to front Massenburg whenever Pheonixville tried to get him the ball in the post, or pushing him out to the perimeter if he did get a post touch.
“We knew he was going to be a big part of our game plan tonight having to deal with Massenburg,” PJP head coach Brendan Stanton said. “He’s a really strong kid and just a really smart kid that makes good decisions out there and even the occasional offensive rebound or box out.
“I don’t know how many points Massenburg finished with, but he did a great job of just trying to neutralize him, front him and working his butt off. That’s what we expect from him and that’s what he does everyday at practice so we’re not surprised”
The non-stop energy from Russ helped fuel PJP as they dominated from start to finish, in a wire-to-wire victory. Not known for his scoring prowess, Russ was still able to find himself in good positions down low for dump off passes at the rim. He finished with 10 points, 8 of them coming in the second half.
Russ (middle) played strong interior defense against Massenburg (left) despite giving up a significant size advantage to the 6-5 forward. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Massenburg did lead Phoenixville with 13 points, but had to work for every single one thanks to Russ. Chase McDonnell and Jackson Kuranda both had eight points for the Phantoms, who tried to make runs all game, but could never get enough momentum on their side.
J.P. Baron led PJP in scoring with 19, hitting three triples, and was part of a key stretch that helped his team create separation in the third quarter. The senior guard compared his teammate to NBA veteran P.J Tucker, who’s known for his toughness as an undersized big.
“We’ve been sending Dylan P.J Tucker film for the past two years knowing that a night like tonight was going to come,” Stanton said, “He just needed to play his role and he does that as well as anyone on our team.”
Russ has been at Pope John Paul II all four years of high school and was part of the team that won the PAC championship last season, but there wasn’t a postseason tournament. Russ still got to experience the thrill, despite not playing many minutes.
“It was a lot of fun, being in the locker room, celebrating with them, after last year’s PAC championship,” Russ said. “It was just a lot of fun, and they taught me a lot last year, and coming into this year about how to advance my game to the varsity level. It’s been great.”
JP Baron (15) scored a team-high 19 points for the Golden Panthers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With the tournament back in play this year, Pope John Paul has a chance to accomplish even more than they did last year. Standing in their way is a familiar foe, top seeded Methacton, who they'll face off against on Tuesday in the championship game.
PJP is no stranger to playing Methacton in PAC championship games, facing off against the Warriors in 2020, which didn’t go too well. The Panthers lost big to a Methacton team led by Jeff Woodward (Colgate) and Eric Timko (Jefferson), who tore through the PAC during their years of high school basketball.
Even though Methacton isn’t as dominant as they were that year, they’re still going to be a very tough opponent for PJP in the final. Like they did Friday, they’re going to have to deal with some size down low in the form of 6-8 Cole Hargrove.
Hargrove, who’s even bigger than Massenburg, will provide a challenge for PJP; he had 11 points and 14 rebounds as the Warriors beat Norristown in the first semifinal.
“Execute the game plan and kind of just make sure that they don’t get too many easy ones,” Russ said. “Kind of the same thing here; Cole, he’s a big kid, so it’s going to be hard, but the same kinda thing, just try and limit him as much as I can do.”
PJP lost their first meeting against Methacton earlier in the season, despite holding the lead for most of the game, but that gave them the confidence to know that they can beat the Warriors.
“Methacton is super disciplined, they’re never going to beat themselves,” Stanton said, “We’re going to have to make some plays, but again I like the way we’re playing with our confidence right now.”
Pope John Paul: 9 | 10 | 22 | 14 || 55
Phoenixville: 4 | 13 | 13 | 13 || 43
Pope John Paul: Baron 19, Workman 11, Russ 10, Rodgers 8, Green 7
Phoenixville: Massenburg 13, McDonell 8, Kuranda 8, Brunni 5, Mayo 4, Stec 2, Pekofsky 2, Savage 1