Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
PHOENIXVILLE — During his time as an assistant at Penncrest, Sean Spratt saw what it was like to reach the state tournament. In 2015, the Lions advanced to the PIAA Class AAAA Tournament, then the largest classification, and he got his first taste of the atmosphere and added intrigue that comes with extending a team’s season.
Since taking over at Marple Newtown, his alma mater, Spratt has continued to raise the expectations of the Tigers, having made the district players in four of the last five seasons. Despite winning at least district playoff game for the second consecutive year, one monumental accomplishment was missing from his résumé: a state playoff berth.
To recall the last time Marple Newtown made the PIAA state tournament, you have to go back to 1995. President Bill Clinton was in the White House. Microsoft had launched its Windows 95 operating system. The O.J. Simpson trial was playing out. And Michael Jordan had come out of retirement (for the first time). Meanwhile in Newtown Square, head coach Tom Rayer was at the helm of a group of Tigers led by Chris Gicking and Frank Zanin that won a school-record 23 games and advanced to the state playoffs.
Gicking holds a special place within the school and Spratt has seen what he has shared with this year’s group.
“That mark was set 27 years ago, and it has finally been revisited,” Spratt said. “Our athletic director, Chris, it was his junior class. That is up there as the most successful basketball season so to have him overseeing athletics and motivating other teams to get back there is good vibes.”
Saturday saw a breakthrough.
Eric McKee (above) came up with several clutch plays for Marple Newtown in their state clincher. (Photo: Rich Flanagan/CoBL)
Senior forward Jonny Small poured in 10 points and five rebounds while fellow senior Eric McKee scored seven points in the fourth quarter to propel No. 7 seed Marple Newtown to a 36-32 victory over No. 3 Phoenixville in a District 1-5A playback to secure a berth in the state playoffs. Small had six points in the first half as the Tigers ran out to a 19-9 lead in the second quarter.
It did not even occur to Small how long it had been since the Tigers last advanced to the state tournament, but finding out that piece of information made this run even more satisfying.
“We actually just found that out right after the game,” Small said. “It’s so exciting for us and it’s what we expected all year. This is what we were aiming for and keeping our season going. Hearing it’s been 27 years since one of our teams has gone to the state tournament is pretty cool.”
For an achievement 27 years in the making, having someone as accomplished as Gicking inside the school to share the stories of that run helped shape this year’s team. Gicking was a standout on the gridiron at Shippensburg, where he was a three-year starter at quarterback and finished his career as the program’s all-time leading passer. He is now the head coach of the Tigers football program. Frank Zanin was a 1,000-point scorer at Marple Newtown before going on to be a three-year starter on the West Chester men’s basketball team where he hit 145 three-pointers and dished out 324 assists. Zanin was a scout/assistant coach with the Philadelphia 76ers from 1999-2008 and is currently the Assistant General Manager for the New York Knicks.
Spratt, a 2006 graduate who, like several Marple Newtown basketball players, was a multi-sport athlete (hoops, baseball, football) has heard tales of that group and knows that shifting a player’s focus from one sports season to the next always presents a challenge.
“For a school like Marple, we need those athletes to buy in and be multi-sport athletes then carry the success of baseball season into football and the football season into basketball season,” Spratt said. “It finally resonates with all of the guys within the program.”
The 2021-22 roster is no different than what most Tigers teams have been accustomed to transitioning from one season to another. Small also plays football and baseball as does senior forward Owen Mathes. McKee plays football and so does senior forward Matt Cantwell. Senior point guard Justin DiBona plays soccer and baseball. It’s a close-knit group that made plays down the stretch against the Phantoms (16-8).
For Small, working to get ready for the basketball season is the toughest part of the three sports he plays but he sees the hard work this group of Tigers put in paid off immensely.
“Basketball shape is a different shape than any other sport,” Small said. “We know from prior years having played together that our potential together has exceeded our expectations and we really feel we belong in the state tournament.”
Johnny Small (above) had 10 points for Marple in the win over Phoenixville. (Photo: Rich Flanagan/CoBL)
Small and Mathes were assigned to Phoenixville senior forward Gabe Massenberg. The 6-6 big man had 10 points and nine rebounds and threw down an emphatic dunk to make it 21-15 with 5:21 left in the third quarter. Zavier Mayo, who scored all 13 points after intermission, tallied eight straight points including a three-pointer that gave the Phantoms a 26-25 to begin the fourth. McKee sank two free throws and DiBona, who accounted for two points, five rebounds and five assists, found Small inside to give the Tigers a three-point lead.
McKee closed a 6-0 run with a floater in the lane as Marple Newtown (15-10) showcased what has made its offense much more formidable as the season has progressed.
“We haven’t been able to push the ball down the floor in past years,” McKee said. “That was a big thing during open gyms was being able to move around a lot and get open looks.”
Massenberg converted an and-one to make it 31-28 with 4:07 left to play but McKee sank two more free throws then, as he was double-teamed, found Mathes (eight points, seven rebounds) streaking to the basket to suck the life out of the Phoenixville faithful. He hit one more free throw for good measure.
Shifting the focus to basketball season was the first initiative then teaching how to play as a cohesive unit was the next. Small notes that holding onto that lead was not something that the Tigers, which missed the Central League playoffs on a controversial finish against Penncrest then beat West Chester Rustin before falling to Chester in districts, could have done earlier this year.
“If that’s six months ago, that lead could have grown to three to five to seven points,” Small said. “Considering we’ve been in those situations and experienced it, we knew we had to stay together, under control and remain together through the whole thing. We got buckets when we needed to and won the game.”
Marple Newtown moves on to play Chichester, which downed Sun Valley in the other 5A playback, to determine the fifth seed out of District 1. Regardless, the Tigers have secured a program-changing moment and for Spratt, this is something that he saw as an obtainable goal when he first took over as the foundation was being laid.
“When I took over the program, I knew right away we were starting something,” Spratt said. “Years ago, before the season even started, our best player, Mark Dever, during an open gym dove halfway across the floor for a loose ball. For him to make that effort before the season showed that we were onto something. Those early groups had some bumps along the way, but it just built up for this year’s group.”
For former players like Gicking, Zanin, Dever, Spratt and now the 2022 class, the state tournament is a reality once again.
Marple Newtown: 9 | 12 | 4 | 11 || 36
Phoenixville: 9 | 2 | 12 | 9 || 32
Marple Newtown: Small 10, McKee 9, Mathes 8, Bochanski 3, DiBona 2, Esposito 2, Gardler 2
Phoenixville: Mayo 13, Massenberg 10, Savage 2, Kuranda 2, Lebisky 2, McDonnell 2, Smith 1