Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
Dylan Blair had just wrapped up the second weekend of the July live period and an impressive period at that.
The Downingtown West point guard closed out Philly Live II with an emphatic 31-point, 10-assist performance in an eight-point loss to Windsor (Conn.) at St. Joe’s Prep in front of hundreds of college coaches from various levels. While no one formally spoke with him during that two-week period, Blair received an unexpected call shortly afterward from an assistant at Army West Point, a program he had no prior contact with.
Downingtown West's Dylan Blair was a top priority for Army West Point. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“After my final game at Philly Live II, I had my first interaction with the Army staff was I received a call from assistant coach Nick Thorsen,” Blair said. “I played on the AAU circuit and head coach Jimmy Allen was able to come out and watch me play, which is when they officially offered me.”
While playing with the East Coast Cyclones, Blair was still figuring out the best spot for himself at the next level, but Thorsen kept in contact, before and after offering him. Allen, who succeeded Drexel head coach Zach Spiker at the helm of the Black Knights, was on hand to see what the electric floor general had to offer.
Blair received interest from Penn, Navy, Fairleigh Dickinson, Colgate, Binghamton, and Holy Cross, but after Army West Point became the first Division I program to extend an offer and an official visit Aug. 27, he knew choosing the Black Knights’ program was “a no-brainer.”
“The very first thing they told me was that I was the first 2023 prospect they were having up for an official visit,” Blair said. “They said their interest was very high and I was one of their top guys.”
The 5-foot-10 guard officially committed to Army on Sept. 12 and he will immediately join the program. He becomes the first Division I basketball recruit to come out of Downingtown West under head coach Stuart Ross and the second local player to commit to Army West Point in recent weeks, joining Devon Prep’s Jacen Holloway.
Ross has overseen much of Blair’s development since inserting him into the Whippets’ lineup as a freshman and understood how coveted the point guard was by Black Knights.
“He was one of their top choices, if not the top guy they were trying to go after this offseason,” Ross said. “The staff expressed how important he was in their recruitment pitch and how he could serve his country and give back, which perfectly fits Dylan’s personality.”
Allen, Thorsen and the Army staff expressed that Blair’s overall game emulated that of former Black Knights standout and Archbishop Wood guard Tommy Funk, who scored 1,544 career points and finished his career as the Patriot League’s all-time leader in career assists (728). To hear the comparisons to Funk, someone who played locally and went on to become one of the best players to come through the Army West Point program, it gave Blair a great peace of mind.
“They wanted to bring me in to play a guard spot because they’ve had multiple smaller guards in the past, like Tommy who is from the area,” Blair said. “That’s who they compared me to, and they put a video together comparing our styles of play in that offense. Those were the two things they hit on during my visit and what Army was all about.”
Blair is coming off a season in which he was named Pa. All-State Class 6A Third Team after averaging 19 points, five assists and three rebounds in leading Downingtown West to the Ches-Mont League title game then the PIAA state tournament for the first time since 2017.
He scored 20 or more points in 14 games, including 27 in the state opener against Reading. He has scored 1,023 career points to date and is on pace to surpass former Quakers guard Ryan Betley’s all-time scoring record (1,333) at Downingtown West and Andrew King, who scored 1,335 career points at Downingtown East, as the all-time leader in Downingtown history.
His scoring ability has grown over the course of his career but what has made him an indispensable part of the Whippets lineup has been his feel for the game, something Ross pointed out that he learned from those closest to him.
“He comes from a basketball home where his mom and dad both played as well as his older brother,” Ross said. “He has always been around the game from a young age. As far as his scoring ability, it has been a delicate balance for us because we’ve needed him to score more for us to be successful.”
His father, Damien Blair has overseen the West Chester University men’s basketball program for 14 seasons, following a stellar playing career with the Golden Rams that saw him score the second-most points in program history (2,025) and win back-to-back Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Player of the Year awards.
Damien also got his coaching start at then Downingtown High School, where he led the program to its first Ches-Mont League title in school history in 2007 and is still the all-time winningest boys basketball coach with a record of 173-78. His mother, Carolyn played under former coach Deirdre Kane and was part of the 1996-97 team that was named PSAC East champions and reached the NCAA D-II East Regional Semifinals. Dylan’s brother, Hunter, was his teammate with the Whippets as a freshman.
With his dad coaching a program less than 13 miles away from his high school, it would have made sense if Blair committed to West Chester. Ross noted “most local programs assumed that if he didn’t go Division I, he was going to go to West Chester.”
Army stepped in and changed his mind on his future plans.
“West Chester was definitely an option,” Blair said. “People didn’t think I would enjoy playing for my dad, but it was an option and playing for him wouldn’t have been an issue,” Blair said. “Army came into the picture and after going up on campus, I fell in love with it.”
When Damien isn’t coaching, he can be seen courtside taking in Dylan’s games and offering advice to his son postgame. Blair has always taken what his dad has taught him to heart, especially when it comes to how to improve on the court.
“The biggest thing he has shared with me and something that will always stay with me is finding ways to win basketball games,” Blair said. “It’s more than thinking about how I’m playing or how my teammates are playing, whether I’m scoring or not. Find a spot in the game that can change the outcome or make it more in your favor.”
The best attribute Blair has displayed early on in his career is the ability to lead, both by example and with his game. He has a knack for scoring when he needs to and putting his teammates in position to be successful.
As a junior, he averaged 18 points and five assists. As his scoring average has grown, so too has his court vision and, furthermore, his calm demeanor in guiding teammates like sophomore Donovan Fromhartz and fellow senior Joey Suarez, who will be key pieces for the Whippets this season with the departure of 6-9 big man Jake Warren, now at Calvary Christian (Fla.).
Ross’s team downed West Chester East twice in the regular season but fell to the Vikings in the league final as well as the District 1-6A playbacks in 2021-22. This is the next hurdle for his team to get over and he’s confident he will be able to count on his senior point guard to have the team prepared.
“Every coach loves having a point guard who is an extension of them on the floor,” Ross said. “It offered a level of comfort and security late in games when we’re playing against teams like Reading in the state playoffs. Having a guy out on the floor who can read and feel the game the same way I can while also making good decisions with the ball and understanding what the team needs at that moment is nice.”
Funk was 5-11 during his time with the Black Knights and Blair is a player in that same mold. Funk didn’t allow his size to dictate the type of player he was and would become, and Blair is hoping to follow a similar path under Allen, whose team finished 15-16 and 9-9 in the Patriot League last season.
“It will definitely be a jump in size however, my speed is something that will separate me, especially in the Patriot League but also because Army plays at a fast pace,” Blair said. “My ability to shoot the ball with range will also help me. The combination of being able to shoot the ball and use my speed is something that will translate to any level.”
As he heads into his final season, Blair’s focus is on winning a Ches-Mont League championship.
“It is something that we haven’t had in a few years and it’s something I’ve always wanted to bring back to Downingtown (West),” Blair said.
More importantly, he wants ‘the younger guys’ to be able to step into leadership roles after he finishes his high school career, a testament to those leadership qualities that have been well crafted and the United States service academies look for in someone like Blair.
“Leadership is doing whatever it takes to get the job done,” Blair said. “Whether it be going solo and bringing your team with you or putting your team first and allowing them to make decisions. A good leader is confident in his decision-making and those of his teammates. A good leader is also willing to fall with his mistakes. Leadership encompasses all those things and it’s a privilege.”