ANC's lineup will be bolstered by Archbishop Wood transfer Bahsil Laster, above, in 2022-23. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
At the end of last season's Friends League Championship game, the scoreboard read: Westtown 60, Academy of the New Church 52.
The result was unfortunately one that’s become all too familiar for the Lions.
Westtown and ANC have met in the three straight Friends League championships dating back to 2018-19. Westtown claimed the title each time. The only time in the last four season when the two squads didn’t match up in the title game was the 2020-2021 shortened COVID season, when the postseason was canceled,
ANC has played the part of David against Goliath, Westtown — also falling to the Moose in last season’s PAISAA semifinals — and this year does not seem all that different.
The challenge at hand will be difficult as always.
When asked the inevitable question about finally overcoming Westtown this season, ANC head coach Kevin Givens chuckled: “That’s almost every year,” he said. “We have less experience, so we have kids who are gonna learn on the fly, guys who are not accustomed to scoring a lot of points and guys who are not accustomed to doing that from their past experience as varsity players.”
The Lions have high expectations because of their recent success, however, Givens’ main focus is taking each game as it comes and improving with each one. This season, Givens leads an inexperienced group that is light on seniors, but also one that is brimming with talent. They will have to learn and grow together in an ultra-competitive Friends League.
Givens’ team lost several contributing seniors last year. Most notably, 4-star point guard Elmarko Jackson, who is playing post-graduate basketball at the South Kent School (C.T.). Other ANC graduates include guard Isaiah Milien (Penn State-Harrisburg), forward Gabe Harris (Lincoln University), and guard/forward Anthony McCall (Rider).
Givens will rely heavily on his returning stalwart senior guard, Jarell Keel. The 6’3” guard is one of two remaining contributors from ANC’s squad last season. Keel is lightning quick, crafty when attacking the basket, and can spread the floor with his jumpshot. The other returning senior is Deywilk Tavarez who has struggled with injuries during his high school career. When healthy, Tavarez is a dangerous offensive threat with a strong handle, excellent vision, and a lethal jumper.
“The thing for Jarell and Deywilk will be consistency,” Givens said. “Primarily what I need them to do is step up in terms of leadership and also you know relying on them for a lot of scoring.”
Tavarez’s health will play a major role in determining how successful ANC can be this year. He was injured after only three games last season and saw limited action the year prior due to injury.
“He is a kid that works hard, loves the game, has the drive, has the grind,” Givens said about Tavarez. “He’s a guy that can average 20 points a game and a lot of that will be done from the outside, but if he’s healthy, he’s gonna be a big part of what we do this season.”
Givens still thinks about the impact Tavarez’s injury had on ANC’s championship aspirations last season.
“Deywilk was injured and we needed his scoring from the outside to beat Westtwon who had a very talented team with some size on the inside,” Givens recalled. “I think if we had him it would have been a different outcome.”
ANC hopes senior guard Deywilk Tavarez, above, can stay healthy this season. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
ANC added junior Archbishop Wood transfer Bhasil Laster and junior Father Judge transfer Nolan Walden from the Catholic League to help replace some of the lost production.
Givens’ squad also welcomes a couple of fresh faces to the area’s high school hoops scene in freshman transfer Dior Carter from the City School in the Northern Liberties neighborhood, and 6’6” freshman Justin Bobb, whose size will likely be needed on a squad filled with perimeter talent.
“I’m probably gonna need them to all step-up if we are to be successful,” Givens said.
“I think we can get a lot out of the freshman,” he added
Laster was a third-team All-Philadelphia Catholic League selection last season, averaging 8.1 ppg and knocking down 46 threes.
He was fifth on Wood in scoring last season, but will be looked at to be one of the go-to guys on his new team this winter. Givens noted he will likely have to average double figures this season for the Lions to be successful.
He knows that expanding his offensive game won’t be enough and is ready for shouldering some leadership responsibilities as one of the more seasoned additions to the roster.
“I’m trying to become as much of a leader as possible,” Laster said. “I just wanna build a great relationship with the team, so that we can win.”
The junior transfer, who can create his own shots and attack the basket with his speed, seems prepared for the challenge.
“I’ve been working on my jump shot mainly, off the dribble jump shot, just my form, repetition, trying to get it to muscle memory really,” Laster said.
Givens also expects the freshman Carter, who plays his grassroots hoops for Philly Pride, to play a large role for the Lions this year.
The freshman transfer, who describes himself as fearless and hard working, was not originally recruited by ANC, but when Givens and his staff were looking at another player during a practice Carter made a lasting impression.
“We stayed in touch. I liked the situation and I decided to come,” the freshman recalled.
“I am the type of player that is helping my team do whatever we need to win,” he added.
Entering his 26th year at the helm, Givens, an ANC alum, knows that his young squad can’t afford to think too far ahead because there is no guaranteed win in the talent-laden Friends League.
Westtown is in store for another successful season with American University commit and sharpshooter Matt Mayock, Stonehill College commit Seyphon Triplett, and another deep roster that also includes the likes of sophomore Cam Wallace and freshman Jayden Forsythe.
The Friends League gauntlet features the George School, which has 6’9” Xavier commit Kachi Nzeh and their junior offensive playmaker Christian Bliss. The Shipley School will surely improve too as head coach Alvin Williams has settled in after his first year as head coach. Christian Kirkland, who made second team Non-PIAA All-State last year, headlines Friends Select’s roster. Lastly, Friends Central School has deep squad highlighted by juniors Fazl Oshodi and Muhsin Muhammad.
“The task is gonna be a little different for us,” Givens said. “There are a couple teams we gotta beat during the regular season in order to get to Westtown and the championship again.”
There might be some uncertainty surrounding Givens’ team, but one thing is certain. In order to survive and make a run for the championship, the Lions must rely on their roots and what has brought them so much success during Givens’ tenure — their defense.
The Lions’ calling card has been pressing for four quarters, creating easy offense, and wreaking havoc on the floor. This year's ANC squad might be young, but a tough and defensive oriented approach will keep them in plenty of games.
“If you know us, historically we grind it out and play hard defense.” Givens boasted. “That’s what we have done over the years and that’s what gets us to the championship every year.”