Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2022-23 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
After the 2019 class of Jack Forrest, Steve Payne, Darryl Taylor, Matt O'Connor and Theo Henry had moved on, Gregg Downer went and did what any successful basketball coach does: develop the next crop of leaders to continue the legacy that he has established during his 33-year career at Lower Merion.
Gregg Downer (above) could hit 650 wins this season if the Aces have a good year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
That group won three consecutive Central League titles, advanced to the district semifinals three times and won more games together than any class in Aces history. Downer knew it would take a bit of time as great players like the late Kobe Bryant, Ryan Brooks, B.J. Johnson, and others do not necessarily come into the program ready to compete for district and state titles right off the bat.
They have to be molded and taught how to deal with the increased expectations that come with becoming part of the Aces under a head coach who has won over 600 games. Downer has been preaching the same message to each new team since winning his first state title in 1996.
“People have a lot of slogans, and one of ours would be ‘Tradition never graduates,’” Downer said. “We keep our expectations high, and we try to compete for three different championships each year: league, district and state. I hope that as long as I’m here, that mantra is never going to change.”
The 2022 class may not have won as many games as the 2019 ensemble but the corps of Demetrius Lilley (Penn State), Jaylen Shippen (Clarion University), Peter Gribbon and Henry Bard, who is playing lacrosse at Duke, left with a wealth of hardware. Lower Merion went 60-16 over the last three seasons, which included the shortened 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and claimed the 2022 Central League title as well as back-to-back District 1 6A titles, something it hadn’t done since the 1940s.
Even more impressively, the Aces found success in the state tournament, making consecutive runs to the semifinals before running into Philadelphia Catholic League foes in Archbishop Wood and Roman Catholic, respectively. Downer has been no stranger to the PIAA Tournament as Lower Merion, which finished 27-4 a season ago, has he’s been there for the last 12 years and 16 out of the last 18. The unprecedented acclaim would not have been possible without Lilley, who is the only player in program history to average a double-double in three consecutive seasons.
“When I really reflect on it, I had the luxury of having the best center in the state in Demetrius and my margin for error was very big with him,” Downer said. “He was a clean-up machine near the rim and received a full scholarship to Penn State. I think that gave me some leverage that some other teams did not have.”
Lilley was the 2022 Central League MVP, the first Aces player to win the award since Forrest, and scored 1,301 career points, seventh on the all-time list. The 6-foot-10 big man hit 22 3-pointers as a senior and, as Downer noted, “I’ve never had a big guy like that who was capable of stepping out and hitting the ‘3’ ball, which gave him a whole ‘nother dynamic that teams had to be aware of.”
The loss of Lilley will leave a major void in the middle of the Aces lineup but the absence of Shippen, who averaged 7.8 points per game and led the team with 60 steals, will also be felt. Downer expressed that Shippen “was the glue to the ball club last year as a really good defender. We could always put him on the opposition’s best player and he would do a great job with that.”
Sam Brown (above) missed most of the summer after committing to Penn, thanks to a stress fracture in his foot. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Sam Brown, the University of Pennsylvania commit and son of former Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown, has been a starter since his freshman season. He was not only an integral part of Lower Merion’s success over the last few seasons, but he grew up with that 2022 class.
“What people don’t realize, aside from Demetrius who came in my freshman year, I was with Jaylen, Henry, and Peter since fifth grade,” Brown said. “I always used to play up with them and the first person I met when I moved to Philadelphia was Jaylen at the outdoor courts in Ardmore. It’s hard to put into words how close I was with those guys. I was with them every day for about eight or nine years.”
Brown avg. 16.4 ppg while making 66 3-pointers last season. He committed to Penn in May and after a standout junior season, the 6-2 lefty decided to join Team Final on the Nike EYBL circuit playing alongside the likes of Justin Edwards (Kentucky), Rahmir Barno (Florida Gulf Coast), Carson Howard (East Stroudsburg), Ruben Rodriguez (Rider) and Ahmad Nowell, one of the most sought-after prospects in the Class of 2024. Unfortunately, Brown suffered a stress fracture in his right foot in June and he took the rest of the summer off to rehab.
Part of his rehab took place in Australia, as he has dual citizenship, and he spent time with the U19 national team. While he did not physically play with the national team, he has been invited back for training camp in June to compete for a spot. As he noted, “I spent a large portion of the summer rehabbing and getting that right, but now I’m 100%. I’m good to go.”
With his rehab in the rear-view mirror and the season on the horizon, Brown’s sole focus is maintaining the momentum of the 2022 class and upholding the expectations set by heralded Lower Merion teams of the past.
“That is a major reason why Lower Merion does what it does year in and year out,” Brown said. “The expectations don’t change. We have the same goals and because of that, we can make up for what we don’t have or missed from last year. I’m confident we can do the same thing we did last year.”
Downer understands the Aces will go as far as Brown can take them, both from a scoring and leadership standpoint.
“Initially, he was a three-ball scorer and he’s now a three-level scorer, which most complete guards are,” Downer said. “When I first got him, he was such a skinny driveway shooter and now, with the culmination and great decision with Penn, I really think he’s a three-level scorer and one of the best guards in the district.”
Sam Wright (above) is hearing from college programs for both baseball and basketball. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Joining Brown in the backcourt will be 6-1 senior Sam Wright, who avg. 13 ppg during the state tournament. He was an Honorable Mention All-Central League selection and hit six 3-pointers on his way to 22 points against Roman Catholic in the state semifinals. Wright, who is being recruited to play both basketball and baseball in college, “has the chance to be one of the better guards in the district,” according to Downer.
Justin Poles, a 6-1 senior guard and a starting midfielder on Lower Merion’s boys soccer team that secured the District 1 4A title this fall, will see increased minutes this season. He had 19 points against Reading then hit seven straight free throws and finished with 11 points in a win over Haverford. “He’s a good defender and somebody that can get to the rim. He has a lot of experience and he’s been with us for four years,” Downer said.
Expect to see more of 6-1 junior guard John Mobley, who Downer said, “is extremely athletic and I think he’s one of the best athletes in the school.” Mobley will be one of the many players, with Brown, who will be called upon to help in the rebounding department with the departure of Lilley.
“A lot of us are going to have to take accountability for what Demetrius used to take,” Brown said. “A guy like John, who has improved and become a legitimate impact player particularly during summer league games, steps in and you look at him thinking, ‘How could he not have played last year?’ That just shows how deep we were.”
Justin Poles (above, left) and a number of other seniors and juniors are going to have to step into expanded roles for the Aces. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Andrew Coyne, a 6-foot senior forward, hit two 3-pointers against Northampton in the state playoffs as a freshman and should see an expanded role. Downer states that “he has grit and a lot of experience as well.” Jordan Meekins, a 6-3 senior guard, has “been pecking away for the last three years” and is ready to contribute while 6-foot senior guard Teddy Pendergrass III, grandson of the late R&B superstar, is “certainly one of the better athletes in the Central League,” in Downer’s view. Downer is also high on 5-9 junior guard Owen McCabe, whose brother Connor also played at Lower Merion.
No one player will be able to make up for the omission of Lilley, but the Downer’s goal is for every player to give a little bit more on the glass than they have been asked to previously.
“I don’t expect that production to be duplicated and maybe not ever again,” Downer said. “We will be small and have four or five guards, mostly on the court. It will be a rebounding-by-committee mindset.”
Lower Merion opens the season against Parkland on December 2 and it will also face West Chester Henderson, Coatesville, Germantown Academy and West Chester East in non-league play. Downer has also scheduled a matchup with historic rival Chester in the Pete & Jameer Nelson Classic at Widener University on Dec. 30. The Aces’ lone regular-season matchup with Radnor, the team it beat in the Central League final and which Downer described as “a very high-profile team and one we’ll be keeping a very close eye on,” will be at home on Jan. 24.
The production and accolades that Lilley, Shippen, Gribbon and Bard put together will be a part of Lower Merion basketball lore for generations but in the interim, Downer is hoping a group led by Brown, Wright, Poles, and Co. can continue a tradition of excellence at the Main Line school.
“These guys have been to the Liacouras Center once or twice, and they know what it takes to succeed,” Downer said. “It’s about getting better on a daily basis and whatever championship is in front of you, compete for it. I hope that as long as I’m here, that mantra is never going to change.”