Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The goal for George School this season was simple enough to understand: dethrone Westtown and win the Friends’ Schools League.
Ben Luber (above) has George one win from its first-ever league title. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The assumption was that both would happen at the same time, Westtown having won the last eight FSL championships, the Moose annually with a roster nobody in the league could match, high-major prospects in every class. But a rare ‘down year’ led to two conference losses, Westtown shockingly finishing as the No. 4 seed in the FSL, meaning George School’s goals got split in half: beat Westtown first, and then win the FSL.
Part One has been accomplished, George beating a shorthanded Westtown 70-39 on Tuesday to advance to the league championship game for the first time in Ben Luber’s tenure, not to mention in the decades beforehand.
To finish things off, they’ll need to get past Academy New Church in the championship game on Friday night at La Salle University’s Tom Gola Arena. And though the Cougars (18-5) beat the Lions 75-52 at George on Jan. 25, they’re not taking ANC for granted — not after losing to them three times last season, including in the Friends’ League semifinals and the opening round of the Pa. Independent School (PAISAA) state tournament.
“I can’t really say it’s not a good feeling to get over that [Westtown] hump, because it is a good feeling, but at the same time ANC ended our season last year, they beat us three times at the end of the year,” Luber said. “I think it’s a good thing for us in the sense that it’s not revenge, it’s that we’ve learned some lessons along the way. It’s a test, it’s a good final test.”
Luber’s group is certainly experienced, from senior forward and Xavier commit Kachi Nzeh to his backcourt tandem of high-major-bound junior Christian Blass and recent St. Rose (N.Y.) pledge Dante Weise, to the emergence of sophomore center Luke Bevilacqua and the play of Carson Mastin on the wing.
ANC senior Deywilk Tavarez (above) picked up an offer from Hampton last week. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Academy New Church (15-4) counters with a typical Kevin Givens group, long on the wings and aggressive as all get out, playing a full-court press-and-trap style that gives opponents fits. Senior guard Deywilk Tavarez just picked up a D-I offer from Hampton, and junior guard Bahsil Laster is a 6-5 point guard with a few D-I offers of his own; freshman Dior Carter has a ton of upside at 6-3, and senior Jarell Keel and junior Nolan Waldon round out a confident starting five.
The Lions don’t have anybody with the size of the 6-10 Bevilacqua or 6-9 Nzeh, but they make up for it with energy, athleticism, and good size/length across the board.
“They’re obviously very competitive and they’ve been there before,” Luber said. “but the first meeting I just thought we played really well. That’s not the easiest thing to replicate, but I think our guys have learned more about their personnel, how they play, we’re aware of some adjustments that they’re going to need to make to combat our size, so we’ve made some adjustments of our own, but we think we’ve got to do what we do and just do it a little better.”
To help get his team ready, Luber was taking them over to La Salle on Thursday afternoon to get to watch a Fran Dunphy practice with his Explorers, while also hoping to take away any wide eyes that might occur when the Cougars walk into Gola on Friday night.
“It’s just the unseen gym, not just the size of it; we’ve played on larger courts before, we just played at Kean University, that’s probably the same size as La Salle in [terms of] the size of the gym,” he said. “I think just the more familiar you are with a situation, the more comfortable you can become.”
Logyn Greer (above) scored 18 points the last time FCS and Westtown matched up. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
George and Academy New Church will play in the second game of the championship doubleheader. Up first at 6:30 PM is the girls’ championship, where top-seeded Westtown and second seed Friends’ Central will face off as the Moose girls go for their third straight FSL title.
Phoenix head coach Vinny Simpson’s coaching in his first league championship game, having guided FCS into the semifinals last year after taking over midseason. He’s led them to more than 20 wins this season, their only league loss coming to Westtown, beating George School 48-45 in the semifinals to earn the right to play at Tom Gola Arena on Friday night.
It’s FCS’ first league championship game appearance since 2016, when the Phoenix successfully defended their title from the year before.
“It feels good, definitely one of our goals this year was to get there,” Simpson said. “It’s one game, and we’re not just getting there, we’re getting there to win. I feel good, I know my girls will be ready to play…just have to follow the game plan, and whatever happens, happens.”
Westtown, which hasn’t taken a loss in the league this year, beat Friends’ Central 55-37 in their only matchup on Jan. 20. The Moose got 13 points and six assists from junior guard Zahra King, 12 points and six rebounds from junior wing Savannah Curry and 12 points, six rebounds, three assists, four steals and two blocks from eighth grader Jordyn Palmer, who’s quickly emerged as one of the top young talents around.
Delaware commit Grace Sundback (above) was out the last time Westtown and FCS played. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
And there’s more bad news for the Phoenix: Westtown won that game without Delaware-bound senior guard Grace Sundback, who’s now health and back in the starting lineup, making the Moose even deeper.
“They’re a dangerous team regardless, with or without her,” Simpson said. “The way we played, we prepared for her, we kept the game plan. Just have to take away her shooting. She’s a leader, she’s a senior, she wants to go out on top.”
The Phoenix are led by senior point guard Sana’a Garrett, a defensive and ball-handling whiz who leads their point of attack on both ends. Their brightest prospect is sophomore wing forward Logyn Greer, a 6-4 wing with range, who connected on three 3-pointers the last time the two teams met. Also scoring at a high level has been sophomore guard Nal’la Bennett, a speedy 3-point specialist, while Amani Savage and Kaiya Rain Tucker are a pair of wing forwards who give them an inside presence offensively.
Simpson said he sees transition as one of the key areas of the rematch, Westtown out-scoring FCS 16-0 in that category the first time around; the Moose also controlled the glass, but the Phoenix countered by forcing 17 turnovers, even if they weren’t able to capitalize on the break.
“I think what we learned was just we learned basically the physicality of the play that Westtown plays with,” Simpson said. “I think once they realized the type of energy and effort they need to bring, they learned they have to play hard. That’s what we really got from that game, the intangibles.”