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District 1 5A: Radnor, Unionville both aiming to end decades-long streaks in districts

03/02/2023, 2:15pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

It’s fitting that the District 1 5A championship game comes down to Radnor and Unionville.

After all, it was three years ago that Unionville ended Radnor’s season, the Longhorns beating the Raptors — though both went by different nicknames back then — by 20 points in a playback game at Unionville, going on to the state quarterfinals, where they were when the season ended due to the COVID pandemic.

Charlie Thornton (above) was a freshman reserve when Unionville beat Radnor in the 2020 district playoffs. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Charlie Thornton and Danny Rosenblum were the first two players off the bench for Radnor that year as freshmen, the loss still resonating somewhere in the backs of their memories, though the pair — and the Raptors in general — have come a long way since then.

“It’s crazy to see it’s full-circle, I know Danny’s still thinking about that, even though Jackson [Hicke] and Cooper [Mueller] and everybody else weren’t on that team that year, I just know that we’re still thinking about that,” Thornton said, referring to his two classmates, who were playing JV that year, “and that’s going to give us a little more juice.”

Like Radnor needs any more motivation as they head into Saturday’s game, which will take place 2 PM at Temple University’s Liacouras Center.

The top seed in the district and perhaps the best team in the district regardless of class, Jamie Chadwin’s Raptors are now 26-0 after beating No. 12 West Chester Rustin in the semifinals. Now they’re right back in the spot they were a year ago, when Kyree Womack and Chester pulled off a wild comeback to send Radnor home brokenhearted, a buzzer-beater at the end of regulation leading to an overtime defeat.

That loss has been driving Radnor all year, knowing that Chester, now in 6A, would never be their opponent, that they’d have to get their revenge on whoever else stood in their way in order to bring Radnor its first district title since 1961.

“That was such a tough loss, what a crazy game that was and we all know how bad that hurt, to lose that game,” said Hicke, the Raptors’ Princeton-bound 6-foot-5 wing. “We’re not going to do that again — or at least, try our hardest not to let that happen again.”

Jackson Hicke (above) will play his collegiate basketball at Princeton. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Hicke, Thornton (6-4), Rosenblum (5-11) and Mueller (6-3) make up the core of this Radnor squad, the four teammates and best friends since middle school, whose group chat has been titled ‘state champs’ since those years. They, along with senior wings Michael Savadove (6-3) and Jackson Gaffney (6-7) and junior Henry Pierce (6-3) make up the team’s top seven, with Pierce the fifth starter. 

After losing in the title game last year, the spotlight’s been on Radnor all season, since they beat Archbishop Ryan back in December and never looked back. Hicke said the whole team’s been hearing about this weekend’s game from teachers and students alike, his younger siblings telling him it’s not just the high school that’s excited.

“I think everyone’s aware of how special this year has been for Radnor basketball and everybody loves to be a part of it and part of the Radnor community,” he said. “The teachers’ve been in to it, the students, all the schools in Radnor township, all the kids, it’s great to unite everyone together and everyone’s pulling for us to bring home this district championship.”

The closest call yet for Radnor came last weekend, as Rustin looked for a while like it might shock the Southeastern PA basketball world.

The Golden Knights put up quite a fight in their semifinal, leading after the first, second and third quarters, though the Raptors closed strong for a 66-52 win. It was the first real scare they’d gotten in months, and they responded accordingly.

“I think it was great for us, yeah. Rustin played a phenomenal game, they shot the lights out,” Hicke said. “It was a really tough game, start-to-finish, so I think that fired us up and I think it definitely prepared us for Unionville, because I kind of have a gut feeling that that game’s going to go in a similar way.”

Robbie Logan (above) hit two clutch 3-pointers as Unionville beat Chichester. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Under head coach Chris Cowles, Unionville (22-4) has indeed become known as a sharpshooting squad, playing four- or five-out sets, with everybody in the top eight capable of gunning away from the arc, even forwards James Brenner (6-5) and Nick Diehl (6-5). 

Senior guard Robbie Logan (6-0) led the way as the Longhorns hit 13 3-pointers in their semifinal win over No. 2 Chichester, his two corner triples in the final minutes helping lift them to a come-from-behind, 75-72 triumph.

“Like our coaches like to say, it’s either we go 0-for-7 or we go 6-or-7 for seven,” Longhorns senior Kevin Carson (6-1) said. “We just know if we keep shooting, eventually they will fall, so just keep trusting our offense to get those open shots and trust our players to keep shooting them and eventually they’ll just go in.”

Carson, Logan and George Napolitano (5-11) are the only seniors in Unionville’s top eight, four juniors — Diehl, James Anderson (6-3), Ryan Brown (6-4) and Charlie Kammeier (6-3) — forming the bulk of their production, with Brown and Anderson the team’s two primary ball-handlers. Diehl, Brown and Kammeier have been teammates since fourth grade in a Malvern youth league, with Anderson joining them when he moved into the district in middle school.

Ryan Brown (above) is part of a strong junior class for the Longhorns. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Radnor can shoot it as well from all five positions, though the Raptors won’t take quite as many outside shots, with Hicke an excellent driver who can get into the lane, and they all cut and flow well off each other in their offense. 

While Unionville’s got the ability to electrify the crowd with a quick spurt of triples, Radnor thrives in transition, with multiple players — Hicke, Thornton, Mueller and senior wing Jackson Gaffney — all capable of throwing down some big dunks, usually good for a few each game.

“They’re definitely very active on defense, they’re all up in your face, and they like to play defense,” Carson said. “They want to strip the ball and go down the court and dunk it on your head, as we’ve seen on multiple clips.”

While Radnor was playing in last year’s district title game and into the second round of the state playoffs, Unionville missed out on the postseason entirely a season ago, finishing 10-11. After a strong offseason it didn’t take long for the Longhorns to show things would be different, racking up win after win out of the gate, losing to Garnet Valley in their third game but otherwise going without a setback until Jan. 24. 

Unionville rolled into the postseason the No. 3 seed in the district playoffs after losing to Downingtown West in the Ches-Mont championship, and now finds itself one win from its first district title since 1981; its only other title was in 1955.

“I think that we’ve been preparing for this extremely well, practices are intense, film sessions are intense, as it should be with a team of Radnor’s caliber,” Carson said. “I think we’re definitely ready for this challenge and yeah, we’re really excited.”

Danny Rosenblum (above) is headed to play at the University of Rochester (N.Y.). (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The key factor this time of year is always how teams handle playing in Temple’s 10,000-seat Liacouras Center, which dwarfs the gyms the teams have played in all year long. The semifinals used to be held there as well, giving the two teams in the championship a little taste of what’s in store, but since the COVID pandemic they’ve been taking place at higher seeds. 

So it’s Radnor who’s got a slight advantage, having dealt with the numerous differences that add up to making the arena its own challenge.

“I think they all just kind of factor in,” Hicke said. “The depth perception’s really different, because the arena’s big, that takes a little getting used to. The college ‘3’, you’re naturally attracted to it because after playing on so many high school courts, it feels like that’s where you should be, when in reality it’s a couple feet further out.”

Both sides know they’re in for a big-time atmosphere on Saturday, the nerves sure to be running high on both sides. Both are playing for history, Radnor with perfection on the line and Unionville determined to make sure it doesn’t happen.

“We know that it’s going to be a packed stadium since it is a championship game, but (Cowles) has been saying all year just to forget the outside noise, just focus on ourselves,” Carson said. “I’m excited for Saturday, just trying to put the first loss on their record — we’ll see what happens, but I’m excited.”

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