Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(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 2023-24 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
Kai Shinholster wasn’t sure what the offseason was going to hold.
The Penn Charter junior knew that the Quakers’ four other starters were graduating, leaving the Division I recruit to lead the way coming off back-to-back shared Inter-Academic League championships. On top of that, he wasn’t sure who his head coach would be: middle school coach Dave Bass filled in as an interim last year, but there was a search underway for a more permanent replacement.
“I was very excited for the next season, but I was a little nervous for the next season, too,” he admitted. “It would have just been me, TJ [Bryson] and Kevin [Cotton returning] and we would have had to bring up a bunch of JV players that didn’t have any experience. I was excited (for) that challenge [...] but I was also nervous that it was going to be a lot.”
Then the East Falls school hired Brandon Williams to take over its program, giving the Abington Friends grad with deep grassroots ties the reins to shape the Quakers his way.
Penn Charter guard Kevin Cotton, above, is the lone senior on the team. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Fast-forward to an open gym in September, and Shinholster — a 6-foot-4 wing with offers from St. Joe’s, Temple, Mississippi State and more — is far from the sole reason for optimism on School House Lane. Matt Gilhool, a 6-foot-11 forward previously at Westtown, brings more size to the Quakers roster than there’s been in some time, and an impressive list of Division I offers to boot. Junior guard Jake West, previously of Archbishop Carroll, has several mid-majors on his tail, not to mention more than 1.1 million followers on TikTok.
West plays with Team Final on the Nike circuit. Shinholster plays with K-Low Elite on the Adidas circuit. Gilhool plays with Philly Pride on the Under Armour circuit, Williams his head coach.
That trio is why, on this particular Wednesday afternoon, Temple head coach Adam Fisher and assistant coach Chris Clark have stopped by, as has Syracuse assistant Gerry McNamara, Penn assistant Nat Graham and Seton Hall assistant Corey Lowery. And Gilhool and West are not the only newcomers who will make an instant impact: junior Jamal Hicks transferred in from Bonner-Prendergast this offseason, the athletic 6-3 combo guard giving them more scoring punch on the wing with Catholic League experience.
It’s more talent on School House Lane than there’s been in at least 20 years, when Sean Singletary (Virginia) and Rob Kurz (Notre Dame) were seniors and Sammy Zeglinski (Virginia) was a freshman, leading the Quakers to a perfect season and the 2003-04 Inter-Ac title, the program’s last solo title.
“It’s very, very exciting,” said Cotton, a 6-3 guard and the team’s sole senior. “It’ll be a historic team, something that Penn Charter’s never seen, I guess — [going for a] state championship and an outright Inter-Ac title.”
Penn Charter junior Kai Shinholster was part of the Quakers' last two Inter-Ac co-champion teams. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Shinholster, who was the tallest member of the rotation the last couple years, was especially thrilled to hear of Gilhool’s arrival.
“It meant that I don’t have to play the ‘5’ anymore,” he laughed. “The past two years I’ve been almost the big man, me and Isaiah Grimes. It takes a huge load off me, it allows me to do more offensively and defensively now that I know someone’s going to be in there, bumping with the bigs, doing all the little things.”
Shinholster isn’t the only holdover from last year. Cotton, a 6-3 senior shooting guard, will play a big role, as will Bryson, a deeper reserve as a sophomore a year ago. They’ll have to replace Mark Butler (Lafayette), Isaiah Grimes (Georgetown football), Kai’s older brother Trey Shinsholster and Keith Gee (Widener), who formed the core of the Quakers’ rotation for all four of their high school years.
As the only senior, Cotton isn’t tasked with all of the leadership, but the shooting guard is learning to find his voice nonetheless.
“It’s different,” Cotton said. “But I’ve learned from Mark, Trey and all the guys from before me, so I’m trying to do my own thing, and it’s going well so far.”
Cotton, Shinholster and Bryson and the three transfers are the Quakers’ top six; after that, eighth grader Carter Smith (6-3) looks like he’ll earn some varsity minutes, and a few multi-sport athletes will be in the mix as well.
“I’m in the stage of really learning these guys,” Williams said. “I haven’t necessarily gotten into what we want to be as a team [...] I think I’ve been trying to establish identity and culture, but goals and things of that nature, we haven’t necessarily talked about. But I think ultimately, these kids want to be winners.”
“It makes it kind of easier knowing that I’ve got (three) new high-level players in Jamal, Matt and Jake, it makes it easier for me, looking forward to it,” Shinholster said. “They know what it’s like to play at the highest level in AAU, so they’re helping me with the on-the-court leadership, getting some of the younger guys who maybe don’t know the ropes to work hard and get into it.”
Penn Charter junior big man Matt Gilhool is a big addition from Westtown. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Each of the last two years have ended with Penn Charter, the preseason favorites, putting up an 8-2 record in league play, tied with Malvern Prep for the title in the six-team, round-robin conference of local private schools. It’s a finish that’s felt simultaneously triumphant and frustrating, a two-point home loss to Malvern Prep the difference-maker this past spring.
Even though most of this year’s rotation won’t have that painful memory in their minds, those who were are trying to imprint how much they want to avoid a third straight tie, or worse.
“I try and let them know, I almost call it March Madness,” Shinholster said. “In the Inter-Ac, every single game matters. It’s not like the PCL where you could (lose) a few games and then you have the playoffs where you can keep going all the way. Every game matters, your record matters in the Inter-Ac, and it’s any given day. [...] I’m trying to get them to understand that every game in the Inter-Ac is serious.”
The Friars, featuring Northeastern commit Ryan Williams, will be in the mix once again, and they’re not alone. Springside-Chestnut Hill lost Alassane Amadou (Marquette) and Jared Morton (VMI) but has looked plenty dangerous this offseason, a guard-heavy attack that gets up and down the court. The Haverford School returns most of its rotation, including some of the best underclassmen in the league. Germantown Academy and Episcopal both have Division I hoops prospects on the roster, and both should be much-improved from a year ago.
If any of those teams are going to move up the standings, it’s going to come at the expense of someone else who’s in the mix. Penn Charter might have the big names, but that’s only the launching point.
“That’s what I love about the league, there’s no easy wins,” Cotton said. “You’ve just got to be on your ‘A’ game every day.”