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.)
Unionville boys basketball is ready for a breakthrough.
Chris Cowles has built the Longhorns into a perennial contender in the Ches-Mont League, with a number of runs into the district playoffs — and a few state wins as well. They seemed right on the edge in 2020, when they won 22 games and made it to the PIAA state quarterfinals, but the COVID-19 pandemic kept them from a shot at Andrew Carr and West Chester East.
A couple solid years followed, though not on the same level; they went 11-11 in 2021-22, missing out on the district playoffs entirely.
Last year was the table-setter. The Longhorns rode a strong offseason right into the winter, making it all the way to the District 1 Class 5A championship game. Now the district favorites and in the mix for a few other titles, Unionville looks ready to finally bring some hardware back to Kennett Square.
Ryan Brown can dribble, shoot and pass in Unionville boys basketball's free-flowing offense. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“There’s a lot of excitement in the building,” senior James “JT” Anderson said. “I think we’re going to be way, way better than we were last year. The leaps that everyone’s taken, especially on the offensive end, have really shown. We’re much more dynamic.
“We’re very excited for this season to start.”
With good reason. Anderson and classmates Ryan Brown and Charlie Kammeier all return to the backcourt — three guards with good size who can all dribble, pass and shoot, who all buy into the unselfish, free-flowing, high-scoring system that Cowles has hammered into his program. Behind them is a strong group of guards and wings, including one of the best young talents in the Ches-Mont.
Though his first five Unionville teams had been largely successful since his arrival from West Chester East in 2017, the 33-year-old Cowles had a feeling something special was building during an event last fall. He couldn’t remember exactly where or who they played, but he remembered the result.
“We just dismantled a team,” he said. “It was an avalanche, kind of. That was the first time where I was like, ‘We could actually be good.’”
That momentum continued into the season, where after an early December loss at Garnet Valley, Unionville ripped off 13 straight victories. Its only two additional regular-season losses came at Rustin and Coatesville, earning it a spot in the Ches-Mont semifinals, where the Longhorns thrashed West Chester East 60-32.
But Unionville, its core full of juniors, wasn’t quite ready to win a title. The Longhorns fell short to some of the area’s best seniors: Dylan Blair (West Point) and Downingtown West in the Ches-Mont championship, Jackson Hicke (Princeton) and Radnor in the District 1 5A title clash.
James "JT" Anderson is one of three guards back for Unionville after a run to the District 1 Class 5A title game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
They hosted the first round of the state playoffs, but Muhlenberg pulled off the 64-54 road upset.
With four starters returning to the starting lineup, it was no secret this summer Unionville was a team to watch. They were in the featured sets of every shootout and live period showcase they played in, beating the likes of St. Joe’s Prep and Union Catholic (N.J.), hanging with the George School, teams loaded with Division I prospects.
“It was nice playing against bigger, faster competition, to get us ready for what we’d play for (a) district or state run,” Brown said. “We definitely put ourselves a little bit on the map, I’d say.”
The backcourt of Brown, Anderson and Kammier — all of whom are around 6-foot-3 — are the backbone of this year’s Longhorns. But look out for sophomore James Brenner.
A 6-5 wing, Brenner is certainly one of the brightest youngsters in District 1. He started at the “5” for the Longhorns last year, but it was clear from his frame and ability to knock down a triple that his future is as a wing/guard and not in the post. He spent the summer playing with East Coast Power, working on his handle on the grassroots circuit.
“We’re starting to see it come to fruition where he’s starting to feel a lot more comfortable on the perimeter and he’s working at it,” Cowles said. “He’ll do some of the boring stuff and get better at that, and that’s manifesting now on the court. He’s playing well, we’re really excited about him taking the next step this year and growing into a larger role."
The other key piece back from a year ago is 6-6 forward Nick Diehl. The left-handed post, a Tulane baseball commit thanks to his pitching abilities, had numerous double-digit scoring outings last season off the bench, with soft touch around the rim and a solid body in the paint.
Joining Brown, Anderson and Kammeier at the top of the guard rotation will be junior Jack Robbins (6-1), another strong outside shooter who’s become increasingly comfortable with the ball in his hands. Sophomore point guard Leo Lockwood (6-foot) and junior wing Zach Dolce (6-4) are expected to move into key reserve roles.
It’s a top eight that Cowles has plenty of confidence in to execute his game plans and his system, which involves constant movement and shooting from all five spots. And he’s challenging his team this year, with games against Spring-Ford, Malvern Prep and the Haverford School all in the first few weeks, plus a couple games in the Pete & Jameer Nelson Classic later in December.
All of that’s designed to bring home a trophy. One trophy in particular.
“Obviously I’d love to win a district championship, that is a goal, but it’s not our [main] goal,” Anderson said. “Our goal’s the state championship. Ches-Mont’s not going to be a cake-walk, for sure [...] but the main goal, the cake, is the state ‘chip. That’s what we’re aiming for.”