By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
CHESTNUT HILL — Jesse Balcer didn’t wait long to get the ball rolling.
When Penn Charter hired one of Balcer’s former players and assistants Brandon Williams as its boys basketball coach this past summer, Balcer put WIlliams in a group chat with one of his new coaching rivals: Springside Chestnut Hill-Academy’s Julian McFadden, who also played and coached for Balcer at Chestnut Hill College.
Balcer, the former men’s basketball coach and current Athletic Director at Chestnut Hill, wanted to set up a game between the former teammates at their former stomping ground during the season. It took place in front of a packed house on Friday night with WIlliams’ Penn Charter squad edging McFadden’s SCHA group, 61-58.
“It’s everything,” Balcer said. “It’s why you do it. I coach because I love kids. I coach because I love to see them develop and grow. Julian and Brandon are two of the biggest success stories I have just because of the kind of guys they are.”
From left, SCHA coach Julian McFadden, Chestnut Hill AD Jesse Balcer and Penn Charter coach Brandon Williams pose together after Friday's game at Chestnut Hill College. McFadden and Williams played and coached together under Balcer for the Griffins. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Balcer, an Abington Friends School and Philly Textile (now Jefferson University) product, had stints as an assistant at Lower Moreland High School, AFS and back under the tutelage of the legendary Herb Magee at Textile for three years following a college baseball and basketball career.
He was prepared to head back to the high school ranks before he got a call to be the first men’s head coach at Chestnut Hill, which was an all women’s university until 2003.
Balcer spent his first four years as head coach also working part-time as a juvenile probation officer in the city before getting a full-time job at CHC in 2007 as the Assistant to the AD for operations, which entailed responsibilities like ordering and washing uniforms, packing the bus and lining the fields on campus.
He coached the program for its first 17 seasons before stepping down to focus on his role as director of athletics and recreation, which he began in 2018. Another one of his former players, J.J. Butler, who is now an assistant at Delaware, became the program’s second head coach.
“The one thing I think that I am good at is just being able to find good kids, by watching them play, being around them a little bit,” Balcer said. “Everybody’s not the same, but you could tell they’re good leaders and that’s what I was looking for. And I was always really fortunate because I found a lot of good leaders and these two guys (McFadden and Williams) were probably two of the best.”
McFadden and Williams are two of at least 20 of Balcer’s former players now in the coaching ranks. The list also includes Butler and the likes of Dan Burke (Wilmington University) and Mark DiRugeris Jr. (Woodbury/Philly Pride), who were both in attendance Friday night. There’s others from the Catholic league — Bonner-Prendergast boys coach Billy Cassidy and Archbishop Wood girls coach Mike McDonald — all the way to the NBA — NBA Player Development Coach and G League Assistant Coach Noel Hightower.
After Balcer addressed the crowd to make sure they knew the significance of the game for both head coaches, Williams and McFadden reciprocated, detailing Balcer’s impact on themselves and many others and even preparing a graphic of his coaching tree.
“Julz called me about, ‘Yo, let’s give Jesse his flowers.’ He doesn’t get anywhere near the credit that he should for being in my opinion, a pioneer of the Philadelphia basketball scene,” Williams said.
McFadden was a year ahead of Williams at Conwell MIddle School in Philadelphia. After a high school career at SCHA, McFadden came to play for Balcer at Chestnut Hill and became the third 1,000-point scorer in program history before graduating in 2010.
Williams, a teammate at CHS for two years, joined him on the list two years later when McFadden was a coach on Balcer’s staff. Balcer didn’t remember that fact until stumbling upon a picture of Williams looking up at him in a huddle and McFadden standing right behind in preparation for Friday.
McFadden lost his father at age 14 and had his oldest son, Julian, a month before coming to Chestnut Hill as a freshman. He spent six years as an assistant for Balcer before becoming the head coach at his alma mater in 2016, where he’s carried the many lessons from his time with the Griffins with him.
“A lot of the stuff Jesse was teaching was just about life, about being a dad, about how to face adversity and fight through it, about the moments like I’m having right now,” McFadden said. “Those were the things that Jesse did for me, and it’s been great for me to watch him matriculate through in here while also helping me to where I’m at. It’s been such a blessing man.”
SCHA coach Julian McFadden and Penn Charter coach Brandon Williams are both on the 1,000-point banner at Chestnut Hill College. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Williams, also an AFS product, remembers thinking he didn’t leave the best impression upon Balcer on the recruiting trail after getting into an altercation during one of his high school games when Balcer was in attendance. Balcer called Williams after the game and told him that while he may have gone over the line, he appreciated the competitiveness he brought.
That was something he never took away from Williams during his college career, allowing him to be himself. Williams, who was reluctant to begin a coaching career before Balcer coaxed him to join his CHC staff, has tried to emulate the same trait most recently with Philly Pride and now running his own program at Penn Charter.
“I was a pain. I was no easy person to deal with at all, and at the end of the day he stuck with me,” Williams said. “Now that I’m a coach, I understand that’s what coaching is about. It’s mentorship. Coaching is making sure these guys are productive citizens, forget basketball, and you could just tell that’s what Jesse was.”
Penn Charter junior Matt Gilhool, who Williams has coached since he was 14, can attest Williams is doing just that.
“He’s been a great mentor, great role model, everything,” Gilhool said. “All his knowledge, everything is great. He’s helped me on and off the court.”
When Balcer came up with the idea for Friday’s game this summer, he thought he would be able to recognize two of the terrific kids he had the pleasure of helping grow up. He’s enjoyed watching them do the same for the many kids they’ve already come across and knows they will continue to positively influence the Philadelphia basketball community in the years to come.
“It’s so fitting that they’re coaching kids here in Philly because Philadelphia is so rich in basketball talent,” Balcer said. “To have two guys like this that came up through here and be able to impart their wisdom and really just show them how to be young men, that’s really what coaching is. We all want to win games, but there’s more reward. What they just did for me right there is better than any game I’ve ever won. That was really touching. It’s nice to know that I had an effect on them too because they surely had an effect on me.”
Penn Charter 61, Springside Chestnut Hill Acad. 58
Friday night became Penn Charter junior Matt Gilhool’s seconds after a tip-off.
With friends and family in attendance, many making the trek from Lancaster, Gilhool splashed in a three on the Quakers’ first possession to push himself past the 1,000-point milestone.
The 6-foot-11 forward put himself at the center of attention again with an and-one slam that rocked the crowded gym and put his Penn Charter squad in position for victory in the final minute.
Gilhool’s Gilhool scored 19 points, eight rebounds and blocked three shots in the 61-58 win.
PC junior Kai Shinholster added a pair of clutch free throws with 18.6 seconds left, and junior Jake West played terrific defense on SCHA senior Cam Burns’ final shot attempt, to ensure the three-point lead Gilhool’s slam gave the Quakers held up.
“It was great having all my family here and my friends, I couldn’t picture it a better way,” Gilhool said of the milestone night. “It was a great time. … It was pretty cool to get that win for them.
Penn Charter junior Matt Gilhool scored 19 points in Friday's win over SCHA. (Photo: Owen McCue/CoBL)
Gilhool continued to stay hot throughout the first quarter after the early three, scoring 12 of the Quakers’ 17 points as they jumped out to a 17-12 lead. The Blue Devils’ defense and foul trouble contained him for much of the rest of the game. Shinholster scored 16 and senior Jamal Hicks scored 14 to keep guide the PC offense the rest of the way.
SCHA had some big performances of its own with senior Ron Brown scoring 16 points, junior Kam Waters scoring 13 and sophomore Owen Kelly adding 10. The Blue Devils led 34-31 at half and went up by six midway through the third before Penn Charter closed on a 9-0 run, capped by a Gilhool two-handed slam, that gave the Quakers a 48-45 lead heading to the fourth.
Brown tied the game with a triple on the first play of the fourth and the two teams were separated by two points or fewer until Gilhool’s slam and ensuing free throw with 41.6 seconds left.
“I had the shot, but I saw the paint, I saw the opening, I saw they had one help,” Gilhool said. “I knew if he wouldn’t help it was going to be a wrap. I saw him try to take the charge, and I came over the top.”
Gilhool picked up his fourth foul with 6:34 left in the fourth quarter, but kept himself out of foul trouble, made some big defensive plays, and despite scoring a just two points in the first 14 minutes and eight seconds of the second half, made a huge play when it mattered most.
“It was definitely a struggle,” Gilhool said. “The fouls were definitely getting in my head a little bit, but it was staying focused. Having coach Brandon, I can’t have a better coach than him, so he really helped me stay focus.”
With Episcopal Academy’s (5-2) win over Germantown Academy on Friday, PC and SCHA slipped into a tie for second in the Inter-AC — one game behind the Churchmen with three game apiece to play. They’ll both get another shot at EA to try and jump up to first.
SCHA plays EA (Tuesday), Malvern Prep (Friday) and concludes on the road against Haverford (Feb. 13). Penn Charter play Malvern Prep (Tuesday), Germantown Academy (Friday) and finishes at EA (Feb. 13).
“That’s the goal, need a couple more,” Gilhool said.
Penn Charter 17 | 14. | 17 |. 13 || 61
SCHA 13 | 21 | 11. | 13 || 58
Penn Charter: Matt Gilhool 19, Kai Shinholster 16, Jamal Hicks 14, TJ Bryson 6, Jake West 2, Carter Smith 2, Will Viera 2.
SCHA: Ron Brown 16, Kam Waters 13, Owen Kelly 10, Cam Burns 8, Keni Williams 6, Ryan Kull 5.