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Unionville, Upper Dublin set to meet in history-making District 1 5A championship

02/29/2024, 7:45am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

The last time Chris Cowles and Derek Brooks faced off on the court was Feb. 18, 2012. That was when the pair were both juniors in college: Cowles, a West Chester Rustin product, was at McDaniel College (Md.); Brooks, out of North Penn, was at Gettysburg. 

Cowles came off the bench and scored five points in 17 minutes in that game, a 51-49 McDaniel win; Brooks started for Gettysburg and scored four points in 29 minutes. It was the season finale for both teams, neither one postseason worthy. Cowles then transferred to West Chester to finish up as a student assistant under Damien Blair, while Brooks finished out at Gettysburg.

A dozen years (and a couple weeks) later, they’re set to meet with much, much more on the line. 

Sophomore James Brenner (2) has a Division I offer from Sacred Heart. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Cowles is now the head coach at Unionville, Brooks in charge at Upper Dublin. Their teams, the top two seeds in District 1 5A, are set to face off Thursday night at West Chester University’s Hollinger Field House for a title neither program has won in decades. 

The last time Unionville (22-3) hung a district banner was in 1981, winning the 2A title, then the middle of three classifications. Upper Dublin’s came four years later, winning just the second-ever 4A title, but the Cardinals hadn’t been back to a title game since. Unionville has had two more attempts, in 2006 and 2023, losing last year’s championship game to Radnor 61-36. 

That runner-up finish, combined with Cowles returning four starters from that group, has had them in the front-runner’s spot all year long. 

The Longhorn attack is spurred by senior guards Ryan Brown, James ‘JT’ Anderson and Charlie Kammeier, who have been a three-headed problem for defenses to solve all year long. Sophomore James Brenner, a 6-foot-5 Division I recruit, is really turning into a versatile inside-out threat, and 6-6 center Nick Diehl provides interior scoring and rebounding.

All five are cause for concern individually; what makes them special is their buy-in to Cowles’ offensive system, the group — along with sixth man Jack Robbins, the only other varsity member to see regular minutes — as in sync as any other around. They were as on as ever in their semifinal win over Phoenixville, collecting 15 assists as they rolled up a 31-point lead after three quarters and cruised to a 69-44 victory.

“I think they’re the best-coached team, or one of the best-coached teams, we’ll play all year,” Brooks said. “Man, are they smart, skilled — they can pass, shoot, they play hard, they play together, they execute their game plan really well.”

Upper Dublin, even if it didn’t have the spotlight coming into the season, no doubt earned it during the year. The Cardinals (24-3) won the Suburban One League championship, haven’t lost since Jan. 3, a 15-game win streak on the line on Thursday. They’re also chasing the program record of 26 wins, set under Jeff Huddleston, whose 25-year run from the 1970s-1990s was the golden era of Upper Dublin basketball.

Sophomore guard Kobe Bazemore (above) is a blur in the open court. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Brooks has been getting strong play all season from lightning-quick sophomore point guard Kobe Bazemore, athletic 6-3 junior wing Ryan Mulroy and 6-4 sharpshooting senior Brady Fogle, while senior forward Idris Rines has stepped up over the course of the season. Senior guard Chris Kohlbrenner, reserve guard Noah Cohen and others have provided timely shooting and tough defense. 

“You can tell they have foundations on both ends of the court, so I think any time you have that, you have a level of connectivity and they have that,” Cowles said. “They’re able to have success and the kids are able to play well because there’s an understanding and clarity of what they need to do out there, and that’s reflective of the coaching they have.”

Brooks said it’s no secret that his team’s biggest advantage is his willingness to go deep into his bench, the Cardinals playing up to four or five off the bench even as the season’s gone on, while others have relied more and more on their top group. Pushing the press and forcing Unionville’s starters to run as much as possible will be paramount for Upper Dublin; if the Longhorns can control the tempo and keep it out of becoming a track meet, that will play in the top seed’s favor. 

Unionville’s approach is also no surprise.

“We prepare the same way every game and we have a lot of time to prepare for this game,” Cowles said. “I don’t think there’s really anything different that we’re going to do.”

There should be a big-time crowd at Hollinger on Thursday night at 7 PM, the District 1 5A championship moving away from Temple University’s Liacouras Center and away from the quadruple-header. A crowd of 1,800 packed into Hollinger will feel much louder than a one-fifth full Liacouras, and both sides expect a significant turnout of fans. 

Whichever team can handle that atmosphere will have a big leg up. Unionville’s been there before, both literally and figuratively. Brooks is trying to get his team to buy into the idea that as the underdog, they can play with no expectations.

“I said ‘the pressure’s on them,’” Brooks said. “‘And there will be pressure on us, too, but they’re going to have experience, they’ve been there before, they’ve played in West Chester’s gym before and our guys have not played in there before. We need to almost play with a naive [attitude], like, ‘hey, this is great,’ and not think about the moment as much. And just play. 

“The more relaxed we can play, the better, without fear of failure.”

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