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SANTOLIQUITO: Lower Merion's District 1 title run could be Downer's best coaching job

03/03/2024, 12:15am EST
By Joseph Santoliquito

By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Gregg Downer came out damp from being doused by his team celebrating Lower Merion’s third PIAA District 1 Class 6A championship in four years Saturday evening in the bowels of Temple’s Liacouras Center.

Back in November, the Aces’ legendary coach was not supposed to be here. Lower Merion was not supposed to get out of the Central League, let alone win the championship of one of the state’s toughest districts. But there he was again, doing what Downer has done for the previous 33 years—win.

Only this season comes with a caveat: The 2023-24 Aces are 27-1 and not one college coach has inquired about one player on his team.

The Aces continue to prove they have talent by their 57-49 victory over Garnet Valley in the District 1 championship on Saturday, the fourth district crown for Downer, who guided the Aces to District 1 titles in 1996 (Kobe Bryant’s senior year), 2021, 2022 and now 2024. He has three PIAA state championship crowns, 1996, 2006 and 2013, being the last PIAA District 1 team to win a state title.

Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer stands on the sidelines during Saturday's District 1 6A championship game at the Liacouras Center. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

But this season may be Downer’s greatest coaching job yet.

He won’t take credit for anything.

At this stage, his success speaks loudly enough.

What makes this team unique is that there are no supposed college-level players on this team and all that this team has done is win. It is a testament to them, and a testament to the job Downer has done.

Aces’ assistant coach Kevin Grugan goes back 17 years with Lower Merion, the last 15 seated next to Downer.

“Gregg is a relentless competitor who really believes in what we do, and I think one thing that really makes him a great coach is he is willing to see what we bring back every year and be different,” Grugan said. “We never pressed before like we have pressed this year. Other coaches stay within their box and play a certain way. Part of Gregg’s magic is he is such a great X-and-O guy and he lets his assistant coaches coach.

“He knows how to build a culture every season. He does an amazing job with that. Gregg does not do this to get credit. But in terms of a coaching job, Gregg has been masterful. He is able to make a lot of different styles work. We had good guard play tonight, and sometimes we go double-big, sometimes two guards, sometimes all guards. This year in particular, Gregg did a great job explaining to these guys what we can do to win big games.”

Downer’s first message to this team was everyone was doubting them. The Aces lost their two most prolific scorers last season, Sam Wright and Sam Brown (Penn). John Mobley was the only returning starter. Adam Herrenkohl was a sophomore cut who earned All-Central League honors and who his coach said put up an MVP-caliber season.

“Coach Downer already has his championships, and he is a legend, and as long as we keep going on, we can become legends. He has made me so much better,” Aces’ senior forward Jayden Robinson said. “Coach Downer made me adjust to playing within a team, and made my three-point shot much better.”

Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer, front right, poses with his team following Saturday's District 1 6A championship win over Garnet Valley at the Liacouras Center. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Herrenkohl said Downer has a unique way of doing things. He can be vocal and has a mad scientist quality. Downer will be the first to admit he has a great staff, with Grugan, Adam MillerJohn Gallman, Mike Lachs, Matt Schwartz and Eric Montanari.

“You just have this faith that you know coach Downer is going to have an answer, and there is no one more comfortable in a pressure spot than him,” Herrenkohl said. “He’s seen it all. I believe we have the best assistant coaches in the state, and one of the best head coaches in the country. He’s made me and us so much better. When he cut me, he forced me to become better. You either grow, or it doesn’t work.

“I look back to when I was a freshman, and I found out now there is a message to his madness.”

As Downer summed up his team’s success, he had to make the important point, with a fatherly glare in his eyes, and a quivering lower lip displaying the emotional investment he has in this team that no college coach has called him.

“This could be the most satisfying journey of my career,” Downer admitted. “I’m so proud of this group. They are 27-1 and the only ones who thought that they could win a district championship were the 15 players on this team. No one saw this coming, coaches included.

“This team has been such a joy to coach. I love winning big games and coaching kids on this team. That’s what keeps me going. I have many, many great assistant coaches. I can’t take all the credit. We have a great staff. Kevin, Adam, John, Mike, Robert Jones. People thought we would be 14-10. Look at what this team has done. That’s what I take satisfaction with—and not one college coach has called me about any of my kids. We’re 27-1 and I haven’t received one call.”

Downer admitted winning the district championship meant a lot. It fulfilled a part of a journey that is ongoing—how improbable it started, led by someone who is among the greatest high school basketball coaches in Southeastern Pennsylvania history doing quite possibly the greatest coaching job he has ever done.

Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.

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