Jeff Griffith (@Jeff_Griffith21)
(Ed. Note: This article is part of CoBL's "Prepping for Preps," our series of articles previewing area high school teams for the 2015-16 season. For the complete list of schools previewed so far, click here)
The Phelps School isn’t your average high school basketball program--unless, that is, your average high school basketball program loses seven players to college basketball and only returns one man off its previous roster.
That kind of turnover for a private prep school can often make the team unpredictable, with every single season being the “new-look” kind of campaign that most schools experience once every few years.
WIth last year’s 15-12 record and PAISAA state championship in the rear-view mirror, Brian Shanahan’s Phelps Lions will be playing a much different brand of basketball than their predecessors.
“This is a very different team than last year,” said Shanahan. “Last year’s was a very big, physical team. This year, we’re a little bit more finesse and our basketball IQ is a little bit higher. We share the basketball, we shoot the basketball very well, it’s a much different team.”
“We’re slowly building a brand of basketball at Phelps,” he added.
The Lions’ lone returnee, senior guard Oriel Tres, despite having lost all of his fellow state champion teammates, has confidence in the new team and new system that Phelps brings in 2015-16.
“I think that the system coach Shanahan is using this year is very different than last year, just because the players are very different and the way we play is very different," Tres said. "I think this year we’re a much better shooting team and we handle the ball much better. We’re less selfish. We’re not that big, but I think we’re going to be very successful.”
Phelps also doesn't participate in any leagues. The Lions compete as an independent school, playing teams from all around the state and region, with a conglomeration of players from around the area.
Without a structured league in which to compete, the end-game can be a bit hazy for a team of young athletes. Shanahan tries to keep his players focused on gradual improvement, knowing February and the PAISAA playoffs are not as far off as they may seem at the beginning of a new season.
“We try to win twenty games a year, that’s our goal to be successful, we try to be competitive in some preseason tournaments so we play at the Peddie School Invitational in early December, we’ll try to win that tournament,” Shanahan said. “The big thing at the end of the year is the PAISAA state tournament at the end of the year, that’s when we try to play our best basketball. What we try to do is get better a little bit every day so by the time it comes February, we’re playing our best basketball when it really matters, that’s kind of our philosophy here.”
This year’s team features several new arrivals to fill those holes, one of which comes out of a nearby school, Octorara. Tarojae Brake, who will spend his prep year at Phelps, was one of the most prolific scorers in the Ches-Mont league last season and led his team to 25-3 record and PIAA class AAA state playoff bid.
Having been known for his ability to score at will both off the dribble and through his potent jumper at Octorara, Brake has been spending time this off-season developing the role of a “floor general” point guard.
“This year, he’s learning how to be a leader at the point guard for us, playing with other good players, a lot of good pieces," Shanahan said. "He’s been a general of sorts, he’s had a great assist-to-turnover ratio here in practice, so he’s finding the right guys and making the right plays. He’s got great poise for a young point guard.”
Brake, who will share the backcourt with Tres, is one of four key arrivals that should contribute to Phelps this season as seniors. North Allegheny’s Cole Constantino and Delone Catholic’s Devon Moore, both 6-foot-3 wings, can compliment Brake and Tres well on the perimeter.
Taj Price, who comes in from Newark East Side, holds the role of the center, with a major height advantage on all of his teammates at 6-foot-8. Price will be taking his talents to NJIT after his time at Phelps.
Despite all of these players coming from different backgrounds and entering a new culture with entirely unfamiliar teammates, they’re finding a way to fit the puzzle pieces together and unite as a team.
“I think we have a lot of guys who have bought into the ‘we, not me’ mentality, and that has helped,” said Shanahan. “These are kids who support each other, they’re willing to be successful as a unit, not just individually, so with that it makes practice and the workouts go a lot better because they all support each other. It’s a cultural change and it’s a special program.”
All of these puzzle pieces coming to Phelps for this season will have significant shoes to fill after last year’s PAISAA title. Their first chance to prove themselves comes right in the beginning of December, with tough games against other East Coast prep schools like ELEV8 Sports Institute (Fla.), Putnam Science Academy (Conn.), and the Kiski School (Pa.).
Right after that, they’ll have a showdown with crosstown rival Malvern Prep. That game--as well as some mid-season showdowns with Episcopal Academy, the Haverford School, and the Westtown School--always gives the Phelps schedule a bit of “hometown flavor” according to Shanahan.
With what should be another exciting season of Phelps School basketball ahead, there will be big shoes to fill for all of these new puzzle pieces. If another state title is in store, it’s going to take focus and hard work, but ultimately, it’s going to take these new pieces gelling the way Shanahan already sees them doing so.
“I see us playing hard, playing good team basketball,” he said. “I think we’re going to be successful. That’s our goal, to be as competitive as we can be, every game, every night.”