Anthony Dabbundo (@AnthonyDabbundo)
(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 2016-17 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
Despite starting five seniors, coming off an undefeated conference regular season, and being a top 10 district seed last season, Phoenixville enters the 2016-2017 season flying under the radar.
And that’s just how the Phantoms like it.
“We had a target on our back last year and we embraced that but this year we are flying under the radar, and we embrace that even more,” head coach Eric Burnett said.
Entering last season, all of the pressure and expectations were on the backs of the Phantoms. And for most of the season, they handled that pressure extremely well. They finished 20-6 overall, and 13-0 in the regular season in the league, including wins over Spring-Ford, Downingtown West, and Perkiomen Valley.
The PAC frontier division champions faltered down the stretch, losing three of their final four, including an upset loss to Perkiomen Valley in the league semifinals. After a first round district win over Boyertown, they lost two consecutive games, at CB West, and at home to Academy Park.
This year, the Phantoms biggest challenge will be replacing senior leader and standout wing Christian Kelly, the PAC’s leading scorer with 23.7 points per game last season. Kelly, along with fellow seniors Jeff Conboy (9.1 PPG) and Marquise McDuffee (6.4 PPG) combined to score 39 of the Phantoms 61 points on average.
“Christian himself is irreplaceable on this team as a player and a leader, but we think we can work as a group to make up for it,” Burnett said.
Despite losing three key seniors, the Phantoms still have plenty of guys with varsity experience returning to the lineup. And this year, they’re enjoying every second of not being the team in the spotlight.
“It’s much less pressure on us this year,” senior wing Avery Close said. “Every game last year felt like we had to win and make a big statement, this year we just get to go out and play basketball.”
Close is the Phantoms leading returning scorer after averaging 11 points per game last year, and the sharpshooting wing has worked hard this offseason to develop his interior post game and get stronger.
“I’ve been constantly putting up shots in the gym and I’ve tried to gain weight this season and get better with my post game,” Close said.
Joining Close in this experienced senior class is Nasir Green, who started last season as a solid defender, but will be asked to score more this season. Shyheim Abernathy and Hunter Herschell are both guards who came off the bench last season and scored 4.7 and 4.2 points per game, respectively.
Abernathy is a point guard who can really get to the rim, while Herschell provides a lights out shooting threat.
“We’re really excited about our senior group, we’ve got a lot of guys that have played valuable minutes in two consecutive final fours,” Burnett said. “As seniors, they are really buying into their roles, in terms of leadership and performance on the court.”
“It’s going to have to be a by committee approach to fill in that 24 points per game but we have a group that’s locked in defensively and ready to go,” he continued.
In addition to Close, Phoenixville will look to 6-foot-5 junior Brendan Jenkins, who was sidelined most of last season with an ankle injury. In a team full of seniors, Jenkins may be the final piece of the Phantoms puzzle, to help them compete and add more interior scoring.
With Upper Merion joining the frontier division, with all of their talent and experience, the Phantoms will need all of the size they have to matchup with the Vikings in the interior.
“Everyone is anxious to see this new format and see what Upper Merion brings to the PAC, but we know every night in this league there are no easy games,” Burnett said.
After an upset loss last year in the semifinals, Phoenixville of all teams should know how hard it is to go undefeated in the league for an entire season.
This year, they won’t be the team expected to do that.
“Coming up short in the playoffs last year was really tough on us,” Burnett admitted. “But we’re ready to be the underdog and we have something to prove.”