Zach Crisler (above) is one of three juniors that La Salle College HS will lean on heavily this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Tyler Sandora (@tyler_sandora)
(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 2017-18 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
As you look around La Salle College High School’s newly renovated gymnasium, the championship plaques around the perimeter of the wall catch your eye. Five rows of square plaques, each about two feet across and two feet tall, carrying the names of all the teams in Explorers history who’ve won a league, district or state championship.
Some of the plaques date back a few decades including sports such as golf and baseball. Most sports have multiple Catholic League championships within the last few years or so.
The one sport that doesn’t have a Catholic League championship since 1981?
This season is the 37-year anniversary of the last time the Explorers ended the year champions in Philadelphia’s most competitive hoops league.
“We hear about it every year,” said Zach Crisler, a 6-foot-9 junior and one of the team’s Division I prospects. “Our golf team, or our baseball team wins the PCL or something like that. We haven’t had a banner up on this wall and there are probably 200 or so on this wall of championships, and we haven’t had one since way back when coach (Bernie Fitzgerald) was playing here.”
This year’s Explorers team enters the season optimistic. With a group of young, talented pieces, La Salle has a chance of returning to the Palestra, where anything can happen in the league’s semifinals and championship rounds.
Crisler -- who boats offers from Saint Joseph’s, Penn State, and TCU among others -- and his classmate, 6-7 junior wing Konrad Kiszka, who has been offered by Niagara, are both back after starting as sophomores, and are two of the most versatile bigs the Catholic League has to offer.
Konrad Kiszka (above) is a 6-7 wing with a rapidly expanding offensive game. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With both having a consistent jumper and the ability to attack off the dribble, expect Kiszka and Crisler to fill up the stat sheet this season.
“They're bigger but they're skilled,” head coach Joe Dempsey said on the rising juniors. “They are not back-to-the-basket bigs. The catholic league comes down to good guards. It’s a nice luxury, I’m thrilled that we have the guys we have.”
La Salle finished in tenth place in the Catholic League a year ago at 11-12 (5-8), their lowest finish since going 6-8 in league play in 2008-09; though the PCL was split into divisions back then, that was tied for the 10th-worst record that season.
Although they’re both Division I prospects, Crisler and Kiszka were inconsistent at times throughout their sophomore campaigns.
“They'd have terrific games, then have games where they had four points and they would disappear,” Dempsey said. “I think a lot of that has to do with wearing down physically. Their games were developing and they needed to add things to their games.”
“The game is so physical in this league,” Crisler said. “It’s just the way I have to play with these more athletic guys, it just tells me I have to get a whole lot stronger and use my body more.”
Crisler spent a lot of time in the weight room over the summer, and is up to 210 pounds. He claims his springiness has improved, and so has his ability to attack the boards.
The Explorers only graduated two seniors last year, Jarrod Stukes and Matt Paulus. Guard Allen Powell played limited minutes last year as a sophomore, but is primed for a big junior year.
A quick 5-10 guard, Powell will play the floor general role for La Salle. Powell’s shot is still developing, but with some other sharpshooters in the Explorer’s backcourt, he can focus on distributing the ball to his teammates.
“It’s a big opportunity,” Powell said. “Last year I didn’t get many minutes. I want to do as best as possible through the season. I’m in the gym every day. I need to get 500 shots up, work on my ball handling, and I’m in the weight room getting stronger and trying to be the best player I can be.”
The rest of the backcourt will be filled by seniors Sean Simon (6-1) and Matt McMahon (5-11). Both are known for their shooting ability, and are not afraid to pull the trigger from deep. Both guards started their high school careers at other schools (SCH Academy and Haverford High, respectively), and have since transferred to La Salle.
Junior Titus Beard, a 6-1 transfer from Notre Dame (N.J.) is also expected to contribute in his first year with the Explorers.
As for the frontcourt, Crisler and Kiszka will see most of the playing time, but the bench continues to provide juniors who are ready to make their first contributions at the varsity level.
Luke Baldini and Jack Rothenberg, a pair of 6-4 juniors, will play big roles off the bench for the Explorers. With similar play styles, Baldini and Rothenberg are versatile wings who don’t need to score in double figures to contribute to their team’s style.
Another recent addition to the Explorer’s frontcourt is Khalil Ashley-Diarrah. Ashley-Diarrah recently transferred in from Germantown Academy, and at 6-6, should be a good addition to the deep junior class.
“Rothenberg and Baldini will play critical roles for us,” Dempsey said. “The junior class is very heavy. They will be guys who will be in the rotation, I like how versatile our team is.”
With a roster that has seen what it takes to win in the state’s most competitive basketball league, the Explorers know what it takes to win. They aren’t young anymore, and Coach Dempsey and the Explorers recognize it takes the blue collar things that won’t show up in the scorebook in order to win.
“I think consistency is all just a mentality,” Crisler said. “Our junior class is huge and it’s pushing us all forward. We don’t have that much time left and as we see, we’re playing a lot harder and everyone is looking to push each other and we’ve been talking about our goal which is to get to the Palestra and win the league.”