Stephen Payne (above) is one of a large group of juniors that are now asserting themselves on Lower Merion's varsity roster. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(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.)
Lower Merion’s graduating class of 2019 has been on the rise for several years.
Ever since Stephen Payne, Theo Henry, Darryl Taylor, Jack Forrest and Matt O’Connor all made the varsity roster as freshmen two years ago, it was only a matter of time before they and their classmates became a major part of the Central League’s most storied program.
Last year saw Payne, Forrest and Taylor enter the Aces’ starting lineup, alongside seniors Terrell Jones and Noah Fennell, as the number of sophomores on the roster swelled to seven. And it was a strong LM team, one that won 21 games and captured a Central League championship, advancing to the state tournament despite a second-round loss in the District 1 6A playoffs thanks to three straight wins in the play-back bracket.
For the second year in a row, Lower Merion was eliminated in the first round of the PIAA tournament. Two years ago, Simon Gratz was the foe; this time around, it was District 11 champs Pocono Mt. West.
Jones, a 6-4 wing guard and the team’s leading scorer from a year ago at over 17 ppg, is now at D-II Holy Family. Fennell, a 6-1 guard and 3-point specialist, is at NYU.
It’s now time for the rising juniors to finally take full control of the Aces’ program.
“It’s going to be five junior starters, so without question it’s Payne’s team, it’s Theo’s team, it’s Jack’s team,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer said. “A definite changing of the guard after pretty much four years of Terrell Jones.
“That particular class has seven or eight kids in it, unusual depth,” Downer added. “Most classes have maybe two or three good players, this one’s got like six or seven.”
And they all bring something a little different to the table.
Payne, a 6-foot-1 guard, is the drive-and-dish point guard of the group, the most talented and shifty with the ball in his hands. Forrest, a 6-5 wing, is a smooth outside shooter with a Penn offer. Taylor, a 6-0 wing guard, is an energetic defender and rebounder whose offensive skillset is starting to open up as he enters his upperclassman years. O’Connor, a 6-0 guard, is another strong outside shooter who knows how to play in Downer’s demanding offense. Henry, a 6-0 guard, possesses what Downer calls “one of the greatest work ethics we’ve ever had at Lower Merion;” not exactly faint praise coming from the same man who was Kobe Bryant’s head coach over two decades ago.
Joining the varsity roster last year was Josh Martin, a 6-5 forward and one of the few true frontcourt players in the program. Sam Oshtry, a 5-11 guard, will also play varsity for the Aces this season.
They’re all certainly aware of what this year means for their class.
“We always talk about that,” Payne said. “We actually have a group chat, we text about how we have to take over this year, how far we’re going to go, how we have to lead, all stuff like that.”
“This is the closest team I’ve been on in the three years,” Forrest added. “We’re so close, we all hang out outside of school, we all are in the gym every night and we’ve been together for all this time, so we’re close.”
Jack Forrest (above) picked up his first Division I offer this summer, from Penn. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Forrest is playing with a new burst of confidence following a strong summer that saw him pick up his first Division I offer.
He spent his July playing up an age group on the AAU circuit, as the Jersey Shore Warriors promoted him from their 16U to 17U teams to work on his off-guard skills alongside Division I-bound players like Archbishop Wood’s Andrew Funk (Bucknell), State College’s Drew Friberg (Princeton), Bethlehem Catholic’s Ryan Young (Northwestern) and more.
“That was probably one of the best things that’s happened for my development,” Forrest said of the bump up in competition. “In college I’d be an undersized ‘3’ so [Warriors director] Tony Sagona put me through as a ’2’ guard. I had to handle the ball, bring it up, and that helped me develop into more of a guard/wing instead of just a wing.”
“He’s greatly improved,” Downer said. “He’s gotten stronger, he’s gotten better. He got thrown into some pretty hot fires last year as a kid and big cycle of AAU, playing with the 17s. We’re obviously expecting big things out of him.”
The juniors won’t be the only varsity contributors this year. Senior guard Harrison Klevan has been on the floor quite a bit for the Aces all summer long, while 6-5 forward Isaiah Morgan brings some size to the equation and could see some solid reserve minutes if he can rebound and defend.
Reversing the recent trend in state playoffs -- the Aces haven’t won a PIAA game the last three years -- is the program’s primary focus.
It’s an undersized group, without the presence of someone like the 6-9 Dalembert on the roster. But Downer’s been around for more than two decades, and he knows he’s got more than enough to win a few games in late February and early March.
“I’m challenging the juniors, that group’s never won a state playoff game,” Downer said. “They’re [at] zero wins, two losses.”
“Four years ago we won a state championship,” Forrest said, referencing the 2012-13 bunch led by Yohanny Dalembert and B.J. Johnson. “Just getting back there is the goal.”
Even though Downer is setting the bar high this year, it’s clear he knows he’s got two years to work with this group to realize their fullest potential before they all but certainly go their separate ways in college.
“We’re also excited to see what this group can do when they’re all seniors,” he said. “There’s a physicality that we don’t really have right now as 16-and-17-year-olds and when all these kids are seniors -- they’re going to do some great things this year, no doubt, but hopefully they’re going to be really great when they’re all seniors.”
One year at a time.