Malik Slay (above) and Downingtown East couldn't sustain a 10-0 start one year ago. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Jay Ramaswamy (@hooplove215)
(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.)
Glancing at the surface, Downingtown East had a decent season last year, finishing 14-9 and losing in the first round of the District 1 6A bracket.
But below, peering deeper, you can split their season into two completely separate, defining parts.
The Cougars started the season off a school record 10-0, including a win against district rival Downingtown West for the first time in three years, and a win over the eventual 6A District 11 champions Pocono Mountain West.
“I think our guys got a feel of how good they can be and how much fun it is when you’re winning,” said East head coach John Goodman, who’s going into his sixth year with the Cougars. “Also what it takes to do it over a three month period, and to do it in your league rivals gym? I think they’re ready for that challenge.”
In the second half of the season, however, things didn’t exactly stick to plan. After the 10-0 start, the Cougars finished 4-9, and fizzled out down the stretch with four straight losses, including against Norristown in the District 1 6A bracket. After the hot start, they didn’t even quality for the four-team Ches-Mont League playoffs, finishing 6-6 in league play and in fourth place in the National division.
That’s something that Goodman and the Cougars do not want to repeat. But since Downingtown High School split into East and West back in 2003, East has never made the Ches-Mont playoffs.
“Everybody’s hungry early in November, but will you have that same hunger in mid-January when it’s two degrees outside?” Goodman said. “We went from being the hunter to the hunted. Keeping it fresh, not being stale…and just keeping that desire. It is a grind.”
Much of keeping the team ideals fresh revolves around the leadership, according to Andrew King, a 6-foot-6 sophomore forward.
Last year, East graduated seven seniors: Wills Montgomery, Jarred Desrocher, Matt Middlebrooks, Nick Domeier, Deion McCalla, Ryan Cahill, and Jake Wetzel. Only one of them is playing college basketball, as the 6-8 Cahill is currently at D-III MIddlebury (Vt.). Those graduated players will be missed, though there are plenty of guys ready to take the reins.
Much of that leadership responsibility will fall onto the shoulders of seniors Malik Slay, Corey Hernandez and Nate Robertson, who King said are already excelling at their job.
“They put their foot down when it needs to be put down, and they can still joke around with us at practice, and still be our friends,” King said.
For the most part, the Cougars run their offense through the 6-2 Slay, a scoring point guard who sees the floor very well and can get his shot off from all three levels. So far, Slay has received two offers, both from Division II schools; Caldwell, and Millersville.
As a junior, Slay averaged 12.7 ppg, 4.7 apg and 4.5 rpg.
“He talks the game very well, his basketball IQ is extremely high,” said Goodman. “He’s a guy that can score when we need, he may have games where he’s close to 30 [points] this year."
Slay knows, however, that both he and the team have room to improve.
“We have to work… play a lot just to get used to the system,” said Slay. “This year, I have to step up on both sides of the ball, offense and defense."
The Cougars are hoping sophomore forward Andrew King (above) takes a step forward after averaging double-figures as a freshman. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
In terms of personnel, there will also be juniors Andres Mujica (4.0 ppg/4.1 rpg), the team’s starting point guard, and Tariq Kalim, a 6-3 wing who played JV last year, as well as sophomore Grant Umberger.
In particular, though, Slay sees big things for Robertson, a 6-3 wing, and King this year.
“Nate Robertson, he’s a sleeper. He didn’t play much last year, but this year he’s definitely going to surprise some people,” Slay said. “And [Andrew]’s got a big role, he’s a young guy but he’s one of the best players on the team. He has to step up on both sides of the ball, like I do, too.”
King certainly has the potential to be a game-changer for the Cougars. As one of the bigger bodies in the Ches-Mont, he’s an inside-out threat who demands the ball in the post and also can step out to hit a jumper.
As a freshman, King averaged 10.5 points, 5.4 boards and 2.2 blocks.
“He has the ability to play on the perimeter, and that’s where he could be special,” Goodman said. “Our expectations are really high for him.”
Overall, around the team, there is a nearly palpable feeling of excitement about the new season. According to Slay, a lot of work is happening on defense, and Goodman says his team have been playing a lot together to prepare.
“We’re excited, seeing what it takes to be really good,” Goodman said. “Just putting these guys out in the fire.”
King knows the new season is a chance for him and his teammates to show what they can do, and he is definitely ready.
“I’m just really excited, I can’t wait. I just want to fast-forward to it,” he said. “The whole summer we’ve been training with each other I just want to get payback on everyone we lost to last season.”