Tyler Norwood (above) and Penncrest won the District Class 5A tournament last year. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Matt Chandik (@MChandik26)
(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.)
Mike Doyle recently upgraded his players’ wardrobes with some championship shirts, but not in the way you might think.
Doyle and his Penncrest team fondly looked back at last year’s run to a District 1 Class 5A championship and a spot in the state tournament, but the longtime coach now needed them to focus on 2017-18, not 2016-17.
“I got them all T-shirts that said, ‘2017 District Champs - Penncrest’ on the front,” Doyle said. “On the back, they say, ‘Who cares?’”
The message was impossible to ignore. That was last year, and this is a whole new year. All last year’s hardware does is make the target on the Lions’ back just a little bit bigger, and they know it, too.
“In some ways, it does add some extra pressure, because people are definitely looking forward to playing us,” senior star guard Tyler Norwood said. “We won’t let what people think get to us. There’s pressure on teams to come after us, but we’ve got the right coaches and the right systems to beat whatever team is in front of us.”
Everything starts with Norwood, of course. As a junior, he wasn’t part of the Lions’ offense, he WAS the Lions’ offense. Norwood accounted for nearly 50 percent of Penncrest’s points, sometimes almost single-handedly willing the Lions through a gauntlet of a Central League and playoff schedule. What will he do for an encore?
“When the lights are the brightest, he just shines and shines,” Doyle said. “He’s a special, unique kid, and he’s about as good a starting point as you can get. People think that a player with that talent is all natural ability, but he’s got an unbelievable work ethic. If it’s possible, he worked even harder this summer than he did last summer. He put in a crazy amount of time in the gym in the summer and the fall, working on new moves and figuring out different defenses.”
Doyle was on staff at Saint Joseph’s when Jameer Nelson was there, and while it wouldn’t be fair to compare Norwood to the New Orleans Pelicans’ guard, he sees some similarities in how they conduct themselves.
“I coached Jameer for two years and he’d teach the staff some things at times. We’d learn from him,” Doyle said. “You see a lot of that in Tyler. We had a tournament where two guys came at him. We’re taught that when your man leaves, you go to the middle, but he throws the ball to the man in the middle, sprints back to the ball and gets the give-and-go. He’s just special.”
Special is a great place to start, but it’s not going to win games 1-vs-5. Luckily, there’s another starter back from a season ago in 6-2 senior Chris Mills. Mills is the type of player that any coach loves, a guy with “off-the-charts basketball IQ” and keen game sense.
“He takes what you put on film or on the white board as well as you can and executes at the highest level,” Doyle said. “When we were playing Upper Merion in districts, there was a play where they’d throw it to (Matt) Faw on the box and we’d send a double from a different angle. Chris would go for steals in practice, but when we watched it on film, we told him, ‘if you don’t get that steal, he’s got a weakside dunk and we can’t afford it. Chris sits on that steal the entire game until the last play of the game, he read it and stole the ball. He gets it, finds Tyler and Tyler goes to the line and hits his free throws.”
Mills might be the foundation for an overhauled defensive presence. That, plus Norwood’s scoring outbursts, were what Penncrest relied upon a season ago. Doyle is quick to point out that this year’s team doesn’t defend like the district champs did - yet. Despite that, there might be a little more offense to spread around.
Combo guard Justin Heidig was the first guard off the bench last year and slides into a starting spot as a senior. A slasher with 3-point range, he’s a good complement to Norwood and should be able to find some open shots because of it. He’s good enough with the ball in his hands that Doyle can occasionally take Norwood off the ball, too, and he’s also a solid defender. Matt Arbogast, a 6-4 junior, is an athletic front court presence who’s coming on strong. In the district title game, he gobbled up nine rebounds after coming in off the bench. Oh, and…
“We might actually have a player dunk in a game for the first time in four or five years,” Doyle cracked. “Matt can finish above the rim with two hands.”
A pair of junior guards, Dylan Bittle and Isaiah Rice, round out the backcourt. Biddle makes his bones as a pure shooter who can stretch defenses out, while Rice is a slasher. Malcolm Williams, a 6-3 forward with range on his jumper and good defensive abilities, will also see time. You can also expect 6-2 Jee Antonella, a tough football player, and 6-4 Aidan Convery, a stretch shooter, to boost the Lions off the bench.
“I see a lot of athleticism on this team,” Norwood said. “I can throw alley oops to Matt Arbogast. Malcolm is a great defender and a stretch 4 who’s extended his range, and I’m sure I’ll get more help along the way.”
There’s the newly-established championship pedigree, too, that can’t be discounted. Whether or not the Lions want to dwell on the past is irrelevant. It happened, and outside expectations change because of it. There’s also a harder schedule that includes dates with Academy Park, Church Farm and Chester, but Doyle wants the same as always. He’d like to see his team make the Central League playoffs and reach districts for the 10th straight year.
If they get there, the defending champs won’t be a team anyone wants to see.
“I think we’re more mature because of the run last year,” Norwood said. “Like coach said, there’s a time and a point where you have to move on. We’re flipping the page and looking forward to hopefully another one.”
After last year, who’s going to count Penncrest out?