Mikeal Jones (above) and Girard College made it to the PIAA Class A championship game a year ago. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Rich Flanagan (@richflanagan33)
(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.)
Mikeal Jones can vividly recall in detail what transpired after losing in the PIAA Class A title game.
Standing across the foul line inside the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. side by side with his Girard College teammates, Jones looked down the row and saw nothing but faces of disgust and disappointment. On the other end, Kennedy Catholic, who had triumphed in that state title game 73-56, was receiving its championship trophy and medals while celebrating with each other.
Instead of getting too down on themselves for not winning that game, Jones, who was a member of Roman Catholic’s 2016 PIAA state championship team, and his teammates used that loss as a rallying cry for this season.
“Honestly, the pain I saw in my teammates eyes when we lost the state championship became a unifier,” said Jones, a 6-8 forward who scored 16 points and grabbed six rebounds in the loss ot Kennedy Catholic. “We realized we have to work even harder to win the championship this year.”
While Girard College (24-9, 10-0 Penn-Jersey League) may have not won the state title, there was a lot to be proud of last season. They won the District 1 Class A title over Faith Christian and played in the program’s first state title game in eight years, all after beginning the season 2-7.
With the entire roster returning, the Cavaliers looked to be primed for another strong season but changes in the spring brought about some skepticism.
Clyde Jones, who had been at the helm of Girard College’s 2016-17 run, stepped down in May and took the head coaching job at Chichester High School in the Del-Val League. From there, Jones’ replacement was named in former La Salle Explorer Donnie Carr, a member of the Philadelphia Big 5 Hall of Fame. Carr had previously been the director of player development at the University of Hartford but decided to return to the City of Brotherly Love to pursue a coaching career. Unfortunately, it would not be at Girard College.
Carr was offered an assistant coach position at La Salle by head coach John Giannini and took that job at his alma mater only two days after beginning his head coaching duties with the Cavaliers.
With the head coaching spot now vacant, it turned to athletic director Bobby Jordan, who played at Roman Catholic under Dennis Seddon then four years at Drexel under Bruiser Flint. Jordan, who has coaching experience after also being an assistant under Flint for three years, was primarily concerned with how the team would respond after so much change in a short time span.
“It kind of put us into a little bit of a flux because it’s not every day a school goes to the state championship and has basically two different coaches throughout the course of April to the beginning of June,” Jordan said. “It’s hard on a team, especially high school kids and one that had a lot of success. I’m familiar with our guys from being around them throughout the year. It was a way to steady the ship and keep everything together in the Girard College family.”
Jones admitted it was hard to understand what was going on during the transition from one coach to the next but explained his team accepted Jordan as its leader from having gotten to know him in his previous position with the school.
“We didn’t know what to expect at all,” Jones said. “We knew Bobby as our athletic director but now he’s our head coach. That transition for the guys was tough. We accepted him as another family member and like another head coach.”
Jordan will have plenty of pieces to work with his first year, particularly Jones (22.0 ppg), the Associated Press Class A First Team selection who already holds offers from Penn State and Villanova. Jones is as versatile a player as you will find in the city and Jordan stresses how he has “worked on his outside game and turned into a combo forward.”
While Jones can fill up the stat sheet, so can senior shooting guard Daiquan Copeland. The 6-5 slasher, who avg. 20.3 ppg, was named an AP Class A Second Team selection and led the Cavaliers in scoring in the state title game (26). Jordan says Copeland is “very talented offensively, particularly in transition and very hard to stop especially going downhill to the basket” but is looking for the senior to make huge strides on the defensive end because he can “be a guy who can shut down the opposing team’s guards throughout the season.”
Two other starters to watch are point guard Aquil Stewart and combo forward Brandon Smith. Stewart, a 5-4 sophomore, nailed 40-plus 3-pointers last year. Jordan is looking to Stewart to be “our zone buster” as his team is “really going to rely on him to knock down outside shots.”
Smith, a 6-6 forward, “brings versatility because he can take bigger guys off the bounce and finish in transition. He has the ability to guard positions one through five at the high school level,” as Jordan states.
Junior guard Kasim Toliver “became the team’s best on-ball defender” last year and also the “general to start games by getting into the lane and setting guys up,” from Jordan’s perspective. Toliver and 6-0 senior guard Craig Logan were both valuable contributors from a year ago. Logan, as Jordan described, has “been at the school since middle school so he’s a Girard lifer. He’s been our most impressive player and someone I’ve really been impressed with leading up to this season.”
While the core group from last season’s deep run remained intact, Girard College also added junior guard Rodney Carson, a transfer from a Cheltenham team that lost in the semifinals of the District 1 6A playoffs. Jordan is expecting him to be a great piece to the Cavaliers rotation.
“He’s going to be a really good player for us and help out offensively,” Jordan said. “He gives us versatility since he can play with or without the ball. He can play all three outside positions and has been a good addition for us.”
Jones and his teammates have had to transition from losing a state title to becoming acclimated with a new coach. He feels having gone through all of that with the same group while adding Carson gives them even more to play for this year.
“It puts other teams on notice that we’re coming back. We’re coming to get that state championship because we felt we left it on the table. This is the same exact team in addition to a transfer and this is going to be our greatest chance to win a state championship.”
As if the drive to rebound from losing the state championship was not enough, Jordan has moved an item into his office and its one Jones and his teammates saw while standing in the Giant Center.
“I keep the second-place trophy in my office as a reminder to the guys that every day when we meet before practice they [remember that they] didn’t win the state championship last year,” Jordan said. “They didn’t accomplish their ultimate goal. We have to come with that same mindset to start the season.”