Liam Ward (above) and Great Valley made the semifinals of the Ches-Mont and District 1 5A tournament last year. (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.)
In the fourth game of Great Valley’s season last year, the then-sophomore Alex Capitano went up for a dunk, but was hit from behind and fell on his hand.
After landing awkwardly on his right hand, it was revealed that he had broken his index and middle finger on his shooting hand.
Capitano was primed for a big year for the Patriots, but now that their star player had gone down with an injury, they needed someone else to step up.
That person was Liam Ward.
Ward immediately took over Capitano’s role, stepping up as the team’s lead scoring option, and was honored by taking home the Ches-Mont American Player of the Year award.
The three-point specialist was a prominent force in the Patriots play in their league last year. At one point, the Patriots went a full calendar month without losing, winning 10 straight league games during that stretch, all without their star player.
“That’s one of the other reasons I am stepping up and doing more,” Ward said on his opportunity last year. “It gave me a lot of confidence.I didn’t realize it last year because I was so focused on the season, but I needed to step up.”
In preseason play, head coach Paul Girone has seen Ward step up in new roles, and couldn’t be more excited with the potential his 6-foot-4 wing has been displaying.
“He can be a scoring machine,” Girone said. “We are going to work with him because teams try to take him away, and they should. But, I think he’s going to have a successful year.”
The Patriots finished 20-8 last season, making the final four of both the Ches-Mont League and the PIAA 5A district tournament. They even qualified for the PIAA 5A state tournament, but were put away by Archbishop Carroll in the first round.
Capitano has transferred to Episcopal Academy, and will be repeating his sophomore year as a member of the class of 2020. Without him around, Ward looks to pick up where he left off last year with his hot shooting hand.
“It’s a different game this year,” Ward said. “In preseason games I can explore and do new stuff. I feel that I can shoot some more and take control of the offense.”
Ward’s long athletic frame helps him get his jump shot up over defenders. He’s been lights out from deep this preseason, and he doesn’t show signs of slowing down. He’s taken big leaps in terms of his transition play, as he is now a threat from wherever he catches the ball. He’s been receiving some small-college interest, but the 6-4 senior wing has his eye on Guilford College in North Carolina, the D-III school that his sister played volleyball at.
Last year’s starting point guard Matt Porreca is back for his senior season, and will play a similar role to the one he had last year. A 5-10 guard, Porreca plays with lots of emotion, but according to Girone, that’s what makes him the player he is.
“Once in awhile [Porreca] can be pretty emotional out there,” Girone said. “But he knows exactly what we want and he can mentor that in to the other players. He’s a terrific influence.”
Great Valley only graduated two seniors with major roles in last year’s team, Robert Griess, and J.J. Long, both 6-4 forwards who both spent their time in the paint.
Nate Graeff will have a big role this year as a senior, the 6-2 bruising forward plays like a linebacker on the court with his talented rebounding ability and tough defensive presence.
Last year, Graeff found he was best using his built frame to bully opponents, and was a big catalyst in the Patriot’s state tournament run.
Jake Prevost, a 6-5 junior, is the quarterback of the football team, and should make an impact in the paint this year for the Patriots. Max Stillwell (6-0) and Gavin Frankenheimer (6-2) will both provide scoring via their shooting abilities, and they both played varsity minutes as sophomores last season.
Someone the Patriots staff is very high on is 6-3 freshman Will Fredrick. His father (6-5) played football and basketball at Princeton, and the younger Will looks primed to get some varsity action in his first year in high school.
“I’ve got some younger kids that can play some ball,” Girone said. “It’s great to see them play with the kids we have coming back. It can’t be better. They’re good kids to be around. They’re learning our system and getting used to the pressure. We have some good shooters in the program, which makes coaching easier.”
Girone was the head coach of the Great Valley men’s program from 1985-1991, including two state berths. In 2005, he took over the girls program, and recorded 113 wins over six years, including four state berths.
Great Valley and West Chester Rustin were the top two finishers in the Ches-Mont American last season, and they enter this season expected to do the same. As for the National division, Coatesville, Bishop Shanahan, and Downingtown West all return big pieces, meaning the Ches-Mont final four will be a competitive one.
With Girone’s experience and a team that knows what it takes to get to the state tournament, Great Valley hopes to extend this year’s postseason farther than last year’s historic run.