Valley Forge's Arion Lewis (above) is one of three starters back from last year's state quarterfinal finishers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
(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.)
When Francis Bowe took over at Valley Forge Military Academy five years ago, he said he was starting a program from scratch.
The Trojans won three games in Bowe’s first season in 2013-14 and six games the next. A year later in 2015-16, they continued their upward trend and picked up 11 wins. Last year, Bowe was able to take another leap forward and put together something truly special at the school.
Valley Forge went 26-5 last season, winning the Bicentennial Athletic League, winning the Class 3A District 1 and 11 championship and advancing to the quarterfinals of the PIAA State 3A Tournament. Every accomplishment was a first for the program.
“Where the school was at before, we’ve never had this kind of success,” Bowe said. “It’s surreal, it’s awesome, it’s exciting, there’s so many emotion involved, especially with how hard the boys have worked and how much it’s meant to this school.”
Valley Forge had the BAL Player of the Year last year in Myles Bunyon, a 5-foot-9 guard who is now at Bloomsburg. The other starter gone from last year’s squad is 6-foot-4 wing Devin Smith, who was an all-league player.
Back to man the paint for Valley Forge is senior center Abraham Deng. The lanky 6-foot-10 forward has offers from multiple Division I schools, including Temple and St. Joe’s. Bowe said this season Deng is a dual threat. His offensive abilities have started to catch up to his defensive skills as he can shoot a bit from outside and put the ball on the floor a little bit more.
“I’ve been working on my shooting, free throws, some ball handling and my jump hook,” Deng said.
Along with Deng, senior Will Colleran, a 6-foot-7 forward with the ability to step outside and hit shots is also back and Arion Lewis, 6-foot-2 guard with college interest, return to the starting lineup. Bowe said 6-foot-4 guard Rye Ahronson has taken a leap forward in his junior season.
With Bunyon gone, Lewis will be tasked with running Valley Forge’s offense. Last season, the senior’s responsibility was limited with the presence of the two talented guards and two talented forwards to give the ball to.
Bowe said Valley Forge will go as Lewis goes this season.
“I’m the leader of the team,” Lewis said. “I’m going to have the ball in my hands most of the time, so I have to make sure everybody’s in the right spots and everybody’s under control.
This season, Bowe will be asking Lewis to do a lot more.
Bowe realized he had something special last season in the team’s BAL semifinal game against Holy Ghost Prep. Deng went down with a broken wrist and Bowe was uncertain how his team would fare without its defensive stalwart.
Marius Ntwari, a 6-foot-9 center who hadn’t played much at all for the Trojans, stepped in to help fill Deng’s spot. The rest of the team pitched in to help pick up the defensive and rebounding in Deng’s absence, and Valley Forge won five in a row to advance to the Elite Eight of states before Deng’s return.
“When you lose somebody who’s a Division I basketball player, and he was the centerpiece of the defense, a heart and soul kind of guy, you wonder how we’re going to bounce back,” Bowe said. “The first game we didn’t have Abraham and we won it, I knew this season was going to be really special because it wasn’t about just one guy. It was about the team.”
The next step for the program is learning how to play with a target on their backs. Even though the team was trending upward, the Trojans were a big surprise last season.
With players like Deng and Lewis back, that won’t be the case this year. The X-factor for this team will be figuring out if they can play with expectations.
“Can we handle this pressure?” Bowe said. “Everyone knows about us. Can we handle that?”
“There’s no secrets now,” he added. “Everyone knows that we have some size, we have some athleticism, we can shoot it a little bit, so it’s going to be a different feeling for us.”
Lewis noted that the additional expectations heading into this year may be a positive for the Trojans as it gave them something extra to work for this offseason and will continue to motivate them throughout the season.
“It’s a good pressure,” he said.