Jack Forrest (above) is part of a powerful junior class for defending league champ Lower Merion. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(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.)
Once again, it looks like the Central League runs through the Main Line.
Fresh off a league title in 2016-17, Lower Merion returns a strong core under the direction of head coach Gregg Downer, now in his third decade at the helm of a program that’s won multiple state championships and turned out more Division I players than anybody else in the conference. But there are several other traditionally strong programs that are gunning for the Aces, as well as a more recently successful team that’s in the mix as well.
Here’s a breakdown of how we see the Central League shaping up in 2017-18:
Predicted Top 5
1. Lower Merion
3. Garnet Valley
5. Springfield (Delco.)
After Ridley captured back-to-back titles in 2015-16, Lower Merion returned to the top in 2017 with an 82-60 win over Strath Haven in the championship game, finishing off a year in which it went 13-5 in league play before beating Penncrest and then Haven in the league playoffs. The Aces eventually made it to the state tournament as the ninth seed out of the District 1 6A field, but fell to Pocono Mt. West in the opening round of the PIAA 6A bracket. Downer does lose a few key seniors in 6-4 wing Terrell Jones (Holy Family) and 6-2 shooting guard Noah Fennell (NYU) as well as 6-0 point guard Najja Walker-X, but it’s now time for an impressive junior class to lead the way.
Downer will lean heavily on a group of eight juniors, including a starting lineup that’s likely to see five take the court. Three of them -- Jack Forrest (6-4), Stephen Payne (6-0) and Darryl Taylor (5-11) were starters a year ago; they’ll be joined by Theo Henry (6-0) this season, and the fifth spot is up for grabs. Forrest, who picked up an offer from Penn over this summer, could be in for a breakout season due to his shooting ability and hoops IQ, but all of the above four will play big minutes and big roles for Lower Merion for the next two years.
Tyler Norwood (above) led Penncrest to the District 1 5A title in February. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Penncrest graduated three of five starters from a team that won 20 games -- including 13 in a row at one point -- and the District 1 5A championship along the way. But one of the two that’s back is Tyler Norwood, the top scorer in the league a year ago. In the district championship win over Upper Merion, Norwood had 26 of his team’s 39 points, including 13 of their 16 fourth-quarter points in the come-from-behind victory. Head coach Mike Doyle knows that he’s going to get a lot of his points from Norwood; the question will be if they can get enough from players like Chris Mills, a 6-3 forward and the team’s only other returning starter, as well as senior guard Justin Heidig and 6-4 junior Matt Arbogast, reserves a year ago.
Just a few years ago, Garnet Valley was an afterthought at the bottom of the Central League, winning just three games -- total -- in a three-year span before Mike Brown took over. But thanks to an increased population leading towards a bigger talent pool and Brown’s coaching, the Jaguars are right in the mix this season. Brandon Starr (USciences) is gone, but the senior backcourt of Austin Laughlin and Connor O’Brien bring back plenty of scoring punch, while junior forward Cade Brennan is a strong body at 6-5 with face-up range out to 15 feet. Last year, Garnet Valley scored regular-season wins over Lower Merion (twice), Ridley (twice) and more, then knocked off Methacton in the first round of the district tournament for the school’s first postseason victory since a bump up in classification (and league competition) in 2008.
One of the other traditionally strong programs in the Central League, Conestoga figures to be right in the mix as usual this year. Last year, the Pioneers finished 15-3 in the Central League but lost to Strath Haven in the league semis; a trip to the District 1 6A quarterfinals got them a berth in the state playoffs, but it was a short stint, as Lincoln knocked off ‘Stoga in the first round. This year, head coach Mike Troy will lean heavily on senior wing Charlie Schappell and junior guard Zach Lezanic, but as usual he’s got the bevy of multi-sport athletes to bring some length and athleticism to the rotation.
Players to Watch
Conestoga junior point guard Zach Lezanic is a speedy 6-0 lead guard who know how to get to the hoop and find shooters in transition. He’ll pair well with 6-4 senior Charlie Schappell, a muscular wing with a heady game who’s committed to D-III Denison (Ohio). ...Garnet Valley senior Austin Laughlin, a 6-2 gunner, won’t hesitate to shoot from anywhere within half court, and has the green light to do so. His classmate, 6-1 Connor O’Brien, is more of a patient point guard who can also knock down shots when left open. Big man Cade Brennan, a 6-5 junior post, could be in for a big jump in effectiveness. ...Lower Merion sharpshooter Jack Forrest is a 6-4 wing with a beautiful stroke, who can now put the ball on the floor and has increased athletic ability as well. His backcourt mate Stephen Payne is a shifty ball-handler who can get to the rim; Theo Henry, a third junior, is one of the biggest gym rats in Aces history and does all the little things. ...Penncrest’s Tyler Norwood is the most dynamic scorer in the league. The 5-10 senior guard with D-II offers can pour it in from deep, but he’s quick with the ball in his hands and has an effective pull-up game. ...Ridley sophomore Enoch Clarke, a transfer from California, is an intriguing athlete on the wing at 6-3; he needs to show a jump shot, but he’ll be a problem in transition. ...Springfield (Delco.) guard Mike Webb is one of the league’s more entertaining guards, a 5-10 dynamo who loves to force opponents into turnovers and then take it the other way. Kyle Long, a standout on the lacrosse field, is a terrific passer on the hardcourt as well and makes their offense run. ...Strath Haven senior Cooper Driscoll is a strong 6-6 forward who can put the ball on the floor in mismatch situations and has range out to near the 3-point arc. ...Upper Darby senior Magd Abdelwahab is a smooth athlete on the wing at 6-3 who can score from all three levels. He’ll be wanted by a lot of small-college types.
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