Senior point guard Ahmad Bickley (above) returns to run the Panthers' offense. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Ari Glazier (@AriGlazier)
(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.)
Cheltenham is coming off of a year in which they were not pegged to be major players in the Suburban One League, following the graduation of a large senior class the year before. However, the Panthers had a breakout season spurred on by outstanding performances from Trevonn Pitts, Jack Clark, and Ahmad Bickley.
The Panthers’ season came to a premature end with a 79-58 loss to Coatesville in the district semi-finals, and a heartbreaking, 68-67 point loss to Emmaus in the first round of states, leaving their record at 19-8, with an 11-3 mark in league play.
In hopes of instilling a mindset that will lead to a deep playoff run this year, the Panthers have loaded up a brutal non-conference slate of games that features many of the area’s hallmark programs.
Coach John Timms and his squad will match up with the reigning 5A state champions in Archbishop Wood, the 3A champions Neumann-Goretti, more Catholic League powerhouses in Archbishop Carroll and St. Joe’s Prep. All of this comes on top of their yearly showdown with crosstown rivals, and reigning District 1 6A champions Abington, as well as the always-tough Suburban One American Conference.
“We are in playoff basketball from the beginning of the season until the end,” Timms said. “We’re not running from anyone...we could lose all of those games by 15, 20 points, but if we compete the way we’re looking for as a staff, we’ll be satisfied.”
Taking over the reigns of the Panthers from Pitts -- a super-athletic 6-foot-3 wing who graduated with First Team all-SOL American honors -- will be Clark, a 6-7 shooting guard and La Salle commit who possesses “unlimited range,” according to his coach.
Clark stood just about 6-2 at this point last season, but his rapid growth helped net him 16 offers from colleges between his junior year and the AAu season. After narrowing his list down to La Salle, Penn State, USF, UMass and Dayton, he decided to stay local and commit to the Explorers.
Did a radical spike in attention shift Clark’s focus?
“It was kind of hard from at the beginning of the summer having zero offers to at the end having 16...so it did affect me,” he admitted. “But now I'm used to it, so i just feel the same every time i'm on the court.”
Jack Clark (above) committed to La Salle this fall after picking up more than a dozen Division I offers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
One of the most intriguing parts of the Panthers’ season will be seeing the different ways they will utilise Clark, whose newfound height could conceivably allow him to play every position on the court. Both he and his coach acknowledged that he must work on his physicality under the basket, which would go a long way in supplementing his versatility.
Clark is joined in the backcourt by fellow senior, Ahmad Bickley, a 5-10 point guard with a high motor, an excellent mid-range game, and terrific passing abilities.
Bickley, who recently picked up his first scholarship offer from D-II Chestnut Hill, says that he will take on a mentorship role for Archbishop Wood transfer, Zahree Harrison, a 5-8 sophomore point guard who went to middle school in the Cheltenham school district.
“I’ll definitely look after him this year,” Bickley said. “Zahree will be able to watch me so when i leave he should be able to know where i left off. He’s pretty good now, but after this year he should be way more experienced.”
The relationship between upperclassmen and newcomers to the program was a point of emphasis from Timms. He takes great care in making sure younger players spend a large amount of time learning from their older peers before seeing significant time on the court.
Timms even shared that Clark almost left the program a few years ago because of frustration over his lack of minutes, but he’s certainly glad he stuck it out.
“Even though Jack and Ahmad are highly recruited, they’re going to make mistakes. Kids will get better by seeing the recruited kids are making mistakes,” Timms said. “That’s the mindset we hope to create. Here’s Jack Clark and he’s got 15 offers, so what? Kids should think next year they will have 18.”
Timms singled out Kyin Healey, a 6-6 center who really came into his own towards the end of last season. The junior spent his summer on the Under Armour Circuit with Philly Pride.
The Panthers will likely round out their starting five with two wings, 6-3 junior Amir Lewis and 6-3 junior Tim Myarick.
Those two will have to match the production of a key member of last year’s squad in Rodney Carson. Carson, a 6-3 junior, transferred to Girard College this summer The Panthers will also be without Jordan Paris, a senior wing now with Philly’s Bishop McDevitt.
Cheltenham is expected to once again duke it out with Plymouth Whitemarsh over the SOL American championship. In Timms’ two year tenure with the Panthers they have only beaten P-W once, going 0-4 against them last season. On the flip side, Timms is 2-0 against the Panthers’ crosstown rivals, the Eric Dixon-led Abington.
“It is a great rivalry that we welcome every year. As a coach, I look forward to playing those guys,” said Timms. “I believe we’re going to shock people this year...I think this is the year we will beat Abington and PW.”
The coach also pointed to Wissahickon, a program that has done what Cheltenham could not in the past two years and notched multiple wins against P-W. Timms has a .500 record against the Trojans, and feels that they are the only team other than P-W capable of beating them.
With Bickley and Clark in their final years of high school, the clock might be ticking on Cheltenham’s opportunity to make a deep run in the postseason. This Panthers group certainly looks primed to be the best incarnation of the program in a long time, but Timms’ squad still has an uphill battle to prove that they stack up against the elite teams in the area.
That responsibility will fall squarely on the shoulders of Clark, Bickley and the rest of the Panthers roster.
“How many kids who play basketball have ever walked in the shoes that these guys are walking in. Jack Clark is the highest recruited player in cheltenham since Craig Littlepage in 1969. You can't simulate that,” said Timms. “He has to walk into that role and lead. The guys behind him will aspire to have the same thing. The pressure isn’t on the program to be successful, it’s on those plays to lead the program in the right direction.”
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