Sam Sessoms (above) is leading a deeper-than-ever Shipley squad this season. (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.)
For perhaps the first time in his six years at Shipley School, Phil D’Ambrosio knows he has the pieces.
Now he just needs to make sure they all fit together.
The Gators -- like the rest of the Friends’ Schools League -- have been looking up to the Westtown School for the last few seasons, watching as a parade of four and five-star prospects started accumulating, turning a traditionally competitive conference into a battle for second place.
Shipley won that consolation prize last year, advancing to the FSL championship game before getting whacked 97-72 by the Moose’s gang of future pros that included five-star senior big man Mohamed Bamba and do-everything junior wing Cameron Reddish.
Westtown is still plenty strong, despite the graduations of Bamba (Texas) and Brandon Randolph (Arizona).
But Shipley coach Phil D’Ambrosio feels like he’s added enough to make things rather interesting this season. Though combo guard Kiyon Hardy and his 3-point shooting abilities are off at Kutztown, the Gators are deeper than ever.
New to Shipley’s roster are junior Chaz Owens, a Wissahickon transfer, as well as sophomore guards Joe Gruzinski (Plymouth-Whitemarsh) and Amyr Henry, who moved to the area from California this summer. All three will immediately jump right into the Gators’ rotation; the 5-8 Henry and 6-3 Owens in the starting lineup, and the 5-11 Gruzinski off the bench.
“We had a pretty good offseason in that regard, the opportunity to be able to bring in three guys who can contribute right away and possibly a fourth in an eighth-grader,” D’Ambrosio said, alluding to talented middle schooler Khalil Farmer, who could also see some varsity minutes this season. I’ve been here six years, never has that happened where we brought four guys in that could contribute at our level, in one year. It’s a matter of meshing, chemistry and all that.
Certainly, Shipley School will go where senior point guard Sam Sessoms will take them. The 5-11 guard was the largest source of their offense a year ago at 24 ppg, and the Binghamton commit has an array of tricks in the bag to score from all three levels.
Sessoms has always had a strong personality, with a high competitive drive which can sometimes rub his teammates the wrong way -- especially those who aren’t quite used to his style just yet.
Though it’s something he’s aware of, Sessoms is still learning how to channel his energy in the best possible way for his team.
“A lot of it’s going to come down to if our best player can be our best leader and just set the tone and everything, then we’ll be in good hands,” D’Ambrosio said. “If it’s a situation where there’s going to be turmoil and finger pointing and blaming this and blaming that, then it could be a struggle.”
Sessoms and Henry will share the ball in the backcourt, with sharpshooting 5-11 sophomore Khai Champion as the Gators’ starter at the ‘3’, though he’s really a combo guard who can play with the ball in his hands. Owens will play an undersized ‘4’ alongside 6-9 junior Ray Somerville, who could be the biggest beneficiary of the new arrivals.
“Chaz [has] a ton of athleticism, he does really well on the offensive glass,” Somerville said. “I wouldn’t say it takes a little pressure off me, but it just adds to the fact that I’m not the only one down there this year, getting rebounds.”
Rounding out Shipley’s nine-man rotation are 6-2 senior wing Tommy Sobelman, a 3-point specialist; versatile and athletic 5-11 sophomore Randall Brown, who D’Ambrosio said could play the ‘2’ through the ‘5’; and 6-1 forward Ronan Higgins, a hustle specialist whose contributions might not show up as much in the scoring column.
D’Ambrosio certainly isn’t shying away from the fact he has his most talented group yet, playing a non-league schedule that includes games against Catholic League powerhouses Neumann-Goretti (Dec. 9), Archbishop Carroll (Dec. 15) and Archbishop Wood (Dec. 16) plus defending Ches-Mont champions Coatesville (Jan. 20). He’s taking advantage of being able to play PIAA teams this year, as his squad doesn’t have any fifth-year players; next year, with Owens and Somerville having reclassified when they came to the school, the Gators won’t be able to face such opponents.
It’s an approach with multiple goals in mind: first, get his team out in front of as many coaches and scouts as possible. Second, get his team ready for Westtown.
“It’s two-fold, no doubt about it,” D’Ambrosio said. “You know Westtown’s one of the better teams in the area, they are the favorites in the Friends’ League, they have been for the last few years now. We’re not naive to that, we know that we had an opportunity, we got a little bit of a sniff, making it to that game last year.
“The big thing that we harp on is how do we stay relevant? How do we stay afloat? Anybody can have a fluke season; what we did last year in terms of winning 16 games in a row and making it to the Friends’ League championship, that’s great, but we don’t want to end it there. And our thing is, in order to be able to better position ourselves, to maybe have an opportunity to win against a Westtown, let’s throw some tough competition at us -- and that’s exactly what we did.”
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