Jack Forrest (above) and Lower Merion are back in the district quarterfinals after gaining revenge on Conestoga. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
Every great team has a kryptonite, and for Lower Merion the past few seasons, that kryptonite has been Conestoga.
The Central League archrivals have played one another three times in each season since 2014-15, and every year, Conestoga has won two of the three meetings, knocking off the Aces in District 1 6A playoffs last postseason.
The Pioneers racked up another regular-season sweep of LM this year, taking the two games by a combined nine points, but the two teams found themselves facing off once against in district play on Tuesday after Conestoga dispatched Cheltenham in the first round on Friday night.
Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer wasn’t very happy to see Conestoga potentially on his schedule, and even less happy when it became a reality.
“I didn’t like the bracket when I saw ‘Stoga out there lurking,” Downer said. “They’re a very good team, and they certainly know how to beat us.”
For the third time in four years, however, LM’s only win of the season against the Pioneers came when it mattered most. The Aces won Tuesday night’s edition 76-69 to secure a state bid and advance to the District 1 quarterfinals, where they’ll face Pennridge on Friday.
This run in districts comes on top of a second straight Central League title, which Lower Merion claimed over Penncrest a week prior.
So, while Downer’s Aces have lost more than they’ve won against Conestoga in recent years, the 28th-year coach feels his team has been on the better side of the rivalry.
“They’ve beaten us X amount of times, but we’ve got five Central League titles in the last seven years so we’re proud of that,” he said. “It’s just the biggest rivalry in the Central League and two schools that have had very good programs and we bump into each other quite a bit.”
“We knew they had beaten us twice,” junior Jack Forrest added. “We really wanted it and they really wanted it, but we came out on top.”
Forrest, who along with fellow starters Steve Payne and Harrison Klevan had the flu in the teams’ second meeting this season, led LM with 23 points in the win, going 10-of-16 from the field and pulling down five boards.
The 6-5 wing, who has offers from Penn and Columbia, both of whom had coaches in attendance Tuesday, did not miss a two-point shot on the night, scoring multiple crucial buckets during a 21-10 Lower Merion second quarter which gave the Aces a substantial 39-29 lead entering the half.
LM’s advantage grew to as many as 16 and was 11 by the end of three, and though Conestoga closed the gap to two possessions with under a minute remaining, the Aces held on for the win.
“We came out with extreme energy,” Forrest said. “We know how hard they play and how explosive of a team they are. We knew we had to give it our all from the start and coming out of every single break.”
Everyone in the starting lineup pitched in, each of the main five scoring double digits, in fact. Payne had 14 points, five assists, and five rebounds, Klevan hit four 3-pointers en route to 13 points, Darryl Taylor had 14 points and seven rebounds, and Joshua Martin went for a 12-point, 13-rebound double-double.
Though Forrest and Payne came into the year as the clear one and two options on offense for LM, the rest of the rotation has shown itself quite capable of scoring too.
“Everyone is just stepping up and everyone’s making plays,” Forrest said. “That’s a big difference in how we’ve grown as a team throughout the season.”
“I think having five guys in double figures is very unique,” Downer added. “When that happens, it’s pretty much an automatic win.”
The development of role players like Klevan, a 6-0 senior sharpshooter, and Martin, a 6-5 junior big man, has been the key to LM’s season so far. Now, with a win Friday, the Aces can make it to Temple’s Liacouras Center for the District 1 final four.
“The mindset is we’re 32 minutes away from Temple,” Downer said. “Doesn’t matter who the opponent is, it’s in our gym, and if we can play a good 32 minutes of basketball, we’re going to be going to Temple, which is every high schooler’s dream, getting to the final four at the Liacouras Center.”
For Conestoga, Milton Robinson scored a game-high 25 points and three other players were in double figures. The Pioneers aren’t done for the year, as they’ll host North Penn on Friday in playbacks.
At 21-4, Lower Merion has already completed all three of Downer’s preseason goals: win 20 games, win the league title, and qualify for states.
With those milestones out of the way, it’s just a test of seeing how far this group can go. The Aces haven’t won a game at states since making the quarterfinals in 2014, so that’s a trend Downer wouldn’t mind breaking.
“Just getting into states is not going to be enough,” he said. “We want to try to win a game there, that would possibly be a goal number four.”
Forrest said not so fast.
“I think we’re focused on districts right now,” he explained. “I’m glad we got that state bid but we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got three more games until we can think about states. We’re going to be playing all great teams, so coming out with the same intensity we’re playing with in the playoffs is going to be really important.”