by Jonathan Vander Lugt
“They slept on us,” said Germantown Friends senior Peter Gard, after the Tigers 58-53 upset over Shipley last Tuesday.
Going in, the Tigs were all but locked into fifth place in the Friends Schools League. They would go on to lose the FSL playoff play-in to the Academy of the New Church Friday night, but that, in the grand scheme of things, won’t end up mattering. The game against Shipley wound up being the last that Gard and his fellow seniors would play in Scattergood Gymnasium, and they knew that was likely the case.
“That’s always in a player’s mind – they’ve spent a lot of hours here, and this has been their home for four years,” said GFS head coach Shawn Werdt said. “It can get a bit emotional, and I thought the kids did a great job of playing together.”
Gard agreed. “We’ve been talking about this game since way back in the summer,” he said. “All those hot days in the gym and the weight room – this is what we were working for.”
Shipley was tied for first in the league. Its senior guard and Binghamton commit Sam Sessoms broke the school record with 55 points just four nights prior. GFS wasn’t supposed to be close.
After one quarter, it was clear that wasn’t going to be the case. Gard’s 10-point explosion in the first frame led to an 18-12 GFS lead, and the Tigers still led at the halftime bell, 27-25.
By then, Sessoms had “only” 14 points. The diminutive, shifty guard took less than a half-dozen attempts, but no layup, angle, or awkward finish seemed immune to the magnetic pull his shots had through the basket. The third quarter became his show, when he scored 10 to lead to a 40-38 Shipley advantage at the end of the quarter.
Later in the fourth, the Gators carved the lead out to six. Shipley was moving fast, Sessoms was hitting buckets and after three-and-a-half quarters it seemed like the Tigers had finally succumbed to the inevitable. Sessoms looked like he was going to finish with something around 40, and despite some early fight, GFS appeared to be headed for a double-digit loss.
If you’ve watched this Tiger team at any point this season though, you would know that they weren’t about to fold. The trio of starting seniors – Gard, Isaac Myrin and Pietro Berghella – have all played heavy varsity minutes for about three years now. They’ve weathered injuries, a lack of depth, and had been in many situations like this one. This season alone has featured three conference games within 10 points.
“We’ve had a ton of close games this season where we’ve made some plays down the stretch to win it,” Werdt said. “This group, more than any I’ve coached, seems to find a way.”
So, it should come as no surprise that they did. After Shipley went up by six, Gard immediately drilled a triple. The Gators answered with two, but the Tigers ran a designed play for sophomore Dean Wang that went in.
The scheme featured an initial handoff by Wang to Gard, and some misdirection along the perimeter that allowed Wang to slink into the paint unnoticed for an easy lay-in. The margin was back to three.
After a defensive stop, Gard marched back down and nailed an and-one from deep. He sunk the free throw, and GFS had its lead back.
“It’s just confidence in my ability,” Gard said. He led the Tigers with 24, and heated up for those seven in fourth quarter after two cold frames in the contest’s middle portion. “I’ve put up so many shots in this gym – I’m confident in my shot and I know that it’s eventually going to start going in.”
From there, the Tigers were able to keep Shipley at bay. Sessoms missed what seemed like his first shot of the game – a long, contested and desperate three – before Tiger sophomore Nolan Grady went four-of-four from the line after a pair of intentional fouls to put the game out of reach.
I just wanted to finish off the game,” Grady said. “I was a little nervous, but after the first one went in, it wasn’t as bad for the rest.”
Sessoms wound up with 28, and the only other Tiger to score in double figures was Wang, who had 10. Berghella chipped in with nine, Myrin notched seven and all four of Grady’s points came on his late free throws.
Though the Tigers’ FSL playoff hopes were dashed in their 35-32 heartbreaker to ANC Friday, their season isn’t yet over. They’ll play in a yet-to-be-determined matchup in the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association playoffs – the fifth year in a row that they’ve made the state dance after having not done it at any point prior to Werdt’s tenure.
“I certainly can’t take all the credit for that. The kids have bought in, and though we don’t have access to elite level talent, we play good team basketball and our kids get better each year,” Werdt said. “We can promise them that from their freshman to their senior years, they’re going to become better basketball players. We make the most of what we have here, and it’s been working.”
Around the area:
Results from the area’s Inter-Ac squads proved mixed, if not slightly positive.
Springside Chestnut Hill lost twice – to Malvern Prep and Penn Charter – by scores of 67-55 and 64-53, respectively. It’s not how you want the week to go, but considering that SCH lost to these teams by a combined 61 in the season’s first half, head coach Julian McFadden can consider it an improvement. Delonce Hines has heated up to score double figures in three straight.
Penn Charter split the week with a loss to the Episcopal Academy and the aforementioned win over SCH. Senior Mason Williams continues to impress, as he leads the Inter-Ac with 302 points on the season.
Germantown Academy averted calamity by winning its first conference game Friday night over Episcopal, 61-59. This season’s been rough – the Pats are 8-14 overall and 1-7 in the conference – but freshman Jordan Longino and the 31 points he scored against the Churchmen provide plenty of hope for the future.
Thanks to tedsilary.com for information used in this roundup.