Junior Nolan Grady drives to the basket against Episcopal. Grady is set to join Matt Johnson in the Tiger backcourt, as he split point guard duties with his freshman teammate Saturday. (Photo by Jonathan Vander Lugt)

by Jonathan Vander Lugt

Germantown Friends head coach Shawn Werdt has his work cut out for him this season.

“I’m exhausted when I get home from practice,” he said, after his Tigers team lost 65-31 to the Episcopal Academy on Saturday afternoon. “I have to coach every dribble.”

It almost feels like he’s back to square one. Last year, Werdt had the benefit of starting three talented seniors, each seasoned with at least two full years of varsity playing experience. The two before that, he had – for all intents and purposes – another coach manning the point in current Duke guard Mike Buckmire.

This year? His most talented player is a freshman, and only two of his upperclassmen have any real sort of varsity playing experience. After touring half of the Inter-Ac in the Tigers’ first three games, Werdt has come away with three losses and a lot of work to do.

“Against these Inter-Ac schools, they’re getting thrown out without a safety net,” Werdt said. Against Penn Charter last Tuesday, GFS fell 69-23. Facing Springside Chestnut Hill two days later, they lost 60-37.

“In our first game against Penn Charter, we really laid an egg. We were something like 0-for-15 from three, 4-for-15 from the free throw line. We were just bad,” Werdt said. “But then we came back and challenged SCH – it wasn’t a super close game, but we were competitive.”

“The same thing happened today – there were some positive takeaways,” he said.

Most of the bright spots are centered around the play of ninth-grader Matt Johnson – the freshman referenced earlier. He notched 22 for the game, with his potential star on full display in the second quarter when he outscored the Chruchmen by himself, 12 points to 10.

Another highlight came in the fourth quarter. By then, Episcopal knew that he was the GFS player they had to pay the most attention to, but he still blew by a handful of defenders on his way up the court after a Churchmen basket.

As he rose for a layup, he saw a defender closing in from his right. He faked a pass in that direction, fooling his opponent and giving him a sliver of space to cut through for an easy two. That amount of feel on offense – the fake was just enough to put the defender off-balance, but not enough to disturb his momentum in the other direction – is rare for any player, let alone one who recently saw his 15th birthday.

“He’s a bulldog. He’s going to attack from the first play to the last play and keep at it,” Werdt said. “He’s really quick, a great finisher at the rim and a developing shooter,” Werdt said. “He really identifies as a basketball player – he invests so much time playing year-round.”

Johnson is a local kid – from Germantown, and has been with GFS since the seventh grade. Just three games into his career, it’s already clear that he’s got a chance to be among the best players in the program’s history as long as he stays healthy.

He’s averaged a shade over 15 points in his first three games, and Werdt has high hopes for his young guard.

“He’s going to be a special player,” Werdt said, “but he’s got a long ways to go.”

As do the rest of his Tiger teammates. Johnson’s backcourt mate Nolan Grady scored the next-most points with five, while Sam Webber and Tyson Maddox only added two each.

Grady and Maddox have by far the most varsity experience on the team, but they were role players last year, operating on the periphery as their older teammates commanded most of the offense.

“They were comfortable in their roles being the rebounder or the hustle guy,” Werdt said. “Now we’re asking them to make some plays and that’s a hard adjustment.”

“We’re just young,” Werdt said. “I’m trying to be as patient as possible, with the goal of getting better after every game.”

The Tigers have almost a full week off until they host a handful of local schools on Friday night for their annual Germantown Community Tournament. There, they’ll take on Bodine High School in search of their first win.

“The group has never stopped playing hard, and they’re super coachable. We’ve just got to get better, and figure out how to get the basketball in the hoop,” Werdt said. “It’ll be fun, but it’ll be tough too. Any way you slice it, it’s going to be a tough year.”

Around the Area:

Local Inter-Ac squads had a good week – as mentioned, Springside Chestnut Hill beat GFS (its first and only game thus far), while Penn Charter split the week and Germantown Academy toppled Cristo Rey.

The Blue Devils, after two long years fielding very young teams, have only two varsity players that aren’t juniors or seniors. Senior Zyon Grant and junior David Robinson finished in double figures in their win over the Tigers, with 13 and 12 points, respectively. SCH will host Shipley Tuesday before heading to La Salle College High School Friday night (which will kick off the Explorers’ non-conference slate).

Coming off its worst season in two and a half decades, GA downed Cristo Rey 63-50 to open the season. Predictably, sophomore Jordan Longino led with 27, while senior Tayshaun Mack chipped in with 10. The Pats will host the Pennington School Wednesday before heading to Souderton for the Jim Church Classic over the weekend.

Penn Charter split the week – the Quakers beat GFS but fell to the Academy of the New Church on Thursday, 54-45. Mark Butler, an eighth-grader, led PC with 12 over ANC, while Ryan Holmes (who himself began his varsity career in the eighth grade) scored 20 against GFS. The Quakers will face Kings Christian (Cherry Hill, N.J.) at home Friday.