by Ed Morrone

Ryan Holmes in action for Penn Charter. (photo by Zamani Feelings )

For the longest time, Ryan Holmes felt like an outsider at Penn Charter.

Holmes hails from Northeast Philly. He grew up in the Torresdale section of the city and went to grade school at MaST Charter. He always figured he’d stay in the neighborhood and go to high school at Archbishop Ryan before Penn Charter came calling.

The school’s rigorous academic demands are an adjustment for any student, but Holmes in particular, felt like he had landed in another universe when he arrived on campus in the fall of 2015.

Jim Phillips, the longtime basketball coach at PC who had recruited Holmes to the school after watching him play in a summer tournament for St. Katherine of Siena, suggested that Holmes reclassify and repeat his eighth-grade year, a practice not completely uncommon at a place as academically challenging as Penn Charter.

Holmes was on board with the move, but ultimately it was decided that he jump right into his freshman campaign out of the gate. As a result, Holmes had trouble keeping up.

“It was a big transition, and I struggled a lot academically,” he recalled. “After that, I ended up repeating ninth grade. It was a difficult year, and with the workload here the biggest thing was learning to manage my time and figure out how to get my assignments done. It’s been a grind. Nothing’s gotten easier. I’ve just managed the time better.”

Holmes faced additional challenges thereafter. For starters, he had a year of making friends under his belt. When he had to repeat ninth grade, all of those friends moved up to sophomore year while he stayed in the same place.

Not only that, but Phillips stepped down following Holmes’ sophomore year. By that time, Holmes was thriving athletically (he’s also played football and soccer at the school) and had to make a decision: should he stay or should he go? His older brother, Shane, found success in the Northeast, playing soccer first at Father Judge and now at Holy Family University.

“I thought about transferring, but with the academics, I realized how valuable a Penn Charter education was,” he said. “Plus, I’m not someone who quits. I wanted to stick with it and follow through.”

It was a fortuitous choice to stay, for both Holmes and the school. Academics are still difficult, but being able to persevere and get satisfactory results at Penn Charter has been validating for Holmes. Additionally, Holmes, who crossed the 1,000-point milestone as a junior and currently sits at 1,374 career points at counting, has become the de facto veteran leader of a basketball program that has been infused with youth the last two seasons.

The Quakers have struggled winning games in the Inter-Ac League since Phillips left and John Owens took over, dropping 13 of their last 14. However, looking beyond the surface level numbers, there is genuine intrigue and promise going forward.

In addition to Holmes, PC has four freshmen — Mark Butler, Keith Gee, Trey Shinholster and Colin Schumm — who see significant minutes. Butler, the best of that lot, cut his varsity teeth last season as an eighth grader. All of them have thrived playing with Holmes, who has become the elder statesman and leader of a school he never envisioned attending and one he considered leaving three years in.

“It’s hard to rely on young people to lead a team, but if there’s a good leader there, it starts clicking and working a little faster,” Holmes said. “It’s been a difficult season at times, but it’s not like we’re getting blown out every game. I wouldn’t have wanted to do this anywhere else but at Penn Charter. This is the environment that I love.”

Holmes has gotten to experience the highs and lows of life at Penn Charter, with basketball being the bastion that held everything together. As a junior, one of Holmes’ best friends and biggest supporters from growing up, Mark Czyzewski, was diagnosed with cancer. Czyzewski came to a lot of games earlier in Holmes’ career, but once he got sick, it became more difficult.

However, on the day Holmes reached 1,000 points, Czyzewski was there to see it. Immediately after he hit the milestone, Holmes gave the ball to his friend.
Less than two weeks later, Czyzewski died.

“It was a really sad time in my life,” Holmes said. “People didn’t know because I didn’t talk about it much, but it was a special moment we got to have together before he passed away. I got to give him the basketball, and it meant a lot to him.”

Holmes has grown up and become a man at Penn Charter. The school has a way of bringing out the best in its students, even if it puts them through the wringer in getting there. Holmes, after missing two recent games due to an ankle injury, returned to the court on Friday, scoring 23 points in a loss to Episcopal. He’s averaging better than 16 points a game as a senior, all the while helping Penn Charter’s promising core of youth develop.

He hopes to add a couple more wins to his legacy before graduating. After that, Holmes hopes to play basketball in college, most likely at the Division II or III level. Wherever he ends up, Holmes will be happy, because he never knew he would end up here to begin with.

“He has all the skills necessary to translate to being a good player at the next level,” Owens said. “He’s able to score at all three levels, is a willing passer and strong as an ox defensively.

He’s obviously proven himself here, and whoever gets him will be getting a diamond in the rough.”

Holmes, who has aspirations to work either as a nurse or in early childhood education, loves to help others. He’s helped his school and his younger teammates, and in the process, Holmes has helped himself in sticking it out at Penn Charter and discovering the strength of his character and mettle.

“When you come here and leave your imprint on Penn Charter, it means a lot to a lot of people,” Holmes said. “There’s alumni all over the country and world. When you do great things here, it’s known and never forgotten. I’d like to finish my career strong, maybe get a few more wins, and just help to keep developing the younger guys. Just help them get better for future years, because that’s how to make this program stronger. Whatever I do, I hope that I can help people.

“For me, it’s about a lot more than just basketball.”