by Ed Morrone
La Salle’s hoe gymnasium was packed to the gills on Sunday afternoon, with many in the standing-room only crowd coming to see legendary Saint Joseph’s Prep head coach Speedy Morris coach his final regular season game before his impending retirement.
However, scores of people also turned out to see the final home game for Mike DiPietro and La Salle’s senior class. Following 32 minutes of an entertaining, hard-fought 59-56 Prep victory, DiPietro was now ready to pass the baton to Sam Brown and a talented holdover class of underclassmen that will attempt to get restore glory to the Explorers basketball program following a 3-11 Catholic league season that saw La Salle fail to qualify for the postseason.
After posting a 17-0 league record in 2018-19, the Explorers lost a ton of seniors to graduation, and the 2019-20 campaign became a transition year for the program, as DiPietro, Brown and many others were getting their first extensive varsity minutes.
“We lost five seniors from last year and a bunch of us were first-year varsity players,” DiPietro, a Huntington Valley native, said. “We tried to make something happen this season, some of the games just didn’t go our way.”
Even despite the uncharacteristically tough season in the standings, DiPietro was left blown away by the support the home fans showed in his final game in a La Salle uniform.
“I can’t imagine having gone anywhere but La Salle,” he said. “Everyone still showed us support. Even with it being Speedy’s last regular season game, a huge milestone for him, everyone still showed up and tried to make it our day instead of his.”
DiPietro did most of his damage Sunday in the first quarter, scoring nine of his 12 points and feeding off the energy from the home crowd. The 6-foot-5 DiPietro knocked down two three pointers and grabbed eight rebounds and as always did a little bit of everything for the Explorers to keep the scrappy, hard-working team in the game.
With DiPietro now representing the past of La Salle basketball, Brown, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, is a symbol of the program’s future. Brown is already a football star at the school, with the running back’s first varsity carry as a freshman going for a 68-yard touchdown. As a sophomore, he was the focal point of the offense on a team that went 8-3 and already has several college scholarship offers in his pocket with two full seasons still to go.
While Brown’s real future may be on the gridiron, the Mount Airy native came on strong at the end of the season. After missing eight Catholic League games due to a broken foot, Brown averaged 12.2 points in his final five games, including a 20-point effort in a loss to Archbishop Wood. On a team full of long-range shooting snipers, Brown offers a change of pace and style as a pass first guard who feels most at home with the ball in his hands, using his strength to drive to the rim.
“Getting the ball to my teammates and good driving ability,” Brown said when asked to define his biggest assets on the court. “I have to improve on making my shot better, but this season we gave it our all. We fought hard, it just didn’t go our way. We’re going to be in the gym this offseason working to get our chemistry together. Hopefully we can get it back closer to where we were last year.”
The Explorers will lose DiPietro to graduation, as well as leading scorer Jake Timby and fellow standouts Shane Holland and Liam O’Donnell. But the team brings back an interesting mix of young talent led by Brown that also includes sophomore Nix Varano and freshmen Caleb Bryant and Horace Simmons, the latter of whom has already cracked the starting lineup.
“We’ll be a young team, but a lot of us got used to the varsity level this season instead of playing JV,” said Brown, who scored nine points on Sunday. “Next year we’ll be used to it more as we try to get back to the top.”
DiPietro, who hopes to play in college and has heard from interested schools such as Moravian and Scranton, is still evaluating his next move. He hopes to know where he is headed to college in a month or so. Regardless of where he ends up, he knows he is leaving the program in good hands.
“Sam’s been really big for us this year,” DiPietro said. “As soon as he came back, we noticed a difference in our offense. He takes control of the ball and is a real floor general. Sam, Horace, Nix, Caleb, these guys will be ready to make some noise in the Catholic League next season. Last year we were 17-0, so we didn’t really know how to lose. They’ll learn from this, come back next year and make it better.”
Brown having an even better junior year is a scary thought for the rest of the Catholic League, and the rising sophomore credited DiPietro and the senior class for helping prepare him for the big stage.
“Mike’s a good player who can do everything,” Brown said. “He can put the ball on the floor, he can drive, he can shoot it. Overall, we want to get this back to the top for those guys. Mike and his fellow seniors, we looked up to them as younger players. They set great examples as upperclassmen for us to follow.”