RADNOR >> For the first time in quite a while, Coatesville is back into the District 1 boys’ basketball spotlight, and the Red Raiders will be a squad to watch out for as the PIAA Tournament gets underway next weekend.
And here’s a word to the wise: better get used to it.
What’s happened so far this season certainly doesn’t look like a one-off magical run by a program that got on a hot streak. No, Coatesville is back, and this time it’s for the long haul. Sure, the Raiders struggled late in a 57-51 setback in Saturday’s final against Abington at the Pavilion, but this season isn’t over.
“It’s nice to be mentioned again — to be back on the map,” said Coatesville head coach Chuck Moore. “That’s just our guys believing in the process. I have a group of kids who have a bright future, but we are led by seniors who believe in hard work and that leads to success.
“We have a good formula right now and I hope it continues to years to come.”
Surprisingly enough, it’s been four years since Coatesville last earned a berth in the PIAA Tournament. And many of the current players weren’t yet born when the Raiders’ last made an appearance in the District 1 final. The year was 2001, when John Allen and crew topped Hatboro-Horsham for the crown, and went on to capture Coatesville’s first, and only, boys’ state title.
“I didn’t know that it’s been that long,” said freshman point guard Jhamir Brickus. “I was born in November of 2001, so I guess I was still in my mom’s stomach.”
Sure, the Raiders faded late against the Ghosts at Villanova, but the postseason journey may be just beginning. And you can hazard a guess that nobody really wants to see Coatesville the rest of the way. Not District 1 foes, and certainly not potential opponents from outside the region, who really have no idea how they are going to handle all of the quickness and all of the athleticism — not to mention the toughness and unshakable confidence.
“Last year we were sitting at home during the district final doing nothing,” said 6-foot-9 junior center Tyrel Bladen. “This has definitely tested us for battles in the future. There have been a lot of doubters and hopefully we’ve proved most of them wrong.”
The Red Raiders sure seem to have what it takes to be very dangerous in the upcoming PIAA Tournament, and well beyond.
They open play next Saturday against Carlisle, the fifth-place team from District 3.
“We’ve been battled tested all year long, and it’s all prepared us for the big moments,” Moore explained. “And this team is fearless. They don’t get rattled by any environment or any moment. We are poised to be confident in our abilities moving forward.”
It’s not like the Red Raiders haven’t been a consistent Ches-Mont power throughout, from legendary head coach Ross Kershey to Chuck Moore. Even the short-lived three-year tenure of Rick Nelms yielded a league title and a state tournament berth in 2013.
But now, Coatesville is back as one of the premier programs in all of District 1. And it’s been a progression, with the Raiders collectively dipping their toes back into the upper echelon of the districts a year ago, earning a No. 1 seed only to fall victim to a second round upset.
It’s been a major step forward this winter. To nobody’s surprise, Coatesville won the Ches-Mont regular season and tournament crowns, but the run in the districts — with underclassmen playing an ever-increasing role — has been a revelation.
“When I first got this job, I starting thinking: ‘I’m going to the playoffs,’” Moore recalled. “But you have to kind of build your own culture.
“The team last year just started to buy in and believe that we can do this. And they paved the way for this group right now. It is a progression. We are talking years upon years to make something work.”
As the Raiders showed once again in flashes on Saturday, their pressure defense can be as disruptive as any in the region, and perhaps the state. To basketball purists, it’s a sight to behold.
And just with its stable of lightning-quick, ultra-athletic backcourt players like Brickus and fellow freshman Dapree Bryant, Coatesville’s lethal pressure defense will be terrorizing opponents through 2020. Think about that.
“I never had a freshman start and only one or two even make the team,” said Kershey, who was the head man at Coatesville for over two decades. “Even Rip Hamilton and Hubie Marshall didn’t start until their sophomore years. So to see what these young guys have been able to do is nothing short of miraculous.”
Insert starters like Bladen and Haasan Young back to the mix next season and you have the makings of a team that could make some serious noise once again. Add in a healthy group of complementary guards and wing players over the next few years —and there always seems to be an endless supply of those in Chester County’s lone city — and you can see why it’s not really a question if the Raiders are going to be among the state’s elite. That’s assuming, of course, Moore can keep the core of this group together.
“To be able to get to this level with a core that is so young, they are eventually going to be so experienced in the years to come,” Moore said, allowing himself to (very briefly) glimpse into the future. “And if they can stay the course, believe in themselves and get better, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
At the high school level in this area, having proven, fearless guards is usually a recipe for winning basketball. Moore knows he is going to have that for the rest of this season … and the next, and the next, and the next. Having long post players is a luxury few enjoy, but with Bladen, the Raiders even have that.
“We are definitely a team that our opponents are going to have to prepare for,” Bladen said. “This team is capable of anything if we put our mind to it.
“Losing this game hasn’t shaken our confidence. We are just more motivated.”
The future may be bright, but so is the present. Don’t forget that even though the Raiders have some young prodigies, they also have seasoned seniors in Kamau Brickus and Joe Boulware. Two leaders who well understand that Coatesville’s next loss with be its last.
“The future is now,” Moore echoed. “From day one in the Plymouth Whitemarsh locker room, we talked about not waiting for anything. We are going to seize these moments as they come and take advantage of every one.
“That’s how we found our way to the district final.”
Neil Geoghegan is a writer for Digital First Media and PaPrepLive.com. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @NeilMGeoghegan.