EAST WHITELAND >> It was more symbolic than anything, when Gavin Frankenheimer stepped up and made the free throws.
But looking back, it was the moment when the Great Valley boys’ basketball team began its amazing run to the Ches-Mont American championship, to a redemptive victory in the districts and on to the state tournament.
Patriots’ star Alex Capitano had just been fouled and went down with what was eventually diagnosed as a broken right wrist. It was the fourth game of the season, a mid-December clash against Oxford.
So Frankenheimer filled in and knocked down two from the stripe. And then point guard Matt Porreca buried a couple late 3-pointers and Great Valley escaped with a 61-59 victory.
“People thought of us as a middle-of-the-pack team at the beginning of the season,” recalled junior Liam Ward. “Our first option on every play was to go to Alex. So when he went down it forced us to come together and really play team ball.”
The problem for head coach Paul Girone wasn’t just that Capitano, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, was averaging 20-plus points a game at the time. It was that none of the 11 other players on the roster had any previous varsity experience.
“The injury was a great disappointment, and we all felt real bad for Alex,” Girone said. “But the rest of the guys were very mature about it. They said, ‘it’s now up to us.’”
It’s easily said, of course. A year earlier, this group went 16-2, but that was with the junior varsity. They even had a self-depreciating nickname: ‘The Scrub Squad.’
“It was a really solid JV team and I knew there were kids on that team that had talent, but you never know how that is going to translate to the varsity level,” Girone pointed out.
In all, Capitano missed 18 games over the course of the next eight weeks. But to the surprise of everybody, including Girone, the Pats found a way to overcome a bad situation and actually flourished. With senior Robert Geiss taking over the leadership reigns, Great Valley proceeded to go 15-3 without its best player.
“We all knew we were going to have to do even more. We couldn’t rely on Alex to score 25, so we’d have to step up on offense and defense,” said Geiss, a 6-3 senior.
“I think we are all slightly surprised,” Girone added. “I think they were, to some degree, too dependent on Alex.
“I was most fascinated by the way we made up those 20 points. You can see in the statistics, how each of the other six players increased their scoring significantly when Alex went out.”
The six included Geiss, Frankenheimer, Porreca, Ward, Nate Graeff and J.J. Long. Ward took over as the leading scorer, but he had a lot of help. Frankenheimer made his mark on the boards and with his ability to connect from beyond the arc; Graeff became the team’s most improved offensive player; Long stood strong in the post area; and Porreca developed into what Girone called “our little general” at the point.
But nobody was more impactful than Geiss, who was Great Valley’s starting quarterback last fall.
“He’s a terrific athlete and is our shut-down defensive player,” Girone said. “His way of playing was really infectious. Everybody stepped up to his level.”
Not nearly as explosive, the Patriots started to lean on their defense and went 11-0 against teams in their division. They held Sun Valley, Unionville and West Chester Rustin to under 30 points and had the division crown sewn up by the time Capitano was ready to return.
“It seemed like there was a new star in every game,” Girone said. “I don’t think we blew out a team all year. We don’t have that kind of makeup. But we won high scoring games, we won low scoring games, we won last second games and overtime games.”
Still not fully recovered, Capitano had one day of practice before playing in the regular season finale against Rustin. But just like when he was hurt, there was a big adjustment when he returned. Great Valley fell to the Golden Knights, 45-42, and was then blown out by Bishop Shanahan in the semifinals of the Ches-Mont Tournament, 54-29.
“It was a little awkward at first with Alex trying to find his place with a team that just went 18 games without him,” Ward said.
“It was also tough because I had to take somebody out of the starting lineup,” Girone added. “But now we have a seven-man rotation.”
The No. 2 seed in the District 1 Class 5A field, the Pats easily handled Upper Perkiomen in the opening round, and then put together its best performance of the year in a 41-38 squeaker against Springfield (Delco). In the district semifinal, Penncrest topped Great Valley by seven, but that set up a much-anticipated rematch with Shanahan in a consolation contest.
“The kids wanted another shot because they knew they didn’t play their best against Shanahan,” Girone said.
This time, playing at home 17 days later, the Pats upended the Eagles 48-44, in double overtime.
“That was so huge for us,” Ward said.
“It was awesome, especially with everyone saying we didn’t belong,” Geiss added. “That we weren’t actually very good, that we played from the weak side of the Ches-Mont, and that we were on the weak side of the district bracket. It was huge to prove that we do belong.”
Capitano hit a couple 3-pointers against Shanahan and is coming along. But he is still nowhere near 100 percent.
“If there was anything positive that came out of his injury, it was that others developed and he then he got a chance to come back and play in our most important games,” Girone said.
“His hand is still not right. He still doesn’t shoot the three like he can. That adjustment took a while because he is not who he was at the beginning of the season, but he is getting closer. He is driving the ball now and he is hitting some threes. But he’s not going to be completely back for a couple months.”
Friday night, Great Valley (20-7 overall) has a tough assignment for its first round game in the PIAA Class 5A playoffs: a 7 p.m. meeting with Archbishop Carroll at Spring-Ford High School.
The Patriots understand that they can’t get into a high-scoring affair and survive against the District 12 and Catholic League powerhouse, but Girone acknowledges his team is playing its best defense of the season.
And after all this team has been through, overcoming more than its fair share of adversity to bring home a division title and add a postseason run as validation, opponents would be wise not to overlook Great Valley.
“It’s amazing to have a team that had very little varsity experience and come out and win the division and go to the district semifinals and grab a spot in the state playoffs,” Geiss said.
“All of those people who thought we would be just an average team, we proved them wrong,” Ward added.