Lower Merion >> The Lower Merion boys’ basketball team entered the 2016-17 season with three goals: win 20 games, capture the Central League title and earn a PIAA state tournament bid.
Following a 55-51 loss to Parkland Dec. 28, it appeared as if this might be one of those seasons in which these goals would not be met.
The Aces began to find their stride after the New Year, winning six straight, but arrived at a crossroads after a heartbreaking 68-67 loss to Garnet Valley at home Jan. 24 that was compounded by the loss of starting point guard Steve Payne to injury in the first quarter. It was at that moment when the possibility of not making the league playoffs was a distinct possibility.
Thanks to strong senior leadership on and off the court, coupled with clutch play from the underclassmen, the Aces dug deep and traversed a difficult road, winning at Conestoga, Penncrest and Ridley to secure a second-place regular season finish in the Central League and a spot in the four-team league playoffs.
“That’s as tough of a road trip as you can have in the Central League, and I was proud of how the kids handled it,” said Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer. “For the most part, this team did everything we asked of them, and that stretch of games was a critical part of the journey.”
From there, the Aces continued their strong play, holding off a feisty Penncrest squad in the semi-finals before experiencing what seemed to be their best shooting performance of the season in a convincing win over Strath Haven to win the Central League tourney.
In order to accomplish what Lower Merion did after starting off 4-5 would not have been possible without strong senior leadership, particularly from four-year varsity players Noah Fennell and Terrell Jones, and key contributions from underclassmen.
The Aces also benefited from being battle-tested by the most difficult non-league schedule in District 1 – a hallmark of Gregg Downer teams – and months of hard work that began in the offseason.
“Throughout the entire offseason, the seniors pushed me and the other sophomores to be a part of the team,” said Lower Merion sophomore guard Jack Forrest. “This year’s team was much closer than the previous year because of this and the seniors did an amazing job of bringing us together and getting us ready to play as starters immediately.”
Lower Merion senior guard Terrell Jones said, “To be honest, I don’t really think I was a huge senior leader, vocally at least. Vocally, the leader of the team was Najja Walker-X. However, I do feel as though I was a leader by example this season and I had a responsibility to provide an example for my younger teammates on and off the court.
“I feel like I’ve learned so much by being a part of this program and I just want them to appreciate the journey, listen to the coaches and make the most of the experience. It’s not every program that you can play for a coach who has more than 500 wins and have alumni walk in the gym who are national champions. Take advantage of the opportunities, refuse to lose and never accept anything but success.”
“Having senior leaders such as Jones and Noah (Fennell) are important,” added Downer. “They really stepped up and showed the younger players the ‘refuse-to-lose’ habits that we expect. You never know if any sophomore is ready, let alone five sophomores that played a lot. This was exciting to see as it shows us they will be a force as they get older.”
With one goal checked off, if Lower Merion was going to achieve their final two goals they would have to do it in a win-or-go-home situation following their loss to Conestoga in the second round of the District 1 playoffs.
Facing a survive-and-advance situation, the Aces played 108 minutes of elimination basketball and achieved both goals, defeating Central Bucks East and Pennsbury to clinch the state berth with their 20th win of the season before knocking off Downingtown West to earn the ninth seed from District 1 in the PIAA state playoffs.
“Our team’s main goals this season were to get 20 wins, a Central League championship and a state tournament bid,” Forrest said. “To complete all of those things for the seniors who really helped me so much was a great feeling. We had a hard path to get there, and when we did it felt great to accomplish all that as a young team for our seniors.”
In the PIAA state tourney, after giving Pocono Mountain West all they could handle before eventually falling short, Lower Merion left the court for the final time this season with plenty of pride.
Jones said, “It really means a lot to make the state tournament and especially to do it four years in a row. Making the state tournament also means that you have almost another month of basketball with your teammates and coaches. As a senior, I just wanted to have as much time with these guys as possible. I’m proud that we were able to do that.
“I see a lot of great things happening for this young squad. I think they’re a great group of kids who will thrive when the spotlight is on them next year. It’s going to be good for a big group of underclassmen to go into next year already having a lot of big game experience. I expect them to carry on the Lower Merion basketball tradition of excellence.”