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Basketball Preview: Taylor’s back to toughen up Chester

CHESTER >> As Keith Taylor slips on a knee brace and meets his Chester team for practice, he acknowledges how long he’s been out of the coaching saddle.

A long-time assistant for the late Fred Pickett, Taylor stepped away in 2008, when his mentor retired after another state championship run and the Clippers’ head coaching job went to his fellow assistant and former teammate Larry Yarbray.

“I took a break, and I guess I started liking it,” Taylor said. “Being away from the game, doing what I wanted to do, didn’t have to worry about going to practice or anything, just spending time with my family.”

Chester junior point guard Michael Smith puts up a shot during practice this week. Smith will be one of the leaders in Keith Taylor’s first year at the helm of the Clippers. (Pete Bannan/Digital First Media)

With a lineage like Taylor’s — as an All-Delco guard and a 1,000-point scorer — one can’t completely disengage. And through his work with the Chester Boys & Girls Club and the high school, Taylor stayed abreast of the program, enough to know that when the administration chose not to renew Yarbray’s contract in the spring that he wanted the chance to pilot his alma mater.

Now it’s Taylor’s show, armed with the imperative to return Chester to what many see as its destiny atop the state of Pennsylvania.

Taylor has the connections to past Clippers greats, starting as a sophomore in Cliff Wilson’s last season and playing two seasons for Alonzo Lewis before coaching with Pickett. His link to the future is solidified by his continued work in the community, even as he’s moved to Delaware to raise his children. Players like Rahmaad DeJarnette and Brian Randolph have known Taylor since they were young, a link that eases a once-in-a-decade transition on Ninth Street.

“It’s been really easy since the fact that we’ve known him and it’s not a totally new face in the program,” Randolph, a senior wing, said. “So it’s really easy. … It’s kind of the same, but it’s different. Coach Taylor really focuses on all-out effort and hustle. If anything, he’s going to notice you more if you’re always hustling. And he likes to push the ball up the court.”

The differences between Yarbray and Taylor are subtle, according to players. The old coach succeeded the new coach as Chester’s point guard for Lewis’ team in the late 1980s, and the similarities of their coaching styles shine through, a nod to their respect for a uniquely Chester sensibility.

“It helps expand my game more, from experience for the way Coach Taylor wants me to the play and the way Coach Larry wanted me to play,” said junior point guard Michael Smith. “It all comes together as one to make me better.”

The difference, Taylor said, is going to be on the defensive end, a back-to-his-roots emphasis on stopping opponents and generating offense.

“When I talk to folks, they always say that when you play Chester, you know you’d get a hard-nosed team. Those guys knew how to play defense,” Taylor said. “The last couple of years, I thought that they got out of playing that tough defense that we had built in the past, but we’re going to try to get back to that old style of play.”

Defense is a convenient and collective way to compensate for the loss of the top three scorers off last year’s team, which won 22 games on the way to the PIAA Class 5A quarterfinals but was still seen as underachieving via a runner-up finish in the Del Val League and fifth place in District 1. Gone are All-Delco Jamar Sudan, Ahrod Carter and Jordan Camper, all of whom averaged double-figures in scoring.

Smith is the leading returning scorer at 7.4 points per game. Randolph grew into a larger presence on both ends of the court as a small forward, while DeJarnette will stake the early claim to replacing Carter as the shooting guard. Rahnel Sparks and Timothy Johnston provide limited experience in the post.

The challenge of adjusting extends to the coach. But like his players, he’s eager for the challenge, even if things have changed since the last time he was on the high school bench.

“The kids are totally different,” Taylor said with a laugh. “You have to do a lot more teaching now than we did back then. These kids today are more talented athletic-wise, but you just have to do a lot more teaching. …

“It’s going to be a great ride, I think. I’m excited about it. The staff I have around me is excited about it, and I think the kids are buying into the different things we want to do.”

The other splashy league coaching move brings Clyde Jones back to the Del Val. A state champion at Penn Wood and District 1 champ at Harriton, Jones piloted Girard College to the PIAA Class A final in his only season in charge there. Now he’s aiming to revitalize a Chichester program that has struggled to assert itself in the shadow of its more illustrious neighbor.

Jones has pieces to work with. DaQuan Granberry was the county’s leading scorer at 24.6 points per game. James Hendricks was second on the Eagles at 7.9 ppg, and the big body of Mike Davie added 7.3. Add the experience of senior D’Nadre Morgan and junior Jamese Lundy-Byrd, and Jones has the seeds of a deep rotation.

There’s no easy way to frame the situation for defending Del Val champ Penn Wood: 95.3 percent of the Patriots’ points in 2016-17’s PIAA-qualifying season were scored by seniors. That leaves gaping holes, or as second-year coach Matt Lindeman puts it, plenty of openings for hungry underclassmen.

Chris Nash, who scored 31 points in 18 appearances last year, is the leading returnee. Vantagoe Donzo and Shad Kyem played sparingly, even less so for Makia Moore and Julian Holloway on varsity.

Academy Park lost leading scorer Nick Simmons, but two players who impressed as sophomores will anchor Frank Wolf’s team. Naseim Harley finished the season so strongly as to average double-figures in scoring for the campaign, while Shermik Lofton is a constant double-double threat. Kamrohn Roundtree, Jaison Jeffrey and Derik Harrison also saw significant minutes last year.

Freshman Tahriq Marrerro, sophomore Jalen Cassidy and junior transfer Ahmir Simmons will help the Knights throw their hat in the ring for a Del Val title try.

Glen Mills lacks a returnee from the 12-win team that made the District 1 Class 5A playoffs, leaving Tony Bacon to develop his squad from scratch. Tarik Bey and Ka’Ron Thomas understand the rigors of varsity competition after they played football in the fall, and Shyheem Bacon and Khelon Kirkland are also projected to contribute.

Not since the final game of the 2014-15 season has Interboro won, enduring two winless seasons under former AP assistant Billy Rowe. Conrad Kirkaldy has inherited the Bucs’ predicament.

Kirkaldy has some pieces to work with. Carley Jones led the team in scoring last year at 10.6 ppg., and Albert Pewa was second at 8.6. Both are back as part of a substantial core that includes Noah Kiely and Jared Dellipriscoli. Nick Gbor, Terrence Hall and Dominic Souders are also familiar with the program, while Shiheed Jones, Kwadir Overton and Damon Dukes could be among the new faces to impact the Bucs.

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