UPPER DARBY >> Ajiri Johnson breaks the huddle at Bonner & Prendergast practice, then quietly steers clear of the post-practice frivolity to hoist up his required free throws at a corner basket Wednesday. That huddle, in the forward’s second year at Bonner, bears plenty of contradictions.
Last year, Johnson was by far physically the biggest member of a perimeter-oriented Friars team. The rangy center powered a 16-win season, getting within a victory of states and inspiring a return to relevance on the court not seen at Bonner in some years.
This season, Johnson no longer presides as the tallest (that honor goes to Salesianum transfer Tariq Ingraham, who’ll play center with Johnson sliding to the four). He’s not the one garnering the most distinguished college looks; the Rider commit is supplanted in that regard by Notre Dame (N.J.) transfer Isaiah Wong, who counts Villanova, Temple, Connecticut and Miami among 13 offering schools.
But Johnson holds court in a more crucial way. With a year of experience under his belt, the Nigerian-born forward understands he’ll be looked at to provide leadership and veteran savvy, as outside observers see a potentially special season for the Friars.
“As a senior, I’ve got to put the guys in the right spots if they start to slip off, make mistakes,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to remind them of what to do. And I’ve got to bring the leadership, as a captain, I’ve got to help the team get in the right spots and I’ve got to be more vocal so the guys can learn from my experience.”
Johnson’s soft-spoken exterior belied the ferocity with which he attacked at both ends of the court, averaging 13.6 points per game as a nightly double-double threat who could defend the rim with gusto. But for a team in which the starting five accounted for 83.6 percent of the scoring and in which Johnson represented the only underclassmen, he eased into the ancillary duties.
Not so this year, with Johnson embracing that challenge.
“First of all, Coach (Jack) Concannon helped me figure out what I need to do to help the younger guys, because I was once in their shoes,” he said. “But now as a senior, we’ve only got three seniors, so we’ve got to put (the underclassmen) on the right path before we leave so we know that when we’re gone, they’re on the right path.”
Talent is there, if the experience at Bonner isn’t. Chris Haynes, Yohance Garner and Michael Perretta logged time last year, but none filled much of a scoring role. That will change this season.
The emphasis is on the new arrivals. Ingraham carries offers from Rutgers and Robert Morris, and his 6-9 frame means that a Bonner team that last year regularly deployed four perimeter players will shift to two low-block presences. It also allows the 6-8 Johnson to burnish his floor-stretching skills, which will mirror his duties at Rider.
Wong will run the point, the 6-3 guard familiar with Johnson as AAU teammates with WeR1. Wong is embracing the challenge of the Catholic League, ever the crucible for top talent.
“I like the chance of playing in the Catholic League,” he said. “I heard it was a good league and I wanted to test it out to see if I can do good and just get that experience.”
Likewise, Johnson is leaning into the task of shouldering the Friars’ expectations. Three Division I talents, coupled with the losses incurred by a still formidable Archbishop Wood team, have some tabbing the Friars for an ascendant season.
But any external expectations won’t alter Bonner’s internal compass.
“We don’t really let that change our mentality of playing hard,” he said. “Regardless of what they say on the internet or whatever, we want to come out and get the win and leave. … We have a goal ahead of us and we’re working hard toward that goal.”
Archbishop Carroll could make noise in the Catholic League thanks to its high-powered backcourt. Justin Anderson led the team at 12.1 points per game last year, while All-Delco point guard A.J. Hoggard filled the stat sheet in every category — arguably the least significant of which was 11.4 ppg.
The frontline is experienced but not excessively tall in Devon Ferrero and Keyon Butler, and Luke House will take on a bigger role with his outside shooting. Derrell Jones, Shawn Johnson and sophomore Tairi Ketner will get the chance to grow into the rotation for Paul Romanczuk, who perennially excels in getting young players experience early to pay dividends later.
Cardinal O’Hara gets a visit from the transfer fairy after the closure of Del Val Charter, where coach Jason Harrigan used to work. That brings Antwuan Butler, an Austin Peay commit. He will help compensate for the loss of leading scorer Jaye’Lyn Peebles.
Butler is one of four seniors; Chris Johnson, Garret Ripp and Taseer Jones all saw significant time last year. Elijah Smith, Jordan Hall and Kyle Maska, the latter two at 6-5 and 6-7, provide youth and height from the sophomore class.
Episcopal Academy’s senior class that captured a share of the league title was headlined by All-Delcos Nick Alikakos and Conner Delaney plus Daily Times Baseball Player of the Year Kyle Virbitsky. Replacing them will be a tall task. Junior Matt Dade and sophomore Alex Capitano, a transfer from Great Valley, will lead the backcourt with sophomores Jack Fitzpatrick and Colin Chambers. Justin Hershey anchors the forward line with juniors Jack Purcell and Jack O’Reilly on a young team with potential to grow.
Haverford School last won an Inter-Ac title in 1999; but few squads have the Fords’ talent, with their top four scorers back from a team that remained in the title race until the last week of last season.
Christian Ray leads the way, having averaged 17.7 points per game last year. Kharon Randolph, who pledged his future to the University of the Sciences, is also back with backcourt mates Jameer Nelson Jr. and Gavin Burke. Add in the front-line bulk of Asim Richards and Bobby Stratts, and the Fords could mount a serious challenge for a long-coveted crown.
It’ll be a transitional year in some respects for Delco Christian, its first under Mike Walker in replacing long-time coach Don Davis. Leaving with Davis was 50.4 percent of their scoring via the graduated Jordan Parks and T.J. Tann.
Tyler Penley is the leading returnee, having averaged 9.9 ppg, primarily via outside shooting. He and fellow senior Jalen Smith will fill the void in the backcourt with newcomer Jamal Hairston. In the paint, Jackson Piotrowski and Obinna Nwobodo impressed as freshmen; in augmenting Tyler Smith and Jacob Bronkema, the Knights can stretch the floor and are formidable in the low blocks.
The Christian Academy struggled to eight wins in Malik Walker’s first season, but he has a solid core to build around. Cousins Grant and Luke Sareyka made great strides, while Sam Geathers and Brandon Rochester are ready for larger roles. Geathers and Luke Sareyka each averaged six points per game last year. Parris Jones is a young player to watch.
Vinny DeAngelo is back as a third-year starter for Sun Valley, off a six-win campaign. The do-everything guard will again anchor the backcourt, and his partnership with Shair Brown-Morris will go a long way in determining the Vanguards’ direction. Dom Valente and 3-point specialist Marvin Freeman are also back, the latter joining DeAngelo in averaging in double-figures scoring last year.
Sun Valley gets a boost from multi-sport athletes Charlie Wendling and Lance Stone, while Joey Long and transfer Isaac Kennon will also be in the mix.
Chester Charter School for the Arts embarks on its inaugural campaign under Chester native son Donny Dodds. As an independent in Class A, the school has a schedule dotted with county teams and aims to build its program from the ground up with a squad that includes no seniors.
Akeem Taylor, Devante Morris and Tyler Howard are veterans Dodds will lean on. New faces include Bruce Rogers, Sean DeShields, Timmie Evans and Steven Slowe.
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