PROSPECT PARK >> Three times during an interview last Friday, Matt Lindeman emphasized his central thesis.
“The Del Val is going to be fun this year,” the Penn Wood coach said after his team’s 48-47 win over Frankford at Interboro High School.
Part of the reason was on display for the previous 32 minutes — an inexperienced Penn Wood team learning the ropes in a league full of teams in similar positions.
But a more fitting illustration was seated about 10 feet to Lindeman’s left in the form of new Interboro coach Conrad Kirkaldy, keeping the book for the first game of five in the Big Game Hoops Showcase, a day that would end with Kirkaldy’s Bucs snapping a 53-game losing streak with a victory over Abington Friends.
The standings tell a tale of impending intrigue, but even more poignant are the myriad connections between the league’s six coaches.
Lindeman and Kirkaldy were assistants together for seven years at Penn Wood under Clyde Jones. When Jones left for Girard College in 2016, Lindeman took over the top job after 10 years as Jones’ assistant.
Jones left Girard after one season (and one trip to the PIAA Class A final) and landed at a resurgent Chichester. Among his assistant coaches is Chester All-Delco and longtime Clippers assistant Jimai Springfield.
Jones’ first game back at Penn Wood Jan. 30 will be one to watch. The titanic battles that Jones waged on the way to a state title at Penn Wood against the Clippers make his first tilt in the new eras for Chichester and Chester (under Keith Taylor) a must-see. Chi visits the Fred Pickett Memorial Gymnasium Jan. 23.
Kirkaldy takes over at Interboro for Billy Rowe, a former Academy Park assistant under Allen Brydges, who spent two winless years in charge of the Bucs. When Brydges left after the Knights’ states berth in the 2016, top assistant Frank Wolf took over AP. That’s a lot of musical chairs, leaving only Glen Mills’ Tony Bacon with longer than two years of tenure at his current school.
“It’s going to be very weird,” Lindeman said of the Jones coaching tree matchups. “We’ll know what everyone is doing offensively because we’ve been with each other for so long. We’re looking forward to it. Everyone’s a good guy. We enjoyed all the time we had together, and we’re still rooting for each other, but it won’t be on that night.”
The standings indicate that the Del Val will be unusual when play begins Jan. 9. Save for Chichester’s 6-2 mark at the end of 2017, the rest of the conference totes an unsightly 9-26 record. The only other winning team of the group is Penn Wood at 4-3.
The league hasn’t been predictable in recent years (see Academy Park’s two wins over Chester in three years). But the title has remained the dominion of Penn Wood and Chester for the last half-decade.
For a league that perpetually carries a chip on its shoulder, the concentration of familiar faces cycling through the league has an obvious inspiration. There’s a practical benefit, too, of having coaches that understand the unique challenges schools face.
“At the end of the day, we’re teachers,” said Lindeman, a Penn Wood grad. “We’re here to teach kids. And the first thing you need to do to be a good teacher is to know who you’re teaching. You need to know the kid, you need to develop that relationship. Before you get your point across, you’ve got to know the kid and work on that relationship. So it’s a big plus that guys have been around here, they know the kid, the type of environment that these kids are around.”
A word on Chester: The Clippers are off to a 1-5 start under Taylor. That figure looks bad, but the truth is more nuanced.
Yes, the Clippers have struggled defensively, allowing 61.8 points per game. They’ve scuffled offensively, three times confined to the 40s, the same amount as the last two years combined. Point guard Michael Smith and Brian Randolph III are the only consistent scorers, a pursuit hampered by an injury to Rahmaad DeJarnette. And while the road has been tough, it’s not a vintage daunting Chester schedule: The Clippers had defending PIAA 6A champ Reading and Coatesville, but the Catholic League/Philly powers were swapped out for Class 5A foes like Penncrest and Rustin.
But Chester has been in most games, losing by single-digits three times and once in overtime. Before hitting nine 3-pointers against Penncrest, the Clippers had made just 12 in the first five games. And cleaning up little things, like outside shooting or 50.4 free-throw percentage, can go a long way.
But this is a program where just OK isn’t OK, as the recently let-go Larry Yarbray, with his two state titles and .801 winning percentage, can attest. The Clippers have made the state tournament 24 of the last 25 years; extending that run will require improvements across the board.
And this is certainly getting ahead of things, but if you’re wondering when the last time Chester endured a losing season was? 1962-63.
On the subject of slow starts, few are as perplexing as Springfield, which stands at 3-5 overall yet 3-1 in the Central League.
Part of the reason is continuity. Coach Kevin McCormick’s rotation has only one full-time basketball player in Mike Webb, Delco’s scoring leader this week at 25.3 points per game.
The rest of the roster features multi-sport athletes, some plenty distinguished: Football All-Delco Ja’Den McKenzie, football and lacrosse All-Delco Kyle Long, fellow football standouts Kevin Deal and Frank Durham, lacrosse player Mike Tulskie and baseball player Mike Conran. McCormick is contending with the double-edged sword of multi-sport athletes — tremendous athleticism but limited time to devote.
Add an injury that cost Durham two games and two separate absences (one ongoing) for McKenzie, and McCormick hasn’t had his full complement yet.
“It’s different, different hiccups,” McCormick said. “Ja’Den was hurt to start the season. Frank had a hiccup, and Ja’Den’s out five games. It’s herky-jerky. It’s very tough to build continuity, but we’re hoping (for) this week. The crazy thing is that we’re 3-1 in the Central League.”
To contact Matthew De George, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sportsdoctormd.
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