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Common denominator for Chesco’s best hoops teams: gritty toughness

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PHILADELPHIA >> Don’t take this the wrong way. But if we’re being honest, there isn’t generally a plethora of elite high school hoops talent in Chester County. A bunch of good, solid players, but Rip Hamiltons and Tina Nicholsons are a once in a lifetime revelations in these parts.

And yet on Saturday at Temple’s Liacouras Center, three of the four Class 5A finalists in the girls and boys District 1 Championship hail from Chesco. How can that be?

Well, all three of the local teams have something in common: a gritty toughness that just isn’t commonplace, and a dedication to teamwork that is fast becoming nearly instinct at the upper echelons of the sport. The West Chester Henderson and Villa Maria girls, and Bishop Shanahan boys, have rosters populated with fundamentally sound players who meld into a five-piece unit on the court working as one.

Penncrest (5) Justin Heidig fights off the defense of (10) Bishop Shanahan Kevin Dodd at the Liacouras Center, Temple University Saturday. (Pete Bannan – Digital First Media)

“We’re not fortunate to walk around with Division I players in our schools, so we have to make the most with what we have,” said Shanahan coach Ken Doyle, after his team took it on the chin, 50-28, to a Penncrest squad that played terrific and has a star in guard Tyler Norwood.

It is no coincidence that Henderson’s starting backcourt of Maddie DiPrisco and Erin Thompson have noticed a common denominator between these local teams. With a lot of grit, balance and teamwork, the top-seeded Warriors edged Villa Maria, 41-32, to grab Henderson’s first-ever district crown and keep its perfect record (28-0) intact.

“I actually go to watch Bishop Shanahan play a lot so I can learn from them,” said Thompson, a feisty junior. “Their guards are small and quick. I try to be like that – be a pest.

“I’ve said stuff to Maddie (DiPrisco) about it. We should try this or incorporate that.”

Penncrest’s (4) Aiden Carroll defends against a shot by Shanahan (22)David Angelo in the second quarter of the PIAA District 1 title game at the Liacouras Center, Temple University Saturday. (Pete Bannan – Digital First Media)

DiPrisco — the Warriors’ sparkplug at the point — added: “I know a couple of the Shanahan guys. They are small and they have heart. There are some similarities.

“Neither of these teams have a superstar, but we have good players that work together.”

Truly talented players can come and go – if they come around at all — but one thing you can hang you’re your hat on is teamwork and chemistry. And those types of intangibles can make up for and overcome some deficiencies. With Henderson and Shanahan, there is no true superstar, but a collection that is greater than the sum of its part.

“Our kids play hard and they believe,” said Warriors’ head coach Greta Neff. “There is something to be said about the power of belief.

“I grew up learning about team basketball, and these kids buy into it. There is such trust and confidence of themselves and each other.”

To get an idea of just how much of a team win it was on Saturday for Henderson, all you have to do is look at what happened in the second half. Every player on the floor for the Warriors contributed mightily. DiPrisco and Thompson did almost all of the ball handling against Villa Maria’s double-teaming pressure, and wound up combining to score 11 of their 17 points when it mattered most.

PETE BANNAN-DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA Penncrest’s (0) Tyler Norwood fades back for a shot in the second quarter of the PIAA District 1 title game against Bishop Shanahan at the Liacouras Center, Temple University Saturday. (Pete Bannan – Digital First Media)

The duo was 11-for-12 from the free throw line in the final eight minutes. That’s how Henderson was able to capture the crown while only connecting on two field goals in the entire second half.

“Maddie is so much fun to play basketball with,” Thompson said, who is nicknamed Tommy.

“We’ve been in close games before and we know how to compose ourselves,” added DiPrisco, a senior. “Tommy and me play off of each other and we know each other’s tendencies.”

But there were other major contributors, like junior center Grace Ferguson, who had three big blocks in the fourth and scored three of her team-high 11 down the stretch. And then there is senior Abbey Shea, who delivered a big bucket and free throw to help finish off a Hurricanes squad that stubbornly hung around.

“Teamwork is the meaning of basketball,” Thompson said. “We all work together, we are crafty, we are unselfish and find the open player. We find ways to win.

“We all have assets and that creates a team bond. We all play for each other, we are happy for each other, and we always fight to the end.”

That is certainly a recipe for success. Shanahan’s exhibited those traits all season, going 22-5 overall and winning the program’s first Ches-Mont title. The Eagles showed flashes on Saturday, like bouncing back from a horrible start to tie it at 14-14 midway through the second quarter.

But Shanahan had no defensive answer for Norwood, who scored 25 and showed how teams usually win titles these days: with a superstar leading the way.

“All of our kids play really hard,” Doyle said. “And they know they have to work hard to be as successful because we are not the team with the most talent or skill. We have to work hard to have success.

“We are a team that has to share and move the ball. We really have to play fundamental basketball to have success. We weren’t able to do that (Saturday). Penncrest played solid defense and kind of forced us to stand around, and that’s not what we are accustomed to doing.”

Shanahan’s Kevin Dodds is a quality big man who has signed to play at Division II Gannon. He led the Eagles with 12 points on Saturday, but the rest of the team combined for just 16. That is a complete departure from the way Shanahan has been winning games all season.

“I think our team chemistry is the best in the region, even if it didn’t really show through (Saturday),” said junior guard Joe O’Malley. “We play for each other and we really don’t care who gets what. We just want to win.

“We know we don’t have All-State type of guys. (Dodds) is the best player on the court some games and we can go through him, but if he’s not there we have other options. We can win games with Kevin or without Kevin. It doesn’t matter – we are going to do it together.”

That type of mentality was on clear display on Saturday for Henderson. The team’s top four scorers scored at least eight but no more than 11.

“We trust each other enough so that if there is a bad play, the next player will pick us up and make a big play,” DiPrisco explained. “For instance, you’ll see Grace (Ferguson) get a block, then Tommy has a fast break and Erin Torrance has a follow-layup. It all works in a chain.

“Any one of us can be the superstar on a particular night. We don’t need one, we need five – and we have five.”

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