Talent-laden Westtown reflects on historic run

Westtown’s Mohammed Bamba soars for a dunk against Germantown Academy. (Photo by Ed Cunicelli)
Westtown’s Mohammed Bamba soars for a dunk against Germantown Academy. (Photo by Ed Cunicelli)

WESTTOWN >> The journey to last weekend’s state basketball championship was filled with pitfalls for head coach Seth Berger and the Westtown boys’ basketball team. But that just made the storybook ending all the more satisfying.
With three unsuccessful trips to the finals of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISSA) in the previous four seasons, the Moose captured the 2016 title last Saturday with a 73-65 triumph over Germantown Academy. It was a glorious, and historic, accomplishment.

“It’s the first state team title, in any sport, in our school history dating back to 1799,” Berger said. “The emotion was pretty amazing to finally get over that hurdle.”

Playing a highly ambitious national schedule and loaded with future NCAA Division I talent, Westtown went 28-6 for the season. All but one of the losses happened midseason when point guard Jair Bolden was out of the lineup nursing a shoulder injury.

“It’s definitely a big deal, not only being the first basketball team to win a state title, but the first team in any sport,” Bolden said. “It feels good to bring something like that home to the community. They have supported us in so many ways.”

Much like his team, Bolden’s path as a senior co-captain was anything but smooth. The 6-foot-4 New York native suffered a separated left shoulder last July, and then reinjured the limb Dec. 28 against New Jersey powerhouse St. Benedict’s Prep. At the time, Westtown was 10-0.

“The doctor told me I was lucky I didn’t further damage anything,” Bolden recalled.
“It had a significant impact on the team,” Berger added. “We lost four or of the next five.”

At one point, four of the team’s five starters were injured.

“It seemed like it was all falling apart, and then the kids pulled it together,” Berger explained.

The initial plan was for Bolden to undergo shoulder surgery, followed by six months of rehab. But in mid-January, after talking with his parents and teammates, Bolden approached Berger.

Westtown head coach Seth Berger directs his team during a timeout last weeekend after Germantown Academy. (Photo by Ed Cunicelli)
Westtown head coach Seth Berger directs his team during a timeout last weeekend after Germantown Academy. (Photo by Ed Cunicelli)


“I told him that I wanted to come back and play,” Bolden said. “He said I had to get cleared by the doctors and that I should be careful.”

The doctor told Bolden that he could play, but warned that the risk of re-injury was significant. He did say, however, that there was a much smaller risk of making it worse.

That was all Bolden needed to hear.

“At the end of the day it was my decision,” he said. “I decided I had a lot of unfinished business at Westtown that I had to attend to.”

With its leader back on the floor wearing a brace on his shoulder, Westtown began the run that would lead to a state title. On Feb. 13, the Moose avenged a home loss to Friend’s Central to win their third straight Friend’s League crown.

“I knew that the guys, in my absence, had gained a lot of confidence and that my job was to get them the ball in the right places,” Bolden said. “I took the role of more of a true point guard.”

The plan was working, but it was also by necessity because Bolden was nowhere near 100 percent.

“It was the right decision,” Bolden said. “It was rough and I didn’t feel 100 percent on the court, but I was able to give enough. I was more of a leader than bringing all of the offensive talents I possessed before the injury.

“But it was tough and I was scared of hurting it again,” he added. “I tried my best to put it out of my mind, but on certain plays — especially when I was going to the basket — I would short-hand it and avoid going to my left. Whenever I had to extend my arms, that gave me problems.”

In the PAISAA Semifinal against Episcopal Academy, Westtown staged a 17-0 second half rally to pull away 56-42 and land in the title game for the fourth time in five years. In 2012, the Moose fell to Friend’s Central by 30 points, And in 2014 and 2015, Westtown dropped close decisions to the Hill School and Phelps, respectively.

“I lost two state finals in a row,” Bolden pointed out. “I watched guys that I looked up to lose and see the tears streaming down their face. I didn’t want to have that feeling my senior year because I know how much it hurt the last two.”

Against Germantown Academy in the title game, the Moose trailed 23-13 in the early going, but rallied to tie it at the half. And with Bolden looking often to teammate Brandon Randolph (29 points), Westtown pulled away in the second half.

“Coach subbed me out with six seconds left,” Bolden said. “I didn’t even look at the scoreboard, I just put my head down and waited for the buzzer to sound. It was an amazing feeling.”

Berger added: “We are still super talented without Jair, but having a senior point guard as your leader is so important. When Jair came back, I was pretty confident we would win the state title.”

Two days after the triumph, Bolden underwent shoulder surgery and is expected to be fully recovered for next season. He earned a full-ride athletic scholarship to attend George Washington University.

“Getting that state championship with my teammates and my coach meant the world to me,” Bolden said.

“I had to do whatever I had to do to get it and I was willing to risk it. It worked out in my favor — thank God.”

Despite missing a month of the season, Bolden dished out nearly 100 assists and turned the ball over just 19 times. That’s an assist-to-turnover ratio of 5-to-1.

“(Bolden) had never played the point at any level when he came to us,” Berger said. “He literally grew into the position.”

Assuming all of the underclassmen return for the 2016-17 campaign, Westtown is going to be loaded yet again. Bolden was the only senior in the starting lineup.

“Replacing Jair is going to be really difficult,” Berger acknowledged. “But we come back with, arguably, the most talented team in the Pennsylvania Independent School division again.”

Randolph (6-6) is the 53rd ranked shooting guard in the nation and is fielding offers from Louisville, Marquette, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and Temple. Fellow junior Najja Hunter (6-6) is a wing player who has offers from Temple, Penn State and Minnesota. Anthony Ochefu (6-7) and Cameron Reddish (6-7) are also expected to play major college ball.

But the biggest catch is 6-10 Mohammed Bamba. He is the nation’s No. 2 ranked center for the Class of 2017.

“We have six Division I kids,” Berger says proudly. “Mo is probably a one-and-done, top-five NBA pick in a couple years, at minimum. He has the athletic ability to go wherever he wants, but the academic ability to go to Harvard.”

The founder and former CEO of the “And1” athletic shoe and apparel company, Berger sold the company in 2005. He is 176-74 in nine seasons at Westtown.

Current Westtown alums excelling at the college level include Daniel Ochefu, a starter at Villanova; Jared Nickens, a sixth man at Maryland; and Jonathan Kasibabu, a starter at Fairfield.

“The reality is that ‘And1’ was really a different life for me,” Berger said. “I am a high school coach now. That’s who I am. My dream was to be a high school coach.

“Even though they are very different careers, it has helped because being in pressure business situations are often times similar to being in pressure coaching situations. Both required you to think rationally and logically instead of emotionally.
“I am where I am supposed to be, and it’s a terrific feeling.”

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