Toughness evident in VFMA’s first-ever PIAA victory

NEWTOWN SQUARE >> Military training starts with toughness, and Devin Hill embodied it while leading Valley Forge Military Academy to its first-ever PIAA state tournament win Friday night.

Last July, the 6-3 senior combo guard tore the ACL in his right knee in an AAU game. He came back two months earlier than projected (January), and it was a good thing for the Trojans against pesky Parkway Center City out of the Public League. Hill carried the Trojans down the stretch, scoring 18 of his 23 points in the second half (nine in each quarter) as VFMA held off the Bulldogs, 67-61.

“What he did in the fourth quarter on tired legs, off an ACL tear a few months ago, was awesome,” said VFMA coach Francis Bowe, Jr.

Winning this PIAA Class 3A first-round contest put District 1 champ VFMA (23-4) – only a PIAA member for three years – into the second round Tuesday against the winner of Southern Columbia (District 4, 2 seed) and Mid-Valley (District 2, 2 seed). That first-round game was postponed to Saturday

“It’s a big deal to us, because it’s our first time in states,” said Hill.  “We came and competed, punched ‘em in the mouth, and they punched us back, but we won the fight in the end.”  

 Hill’s production, coupled with the 19 points from junior guard Arion Lewis, was critical (Lewis was 14-of-16 from the foul line) as the Trojans had to fight off a sensational 29-point performance from electric 5-8 Parkway senior guard Jemal Sheppard.

Bowe, who was previously head coach at Upper Merion, never would have predicted being at this lofty point when he took over the VFMA program four years ago. This team won the Bicentennial League and the district and maybe the best is yet to come. It’s all the more impressive considering the kids come from all over, strangers to each other who must mesh quickly, and have they ever. Bowe’s team is blessed with lots of athleticism, skill and size, but the biggest components may be attitude and togetherness.

“These kids don’t know each other when they come in,” Bowe said. “In October, I look at my team and go, ‘Ok, let’s figure out chemistry.’ It’s fun, a lot of work, and very rewarding when you have kids like these. It’s completely luck, whatever you have. We got really lucky to have this group. They’re brothers on and off the court. When you’re in that environment at a boarding school, you have to be. Every day you wake up and do formation, go to lunch and dinner together.

“That’s what helped us tonight. That’s why we jelled.”

Hill’s journey to VFMA is fairly typical. He attended Delco Christian since eighth grade. His parents wanted the military experience for him.

“They treated me just like family,” Hill said of the school. “I love it here. We get up early and eat together, have formation, get at attention. It’s a brotherhood.”

The last few months were atypical for Hill.  He gained 15 pounds while unable to work out during his knee recovery, but has lost 13 of it since working back quickly the past two months. And he was a workhorse in the second half of VFMA’s biggest game yet.

The Trojans jumped out to a 9-2 lead but the Bulldogs quickly closed the gap as the game turned into an entertaining up-tempo thriller featuring batches of strong drives, transition takes and 3-balls.  A 9-4 close in the first quarter brought Parkway within 16-14 at the end of the first quarter. The explosive Sheppard, who wheeled into tight traffic often against VFMA’s big size advantage and also burned them from deep, hit four 3’s (including one four-point play) en route to 17 first-half points.

The Trojans tied it for the first time with 4:30 left in the first half, 23-all, on Javon Ellis’ trey. They trailed at the half 33-32 and wouldn’t take their first lead until Ellis scored on the break for a 48-46 edge with a minute to go in the third quarter.

VFMA appeared to be in trouble when Parkway upped the lead to six, 54-48, early in the fourth and when valuable Trojan big man Will Colleran (10 rebounds) fouled out with 6:13 left. But back came VFMA on a 10-0 run, getting stops and  points from their backcourt – Hill, senior Myles Bunyon and Lewis – to retake the lead.

The relentless Sheppard wasn’t done, getting an old-fashioned three-point play, then a layup off a strip. Hill, a sturdy 190-pounder and strong driver, answered with a couple of free throws and a reverse layup to make it 62-59, 1:39 left. Then with a one-point lead, Hill burrowed down the baseline for another bucket with a 1:03 to go. Sheppard missed two tough shots, and the Trojans hit three of their last six free throws to close it out. For the game, they were 26-of-35 from the foul line.

Notes >> VFMA is still missing 6-10 Division I prospect Abraham Deng – the brother of NBA player Luol Deng – who is out with a fractured wrist … Sheppard also tallied seven rebounds, six assists and five steals …Hill is getting looks from Division 2 schools such as West Chester, and from some D-3s.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply