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Jason Polykoff coming back home to Friends’ Central

Friends’ Central head coach Jason Polykoff maps strategy with his team. From left is (top row) Howard Polykoff, Ben Satz, Bo Donaldson, Isaiah Waddington, Khamal Clark, Jason Polykoff, Brandon Banada, Basim Horshaw, Devin Coleman; (btoom row) Ed Holland, Omar Nichols, Shawn Simmons, Masson Mosley)

When Jason Polykoff thinks about his father, Howard Polykoff, one of the first words that comes to mind these days is “slob.”

Sorry, that’s SLOB. As in, Sideline Out-Of-Bounds plays.

“He loves to send me out of bounds plays,” the younger Polykoff said. “He sends me sideline-out-of-bounds plays, baseline…some he’ll get DVDs and look them up, some he’ll go on YouTube and look them up, and then he sends them to me. 

“My text exchange with him, I’ve got like 45 out-of-bounds plays.”

“It’s a thing for me,” Howard admitted, mentioning Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens as one coach whose inbounds plays he studies. “I can’t explain it…you’re strategizing against the other coach, it’s like a chess match, and I just like it when they work.”

Their familial bond and shared lifelong love of basketball aside, there’s a reason Howard Polykoff continually sends his son thoughts on potential inbounds plays. They’re both head coaches in the Friends’ Central boys’ basketball program –– Jason coaching the varsity squad, Howard the junior varsity.

“We were looking for a junior varsity coach,” Jason Polykoff said. “He’s retiring and will have the time, and he has the experience and I think he would do a great job with them. So I said ‘hey, do you want to do it?’ and he was all about it. So it worked out.”

“It’s a pleasure to be back here with him,” Howard added. “And I learned a lot from him, I watch him during the timeouts, I watch him during the after-game speeches…and besides being a great son, he’s a great coach.”

It makes sense that Jason Polykoff would ask his dad to coach with him this time around. For him, Friends’ Central is basically part of the extended family.

The younger Polykoff first came to FCS as a four-year-old in 1987, then spent the next 15 years going up through the Lower School, Middle School and Upper School. After spending four years oh-so-far away at Haverford College, Polykoff came right back to City Ave., teaching middle school math and coaching the boys’ varsity basketball team until 2012.

By the time he departed, for an assistant coaching job at the University of Pennsylvania, Polykoff had spent 21 of his 29 years learning, teaching, and coaching at Friends’ Central.

“This is home,” he said. “I’ve been here my whole life as a student, taught here for six years, coached varsity for five years, I know this place. And to get an opportunity to come back and help this program hopefully win more championships, you can’t ask for anything better, you know?”

His new players, who weren’t yet in high school when Polykoff last coached the Phoenix, took his return in stride. 

“I felt like he was already family,” senior guard Omar Nichols said. “He was just coming in, [keeping the] same culture, everything was good.”

“Since he already knew what he expected for us, right when he came in, he already had a plan, I liked that,” junior guard Ed Holland said. “And the same plan worked [before], so I’m excited to see what it brings to this team.”

Polykoff’s first coaching run at Friends’ Central was one of its most successful in the school’s history, regardless of sport. The Phoenix won two Friends’ Schools League championships and even more impressively captured four straight PAISAA titles, led by future Duke star Amile Jefferson. 

Polykoff spent the last seven years improving his coaching acumen, first in three seasons for the Quakers and then a four-year run as head coach at Earlham College (Ind.). 

“When I coached here the first time around, I had unbelievable players,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and act like I was a great coach, I think I knew enough to put them in the right spots, but they did all the work, I mean they were great. And I saw a lot of success early as a coach in my career. 

“I needed to go through a time where I had to grind to just squeak out some wins, to help these guys squeak out some wins, and that’s what made me a better coach. It really caused me to become a better overall X’s and O’s coach…the last seven years, you couldn’t have asked for any more of professional development.”

Through offseason and fall workouts, Howard Polykoff has also seen a new coaching side of his son: “I think he’s more knowledgeable. I think working at Penn, you get to see obviously tougher competition, there’s game-planning and video-watching. And when he got to Earlham…I think he saw some bigs who might not be as skilled as the D-I players, you may have to work with them more individually.  I’m curious to see how he does coming back this year, but I definitely think he’s obtained more information than his first go-around here.”

Jason Polykoff’s first Phoenix squad in his second go-around is certainly a good one to build on. It starts with Nichols, a 6-1 senior, and Holland, a 6-5 junior and the team’s leading returning scorer. 

Holland broke out this summer as one of the area’s top juniors around in terms of college recruitment, with offers from more than a dozen Division I schools. He’ll follow in the footsteps of recent graduates De’Andre Hunter ‘16 (Virginia/NBA) and Chuck Champion ‘16 (Loyola-Md.), among others, in going D-I, but Polykoff knows there’s more to come from the team’s star before he leaves.

“He just needed the confidence to know that he is good enough to play at that level, and he played that way this summer and he’s going to come into this season knowing I’m good enough, nobody can stop me, just that confidence, so that’s good,” Polykoff said. “But the other piece is that the attention that he’s bringing and the coaches that are coming to see him play, the other guys are going to feed off that too, and they’re going to gain from that. So it helps the overall program, it certainly has already helped [Ed] and it’ll start to help the other players on the team.”

New to the school are a trio of players who should contribute right away: junior guards T.J. Lewis and Ben Satz, and freshman wing forward Shawn Simmons, who’s 6-5 and can play inside and out. They join returning guards like senior Mason Mosely, junior Brandon Banadda, and senior B.K. Kothari to form the main part of Polykoff’s rotation. 

It’s a group that’s got plenty of ball-handlers who know how to put the ball through the hoop, and the 6-5 Simmons and 6-2 Lewis bring some real length to the floor as well.

“Offensively, between me and Ed and some other pieces, we’re pretty good, we can make shots and executive that part,” Nichols said after the team played in an offseason event late September. “Defensively, that’s our biggest problem right now. [We have to] get in the gaps, have to lock down and outwork everybody.”

“I told the team, I want fans to come watch us play for the first time and leave saying, ‘wow, that team plays hard, and they play defense,’” Polykoff said. “And I told them, that’s how you know that you’ve established an identity, when somebody who’s never seen you play walks into a gym” —  he snapped — “feels something about you and walks away thinking that way. And you should play that way all the time.”

If the Phoenix pick up Polykoff’s defensive plans, they should find themselves in the running with six-time defending champion Westtown, a year after finishing in the middle of the Friends’ Schools League pack. At least one person believes that the Phoenix will take it all home again before long.

Call it father’s intuition.

“I’m proud of all my kids, but watching (Jason) and how he communicates with the kids, they feed off of his energy and he’s been successful,” Howard Polykoff said. “So I know as a father and watching him, I’m very proud of what he’s accomplished, and what he’s going to accomplish.”

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