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Delco Madness: John Waller’s 1992 TCA Crusaders were never out of place in a tournament

Maybe it was the first time his 1992 Christian Academy basketball team won a tournament, or the second, or the third. Might have been the fourth. By the sixth, which was for a national championship, John Waller was certain.

That team, and even a few others from TCA in that era? They all could compete with anyone, at any time, in any circumstance, for any stakes.

“Absolutely,” Waller said, his competitive streak continuing to show, decades later. “I ran a summer league for a couple of years, and we had O’Hara, Neumann, Lower Merion. They all competed in our summer league. So there were years for sure that we definitely could have competed. Chester High competed. I remember one year Jay Wright came in to see Jameer Nelson, who was playing.

“We did compete a lot against a lot of the teams in the county. But in the summer league, there were some big schools, for sure. I know this is terrible to bring up at this particular time, but we played Lower Merion a couple times when Kobe (Bryant) was an underclassman, 10th grade going into 11th grade. We played against him one time in the Bonner summer league, another time in a Chichester summer league. And if memory holds me right, we came out on top in each of those game. Kobe was young at the time, but we competed against everybody at times.”

At 73, Waller didn’t expect to get dragged back into discussion about TCA basketball and its one-time status as one of the best programs in Delaware County. But then the Daily Times selected Sweet 16 teams for mythical Delco Madness tournaments designed to reveal the finest boys and girls teams in county history. And there were his 1992 national champions, seeded 16th and facing a first-round challenge from the top-seeded 2012 Chester.

While the uproars of protest were instant, as they are whenever a “mid-major” receives a bid at the expense of a blue blood, one fact glowed from TCA’s 1992 bracketology resume: Tournament readiness.

“We always played an opening tournament at Norfolk Christian in Virginia,” Waller said. “We won that. I remember playing in the Ridley Christmas tournament. We won. We traveled to Tennessee and won the national Christian Christmas tournament. Our league had an end of the year tournament. We won that.

“We did lose two games in a tournament at Chester High, to Bartram and William Penn of Philadelphia, but we were down three starters with the flu. So we started the season at 4-3, but finished 30-3.”

That included the championship of the National Association of Christian Athletes Tournament, an invitational event in Dayton, Tennessee, an achievement that sealed TCA’s Delco Madness bid. Yet also in tournament-selection tradition, Crusader Nation was not satisfied with receiving just one invitation, as reflected in feedback to sports@delcotimes.com and on Waller’s social media timelines.

“There was the ’98-’99 team, 28-0,” Waller said. “So many of those guys are on Facebook questioning why the 30-3 team got in and their team didn’t. I will say they were the most athletic team, for sure. They weren’t the epitome of ‘team,’ but they were by far the most athletic team I coached.”

The selection committee of Daily Times sports writers, in consultation with some area experts, gave preference to the national championship Crusaders, satisfied that one bid was sufficient. That’s because the field was so crowded that only six invites went to Chester, which has had eight state championship teams. So the ’99 TCA powerhouse, which at one time was ranked No. 1 in Delaware County behind Joel Gaines, Chris Coursey, Ben Arnold and Jeremiah Trusty, had to settle for the Next Four Out scroll.

“I had to laugh at the guy (Clyde Jones) who had coached and is now at Chichester, and his feeling that it wasn’t fair that Chester got all the credit,” Waller said. “But I live in Chester. We’ve lived in Chester for 25 years. So I’m a big Clippers fan, to be honest with you.”

Waller is a Clippers fan, so he knew he’d have to have his 1992 Crusaders ready for a marquee first-round game Friday night at Widener against Larry Yarbray’s 32-0 machine. The Crusaders would enter as 14.5-point underdogs but were on a 26-game winning streak for a reason.

“I’m not sure they were the most physically talented team,” Waller said. “In fact, I’m certain they weren’t. But as far as describing the word ‘team’, they were at the top of the list, to be sure.”

The Crusaders won those five of those six tournaments 1992, so would hardly have been out of place in a seventh, even against 15 of the greatest teams in the history of a county that has had way more than its share.

As expected, TCA, with all of its players raised in the system and Waller having done no recruiting, represented all Delaware County mid-majors with dignity before falling, 84-70, covering the spread in the mythical. Kevin Sareyka scored the first six points of the game, and TCA led after one quarter. But the Crusaders were unable to contain future NBA pro and Daily Times All-Delco Player of the Year Rondae Hollis-Jefferson late in the game. Jefferson would finish with 27 points, including every one in an 11-0 Chester run that opened an 80-64 gap with 2:30 left.

“Our team was the epitome of what a team is all about,” Waller said. “Very unselfish. I always quoted something to them: ‘It’s amazing what one can accomplish when he doesn’t care who gets the credit.’ That was from John Wooden. That was a team that epitomized that philosophy.”

And proved to be a tournament-ready Delco team for the ages.

To contact Jack McCaffery, email him at jmccaffery@21st-centurymedia.com; follow him on Twitter @JackMcCaffery

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