WESTTOWN >> We are in the heart of a high school hoops season unlike any other. But some things never seem to change.
At Westtown School, head boys’ coach Seth Berger has a roster loaded with major college prospects, and the Moose are the class of the Friends School League and a major contender for another state championship. His team’s been in the title game of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA) tournament in each of the last three seasons. (They won it all in 2018 and 2020, by the way).
But there is actually something new going on at Coach Downey Court on the campus of the private boarding school founded by Quakers in 1799. With more than just a little push from former Bishop Shanahan coach Fran Burbidge, the Westtown girls’ basketball program is looking more and more like its male counterparts each and every day.
“Fran has a lot of girls who can really play and are building a national program super-fast that will make a big difference for the kids and the Westtown community,” Berger said.
It’s just season number two for Burbidge, but there are already similarities emerging between the two programs. On Wednesday, the girls and boys squads topped league foe Shipley, and the parallels were easy to see: guard-oriented attacks that play fast, play loose, and feature loads of talent and athleticism.
“I’ve leaned on Seth,” Burbidge acknowledged. “We have a really good relationship and he’s been super supportive of us doing what we are doing. And the players from both programs get along very well.”
A basketball coach for 40-plus years, Burbidge spent four seasons at Shanahan from 2014-18. His second team won the Ches-Mont title in 2016 for the first time in program history, and then did it again and again before resigning.
His commitments had become too much with a 9-to-5 job, with his high school team and with the Philadelphia Belles EYBA, an AAU squad.
“It was a situation where I wasn’t going to give all of it 100 percent,” he said. “I truly enjoyed it at Shanahan and I left it reluctantly.”
Not long after taking a season off from high school coaching, however, his AAU commitment ended. And soon after that, he got a call from Westtown, which was looking for a new girls coach.
“I suddenly had the time, so talked with them and everything kind of fell in place,” Burbidge said.
“It was intriguing. We all know the success the Westtown boys have had. I asked if they were looking to try to go national with the girls program like they’ve done with the boys. The answer was yes.”
Burbidge took the job, but only after his longtime assistant, Doug West, signed on to join him. He is the former Villanova star who went on to a 13-year career in the NBA.
“We kind of work as a pair,” Burbidge pointed out. “I wouldn’t be very smart if I didn’t tap all of the things Doug brings to the table.”
The combo thought they could attract a higher level of student-athletes to Westtown, but there was a potential dilemma to overcome.
“I didn’t want to be recruiting high school kids and rock the boat,” he said.
“But we’ve been around and the connections we’ve made over the years, I thought there would be an opportunity to get some overtures from kids and go to a pretty high level with it.
“And that’s what has happened.”
In season number one a year ago, the Westtown girls’ captured its first Friends League title in 23 years, on the same day the Moose boys won their seventh league crown in a row.
“If you ask a lot of the players who have been through the program here, it’s bigger than basketball,” said junior guard Quin Berger, who plays for his dad. “From what I’ve seen, once you leave here you are a better person as well as a better player.”
Burbidge’s squad would have already played two dozen games at this point under a normal pre-pandemic season. But so far, his current team is 6-0 following an 89-57 victory over Shipley.
The Westtown girls are averaging nearly 75 points a game and have a starting lineup of, basically, five guards – and all five are getting attention from Division I colleges. And there is only one senior, Alexzeya Brooks, who is headed to UMass next fall.
“I love watching Fran and Doug’s practices and watching their team play games,” Berger said. “They do such a great job of teaching the game and I learn whenever I get to be in the gym.”
The only other returning starter is junior Melia Van-Otoo. The rest — Grace Sunback (sophomore), Zahra King (sophomore) and Kaylene Smikle (junior) — are newcomers to the program. And the first player off the bench is 6-foot-3 junior center Mara Donnelly.
“All of our starters can handle the ball, they can all push it up the floor and they can all shoot it,” Burbidge said. “We can run into problems rebounding the ball against bigger teams, but they will have to guard us at the other end of the floor.”
Similarly, Berger’s latest team has a senior standout: 6-5 guard Jalen Warley has committed to Florida State. And two other seniors – burley guard Nymire Little and 6-8 forward Alpha Bangura – are getting Division I college looks. But the next Westtown player with serious NBA aspirations is 7-foot junior center Dereck Lively.
“He is one of the best big-men in the class of 2022,” Quin Berger said. “He was my roommate and we are best friends. I’ve never seen someone his size move and have the kind of basketball instincts that he does.
“He is ridiculous.”
With Berger, Warley and Little all able to handle duties at the point, and Lively and Bangura down low, the Moose are probably favored to win the state crown again.
“When we are firing on all cylinders, we’ll get into the 80s,” said Quin Berger, who has developed into a legitimate long-range shooter. “We make a lot of 3-pointers. And it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun basketball.
“I think this is the best shooting team we’ve ever had. We have some kinks to work out, obviously, but we are such an offensive powerhouse, anybody who steps on the court with us has to be able to put up more than 70 points.”
With success comes expectations, of course. And the Westtown boys have plenty of that. But the program also has the experience of playing a national schedule in addition to the rigors of the Friends League. With Wednesday’s victory, the Moose are 14-4 following a 75-47 win over Shipley. It also happened to be Berger’s 30th career win at Westtown.
“You would think it would be easier because we’ve been there before, but every year the nerves are pretty much the same once you get into playoff basketball,” Quin Berger said.
Some things never change.
Neil Geoghegan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NeilMGeoghegan.