The Archbishop Wood boys basketball team took a giant leap forward from the 2015-16 season to 2016-17.
The Vikings went from a 14-10 team that was knocked out in the Philadelphia Catholic League quarterfinals to a 28-3 PCL, District 12 and PIAA state championship team.
Three years later, the 2016-17 squad was voted the Reporter/Times Herald/Montgomery Media Boys Basketball Team of the Decade.
The 2015-16 season ended in heartbreaking fashion. The Vikings lost in double overtime to Archbishop Carroll, 77-70. Wood couldn’t capitalize on opportunities at the end of regulation and mistakes in overtime led to a PCL quarterfinal defeat.
“It sticks with me to this day,” Wood 2017 grad Keith Otto said. “That game really set a mindset for us senior year. It was obviously a devastating loss. We thought we had the game the entire time. It would have been our first trip to the Palestra our junior year. From that moment on our whole mindset was just – I’m getting to the Palestra, getting to the Catholic League championship and ultimately coming home with the plaque, which we did.”
“Credit to Carroll they were a great team that year,” Wood’s Matt Cerruti said, “but we felt like we should’ve been in the Palestra. It was a crazy game, double-overtime. We were right there. We knew we could compete with anyone. It drove us all offseason just to know you’re not given anything. We knew we had to come out and earn it and make sure we actually got to the Palestra that year.”
The Vikings returned four starters in 2016-17. Improvements across the board – especially by 2017 PCL MVP Collin Gillespie – led to the best season in school history.
“Going into senior year it was all a mindset thing,” Otto said. “We all knew we were good enough to compete with anybody in the Catholic League, really anybody in the state. Obviously Collin’s recruitment and everything blew up at that point. Just having the ball in the right guy’s hands was a great thing for us as a team.”
“Me and a couple kids on the team played AAU that spring,” Cerruti added. “We were working out four, five days a week with each other. We were just building that team chemistry between me, Collin and Keith.”
Wood started the historic campaign 6-3 – the ninth game being their PCL opener and final home game due to problems at their gym. It was a 68-60 loss to Father Judge.
Otto, a junior at Moravian College, is reminded of his last two PCL losses often. His roommates in college are John Rigsby from Carroll’s 2016 team and Matt O’Connor from Judge in 2017.
“(The Judge loss) was actually our last home game in general because our wall came down in the gym the following day at practice,” Otto said. “That was our last game ever at home. We had Senior Day that year at La Salle, one of our rivals. It just didn’t feel right. We just took everything with a grain of salt. We focused on getting to the Palestra the entire time.
“We just tried to find the biggest venue we could for every home game from that point on. Every game was packed, sold out. Our student section traveled with us. It was definitely a very weird situation, but at the same time I think it helped us based off the fact it was another bump in the road. We had to figure it out.”
“I think that’s when we all came together and were like, ‘Alright. If we’re going to do this it’s time to do it,’” Cerruti said. “We got on a roll. We played Ryan the game after and it was probably our most complete game up to that point in the season. I think we all came together and we had something to play for, having no home gym. It was an extra motivator for us to play better.”
Regardless of location, that game against Judge would be the Vikings final loss. They went 12-0 the rest of the way in PCL play and beat Emmaus, 62-59, to finish the regular season 19-3.
Their year-long focus on getting to the Palestra came to fruition in February. After beating Bonner-Prendergast in the quarters, they arrived at the historic Philadelphia basketball venue and didn’t disappoint. They beat Archbishop Ryan in the semifinals and Neumann-Goretti in the championship.
“We felt on top of the world at that point,” Otto said. “As soon as we beat Neumann I didn’t really think there was a chance we would lose to anybody else. We definitely faced some solid teams in the state playoffs, we faced Martin Luther King in the City Championship, who are obviously very good teams at the time. As soon as you beat (Neumann-Goretti seniors) Quade Green (Kentucky commit), DaDa (Villanova commit Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree) in the Palestra, you really don’t think you’re going to lose to anybody else after.”
That confidence and coaching helped the Vikings to six more wins. They beat King for the 5A City title, 87-51. They won state playoff games by 30, 24, 25, nine and 33 points to become PIAA-5A state champs.
“I think having a good coaching staff – they didn’t let us get too big-headed,” Cerruti said. “We stayed level-headed. I know coach (John) Mosco always preached never too high, never too low. He never let us get like that, which was good. We stayed focused to help us win.”
Both Cerruti and Otto appreciate all three championships. They ranked the PCL title as their top accomplishment followed by the state and then city.
It’s no surprise how much the 2016-17 Vikings achieved with a roster littered with college talent. Seniors Otto (Moravian), Cerruti (Lock Haven) and Gillespie (Villanova), juniors Tyree Pickron (Quinnipiac), Andrew Funk (Bucknell), Seth Pinkney (Quinnipiac) and Karrington Wallace (Central Connecticut State), sophomore Julius Phillips (Chestnut Hill) and freshman Zahree Harrison (Saint Francis) are all college basketball players.
With that much talent on a 14-man roster, Wood’s practices were filled with intensity.
“I think some of our practices were more intense and more competitive than some of our actual games were just because of the talent,” Cerruti said. “Credit to the coaches because they would split the teams up. I know most schools do your first team plays your second team every day. We had an even split. Each day the teams would be divided. It was never you were playing the same kids. You’re always playing against different people. It had everyone strive to be better.”
“It was a great atmosphere every day,” Otto said. “With the gym situation for the first month or so we would be practicing at different locations, which was tough. We managed to get the girls gym back – just the main two baskets – for most practices, which meant we were scrimmaging a lot of the time. Every day the talking, everybody was competitive all the time. I think that’s what made us so great.”
Gillespie averaged 22 points per game on his way to PCL MVP honors. Pickron averaged 13.5 points and joined Gillespie on the All-PCL first team. Cerruti and Pinkney earned second team honors.
The Vikings entered the Best of the Decade bracket as the No. 2 seed. They defeated No. 15 Archbishop Carroll 2015-16, No. 10 Pennridge 2018-19, No. 3 Archbishop Carroll 2014-15 and No. 13 La Salle 2013-14 to be named the best team in the area in the 2010s.
“It’s really an honor,” Otto said. “All the teams in there were some great teams as far as I remember. To be named the best out of all of them – it’s definitely an honor.”
“It means a lot to have people notice what we accomplished,” Cerruti said. “A lot of hard work went into it and our team battled a lot of adversity over the couple years. It was cool to see it pay off in the end and that people still notice it.”