CONCORD — All of the work that Garnet Valley did was 32 minutes from falling apart.
The four months of preparation, the 20 wins, the 17-game winning streak, all the various and sundry program history made along the way – a loss to Spring-Ford on Feb. 21 would’ve made it all for naught, from a states perspective. Had the Jaguars’ three-game losing streak stretched to four in that playback semifinal, the season would’ve been over.
“The 20 wins felt like a long time ago,” junior point guard Carl Schaller said this week. “The whole team, me and Chris (Coyne), we were trying to get our guys back on track, saying, ‘we won 20 games for a reason. We’ve got to go back out there and prove it.’”
Distant as it seemed, the Jaguars summoned the memory of those performances. And the result was three straight wins to carry a head of steam into the postseason, the program’s first states berth in 23 years.
Garnet Valley (23-4) takes on District 12 champion Simon Gratz (23-5) in Saturday’s PIAA Class 6A opener at Lincoln High School. Tipoff is at 5 p.m.
The states berth is the latest first in a program resurgence under coach Mike Brown. Garnet Valley basketball had fallen on hard times, enduring three straight one-win seasons from 2009-12 before Brown took over. But the Jags have made the District 1 tournament five straight seasons, equaling the number of playoff berths from the previous 19 seasons, per research provided by athletic director Seth Bruner.
The 23 wins is a program record, surpassing the 20 won by the 1996-97 District 1 Class 2A champions. This is just the third states berth for Garnet, joining those district champs and the 1994-95 team; the only states win came in 1997, a first-round victory over York Suburban.
“It’s a great opportunity,” senior forward Coyne said. “I think everyone on this team deserves to be in states. We definitely deserve to be in states. We’ve played very well this year, four losses. I think we deserve to be here.”
The line between being a 23-win team in states and a 20-win team watching the tournament from afar was thing. Garnet Valley had rampaged through the Central League with a 14-1 mark, clinching the top seed in the regular season. It carried a 17-game winning streak into the regular-season finale against Haverford.
But then came a two-point loss to the Fords in overtime (with Schaller out). Then a six-point setback in the Central League semifinal. Then an overtime upset for the second seed in the district at the hands of No. 18 Downingtown East in the second round, landing them in do-or-die playbacks.
Those games accounted for three of the Jaguars’ five lowest point outputs of the season. But the circumstances allowed for a little reflection that the sky wasn’t falling in
“I looked at it as three losses. The whole team did,” Schaller said. “But the more I looked at it, you know, we lost in overtime, we scored 30 points and probably shot 10 percent, and the other game, we lost in overtime and anything could’ve happened to make that game go right. It was just three tough losses, and we had to get back on track.”
They did just that, edging Spring-Ford in a playback semifinal, then routing Upper Darby for a third time this season to get to states before winning the ninth-place game against North Penn.
Garnet Valley’s rally involved the wherewithal they’d displayed all year. Second-leading scorer Neel Beniwal missed seven games. Max Jackowsky, who is fifth on the team in scoring but had 15 points against Spring-Ford and 17 against Upper Darby, missed nine. Schaller and Coyne also missed time late.
So when it came time to circle the wagons, the Jaguars relied on a team effort. No one person stepped up, though Coyne and Schaller as captains had prominent roles in the conversation. Ask Coyne and he’ll rattle off names until he goes with “pretty much everybody” to save time.
The week between districts and states has afforded the Jags a little time to appreciate what they’ve achieved. They’re readying for the challenge of Gratz, which followed up a loss in the Philadelphia Public League championship game to Math, Civics and Sciences by beating Roman Catholic, 71-60, in the District 12 final.
After Garnet Valley came so close to a premature end to the season, the Jaguars aren’t ready to turn in Their jerseys yet.
“I think we definitely all felt pretty good coming off the last three wins,” Schaller said. “So we’ve been enjoying it, but we’ve got to get Gratz Saturday.”
“I know the whole team is psyched to be in states and psyched to have won our playbacks games,” Coyne said. “We’re just enjoying it while it lasts, and hoping that it lasts past Saturday.”