Players adjust to strike before biggest game of yearIn what was the biggest game the Downingtown West boys basketball team has played in the school's six-year history - Tuesday night's Ches-Mont League showdown against Coatesville for the National Conference championship - the Whippets had to deal with fallout from the Downingtown Area teachers strike.
Whippet coach Damien Blair, a physical education teacher at Downingtown West, was not on hand when his Whippets downed the Red Raiders, 59-46, for the school's first Ches-Mont championship since the school's split.
Assistant coach Gary Blair, no relation, has taken over the reins until the strike is settled. The players also had to deal with the effects of not being in school on a weekday game day.
Two Whippet players, senior T.J. McGrath and junior Bryan Milito, talked about how it felt to be without their fiery head coach and the unusual circumstances surrounding the game itself.
"It was pretty weird not being in school on a game day during the week," McGrath said. "But I treated it like it was a Saturday game. Not being in school gave me a lot of time to think about the game and not be distracted. We will miss Coach Blair, but all our coaches know what to do and I think we will be OK. I want the strike to end soon, though, because I am a senior and I want to graduate on time."
Milito, a junior guard, said the day off was time well spent. "I think not being in school worked out better," Milito said. "I got a lot of sleep and rest while the Coatesville guys had to go to school. I felt more energized. I think it will be different without coach Blair (Damien), but our coaches do a real good job. It will be extra motivation for us to win it for him.
"He has been telling us all year that players win games, so tonight I hope we can show him he was right."
Gary Blair said although he was ready to take over, it would be very different without the Whippet head coach around.
"It is going to be a little different," Blair said. "But this is Damien's program. He built this up and it is all his. We are just caretakers for him tonight."
Coatesville coach Rick Nelms also expressed remorse of not having the Whippet boss around for such an important game.
"This is very upsetting," Nelms said. "It is a shame their coach could not be here to enjoy this moment."
Whippet wrestlers close in on National Division title
Though the conditions may have been off a little, Downingtown West went out and did its job Wednesday night.
With the Downingtown school district strike ongoing, both Downingtown West and Downingtown East were without some coaches, but with the Whippets taking care of the task at hand, 45-18, they clinched at least a share of their fourth straight Ches-Mont League title in the Cougars' gym.
With West Chester Henderson's win over Avon Grove on Wednesday night as well, the Whippets must beat Bishop Shanahan next Wednesday for the outright crown of the National Division.
West (5-0 league, 10-7 overall) seniors have yet to lose a league meet in their four years and a win over the Eagles would make it 22 consecutive Ches-Mont wins.
"It's a big accomplishment for the team," said Whippets senior Pat May. "Especially for the seniors, becoming the first team to win four consecutive Ches-Mont titles."
West was without head coach Darrin Cummings and assistant Corey Sigle, while head coach Joe Horvath, and assistants, Tony DeLuca and Ben Young were absent from East's sideline. Glenn Koser and Brad Breese took over the coaching duties for the Whip-pets along with 2007 graduate, Jason Scanlon, while Art Campbell and Jim May led the Cougars (3-2, 14-6).
The Whippets have now won all five of the East-West matchups by an average of just under 29 points. The most recent battle was similar to the past as West's experience in big meets helped them prevail.
Starting at 152 pounds, Chris Uhler put West up 6-0 with a second-period pin. After East's Brian Fitzgerald (160) eked a tight bout out against Matt McDonough, 2-1, the Whippets went on a three-win run.
Chris Kalbach (171) won by technical fall and Jake Finkbinder (189) won 5-1 to put West up by 11 as Josh Homer (215) took the mat. East decided to send out their regular heavyweight, Amro Elansari, in what turned out to be the highlight bout of the evening.
Homer, who weighed in at 173.4 pounds, was up two weights from his natural weight of 171, struggled early to get in on Elansari who fought his way out of a handful of single-leg attempts. Homer finally got his takedown in the second and managed Elansari to his back. Elansari worked his way back and almost reversed Homer with a headlock before he was called for an illegal hold. Homer went on to win 8-1, making the meet 17-3.
"I think it will make me better," Homer said, "but it is tough bumping that much weight up."
Whippets split at District Duals
A quick look at the semifinal round matchups, and one may start humming that classic Sesame Street jingle, "one of these things does not belong."
With No. 1 Council Rock South, No. 2 Council Rock North and No. 3 Quakertown all advancing past the quarterfinals, No. 12 Downingtown West stood out at the District 1 Duals tournament at Pottstown High on Friday night.
But the Whippets, after knocking off No. 5 Boyertown on Jan. 24, gutted out a tough one against No. 13 Upper Perkiomen in the quarterfinals, 35-34, only to run into the mighty Hawks of Council Rock South in the semis, where they fell, 44-26.
Downingtown West (11-8 overall) will face No. 10 Pennridge, a 39-22 winner against No. 6 Pennsbury, in the first consolation round today at Pottstown High (1 p.m.). Class AA action will begin at 1 p.m., as well, with No. 3 Octorara taking on No. 2 Springfield-Montco.
Despite the low seed, the Whippets have proved a very tough out at this point and will have to beat the Rams and the winner of Upper Perk and Quakertown to advance to the state tournament.
"We feel pretty good," Whippets assistant coach Brad Breese said. "We feel we match up against any other team here."
In the first meet of the night against Upper Perk, Downingtown West was pitted against a similar-type team in that both lost plenty of talent to graduation, but both programs were well-coached and seemed to be peaking at the right time. Upper Perk won the first meeting of the season, 34-31.
Upper Perk got up by as much as 10 points halfway through the meet, but pins by Josiah Bull at 103 pounds and Pat May at 119 brought the Whippets within two with four bouts to go. The Indians won the next two but could only collect one bonus point, leaving the Whippets with a nine-point window to hop through.
With 10 points to make up in two matches, Eric Dunheimer (135) took Daniel Neiss down 12 times to win by technical fall, setting up Jake Miller (140) to be the hero.
Miller followed suit, teching Cody Ambrose in 3:02 to secure the win.
"He's been the leader on this team all year," Breese said of Miller. "We put it on his shoulders and he took it on his shoulders. He's been a big part of what got our team there."
Dunheimer, who was stuck behind Miller and some other good wrestlers last season, has become a valuable weapon for Downing-town West, and came through in his first moment on a bigger stage.
"Coach Breese came up to me and said 'Do what you do, wrestle,'" Dunheimer said. "I wrestled the way I should. Pat (May) told me before the match about the big atmosphere and to just 'Focus on you and your opponent and nothing else matters.'"
Miller, on the other hand, had been in a very similar position a few years ago when West was eliminated by Council Rock North in the consolation bracket, when Miller could not finagle a pin against an opponent who knew all he had to do was not get pinned.
"It kind of feels like revenge," Miller said. "It was a little bit of motivation. I knew he was a kid I could beat so I just went out and wrestled the way I should."
Against South, which will square off against Council Rock North for the District 1 championship today, Downingtown simply did not have the same horses the Hawks did.
Despite the mismatch, the Whippets kept it relatively close, bringing it within two, 12-10, after a Josh Homer pin, and again at 18-16 when Colin Tascione stepped into the lineup and pinned Anthony Hibbert in 37 seconds.
Tascione has seen some action at heavyweight this season, but his fall certainly surprised some Downingtown fans. His effort was in vain though, as Council Rock South's undefeated stallion, Mark Rappo, and his younger brother Matt, both pinned to push the advantage to 14.
May majored Brian Hercus, 13-2, at 119, and Dunheimer and Miller both scored decisions to close out the wins for the Whippets.
Pennridge's strength is in the middle weights with Richard Vogt (140), Brad Hermann (145) and Colin McConnell (145). But with Dunheimer, Miller, Chris Uhler (145) and Matt McDonough (152) moving around those weights all season, the meet will likely, as usual, come down to bonus points.