Jeff Neiburg (@Jeff_Neiburg)
After a disappointing 55-52 defeat at the hands of Abington Friends in last years’ Friends Schools League final, Friends Central is hungry and ready to take the next step.
Head coach Ryan Tozer is in his second season with the Phoenix, his alma mater, after previously coaching at Rosemont College. He is expecting a lot out of this bunch.
“These guys want to win the league championship,” Tozer said. “That’s everyone’s goal. As long as the guys keep putting in the hard work and effort, we’ll go as far as they take us.”
Gone is Friends League leading scorer Karonn Davis, who averaged 18.1 points per game in league play last season. Davis graduated and will play college ball at Niagara.
The Phoenix also lost guard Billy Cassidy to graduation. Cassidy led the Friends School League in total 3-pointers made in league play last year with 27. He will play his collegiate basketball at D-II Chestnut Hill College.
Even with the loss of two key starters, Friends Central isn’t without talent. In fact, they might be stronger than last year.
“They were a big part of our team and what we did last year,” junior guard Jonathan Lawton said. “We’re gonna miss them, but me and De’Andre are ready to step up to take their spots and keep producing.”
Sophomore wing De’Andre Hunter, who averaged 12 points per game last year as a freshman, is poised to have a big season. The 6-5 Hunter is coming off an impressive summer after dazzling for his AAU team, Philly Pride. Hunter also won the Player of the Game award at the All-City Classic at Girard College this past June.
“I’m just trying to get better every day,” Hunter said. “We all just want to get back to the championship and win it this time.”
Hunter is arguably the best sophomore in the Philly area, and is drawing plenty of comparisons to former Friends Central standout and current Duke Blue Devil, Amile Jefferson. Tozer thinks those comparisons may be selling Hunter short.
“I graduated from Friends in 2001 and there’s been a lot great players that have come through here since then,” Tozer said. “He might be the best I’ve ever seen here. I can say that right now, him being a sophomore.”
Hunter is a duel-threat wing that can break a defender down off the dribble and has an advanced jump shooting ability. He is long and athletic, with plenty of frame to fill out.
“He’s been in the weight room,” Tozer said. “But he needs to continue to get stronger and be able to take the bump, have a guy hanging on him and still finish around the rim. The sky is the limit for him.”
Friends Central will also be looking at Lawton to take a major step up this season. The 6-2 combo guard has improved his shooting over the summer. Lawton has a quick first step that allows him to get into the lane and score the basketball, or find open teammates to distribute to.
“His basketball I.Q. is unbelievable,” Tozer said. “I’m really impressed with his footwork and fundamentals in running our offense. He’s like an extension of me out there.”
Both Lawton and Hunter will be tough to stop for any foe in the Friends League. They work extremely well inside out together.
“(Hunter) is one of my best friends on and off the court,” Lawton said. “We have a great chemistry together. I can get to the lane and create opportunities for him to get off open shots. I think we’re going to have a great season together.”
Friends will be looking to Hunter and Lawton for leadership. They’ll also look to seniors Troy Carter, Jerome Allen and Max Ginsburg to help shoulder the load. Talented freshman Tre Grier is also expected to get solid minutes for the Phoenix.
“I think De’Andre and John are great leaders,” Tozer said. “These two guys are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around. Even though they are young, some of our freshmen and sophomores are really following their lead.”
Despite Hunter being 6-5, Friends is not all that big in the frontcourt. Look for Tozer to work in some zone looks to clog the lane and limit the ability for the opposition to attack the basket.
“We’re going to mix it up defensively,” Tozer said. “We don’t have a lot of height so we’re going to need to team rebound and play physically. If we’re playing a team with size we may have to go to a zone. We took a look at a few different zones in the fall to see how the guys would respond.”
Everyone around Friends Central knows that they probably should have won the Friends League, and probably should have gotten out of the first round at the Pennsylvania Independent Schools state basketball tournament. Despite that, no one is dwelling on the past.
“We’re past that,” Lawton said. “With the team we have this year, I feel like we can go back and take a run at the league title for sure.”
Tozer is confident in his group’s ability to make that run.
“I think if we continue to work hard, you’ll see us back at Haverford College playing for the league title,” he said.