Gregg Downer, in his two-decade tenure at the helm of the Lower Merion High School boys' basketball team, has won a pair of state championships, nine Central League titles, nearly 400 games, and shepherded the development of arguably the greatest active basketball player on the planet. And while the understated coach stops shy of calling this is the strongest team he's ever entered a season with, he admits that in one crucial aspect this year's squad is unlike any he's ever coached.
"In all my years I've never had two 6'7"s," the seven-time Central League coach of the year said.
Until now, that is.
In twin towers Yohanny Dalembert and senior Darryl Reynolds, Downer and the Aces have a core that, coupled with returning wings BJ Johnson, Mike Robbins, and Raheem Hall, make them a force to be reckoned with, if not favorites, in the rugged Central League.
"We want to win everything possible," said Reynolds, the team's newly minted captain. "We've got a lot of underclassmen stepping up and the talent's definitely there."
The Aces are brimming with talent. Reynolds was a terrifying interior defensive presence last year whose offensive repertoire advanced as the season did; Johnson, still a junior, is a tantalizingly talented—and heavily recruited—2/3 whose perimeter game is still catching up to his athleticism; Robbins is a smart and steady player with a feel for the moment; and the wiry Hall, who as a sophomore last winter was named to the Philadelphia Inquirer's District 1 all-tournament team, may be the best of the bunch.
And they're getting better.
"Lots of kids improved. Darryl [Reynolds] and BJ [Johnson] had big offseasons. BJ played with a good AAU team—the Jersey Shore Warriors—and Darryl got a lot stronger," said Downer, who added that he expects big contributions from newcomers Justin McFadden and JaQuan Johnson as well.
"[And] Yohanny Dalembert had a really good offseason," the coach said of the half-brother of former-Sixer Samuel Dalembert.
Insofar as these Aces have a weakness, it looks to be at the point. After losing Darius Hall to graduation—the floor general whose strong defense and aplomb catalysed the Aces run last season—Lower Merion has a gaping hole that has their usually unflappable coach still scratching his head.
"We're looking at Raheem [Hall] there, but JaQuan [Johnson] is a more natural 'one,'" said Downer, who admits turnovers will be a problem until the position gets settled.
If the staff's track record is any indication, that won't take long. With their characteristic alchemist's touch, they brought last year's team, an uneven mix of not-yet-ripened young talent and hard-nosed but pedestrian upperclassmen that started the year 6-6, to within a basket of the state's Elite Eight. Now the Aces Nation is eager to see what they can do this year with a more fully stocked cupboard.
As the old saying goes, the one thing you can't coach is tall. Fortunately in the Bryant Gymnasium, they already have plenty of that.