CHESTER — The faces have changed so much in the Clip Joint.
Sporting his usual ear-to-ear smile and a few drops of sweat on his forehead, Conrad Chambers knocked down free throw after free throw some 20 minutes before a recent practice. He's changed numbers, too, sporting No. 11 after wearing No. 1 in his first season as a Clipper. The reasoning?
"No. 1 is a smaller jersey, so I had to get something bigger,' said the senior combo guard, who looks noticeably bigger this season.
That's the hat that Chambers has to wear as the team leader because, well, everybody else is gone. Nine seniors left after last season's loss to Lower Merion in the PIAA Class AAAA state final and a tenth player ended up going to a prep school. The mainstays of that crew, from two-time Daily Times Player of the Year Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to All-Delco Richard Granberry, from Rashan DeJarnette to Darius Robinson, are playing all across the country, some at prep schools, some at junior colleges and some for the soon-to-be top-ranked team in the country.
But there's a common denominator: They aren't at Chester anymore.
Some might see it as an excuse, but Chambers knows that the expectations don't go down for the Clippers, so he's got to get to work.
"I just want to come in and be the leader,' said Chambers, who averaged a hair shy of seven points per game last year. "That's it. Just show that captain in me, just show everybody that I can really run the team and lead the team to a state championship.'
Luckily for Chambers, he's got some old running mates back. Chester natives Tyrell Sturdivant and Mahir Johnson are wearing orange and black after spending three years at Glasgow (Del.). Johnson is the son of Chester 1,000-point scorer Mike Johnson, who played with Clippers coach Larry Yarbray. They haven't played for Chester yet, but they know what's at stake in the city: State championship or bust.
"I just start smiling when I hear state championship,' said Sturdivant, a Stony Brook signee. "I want it so bad. It would mean a lot to me and I know the city would love it, too. I think it would be a little sweeter, knowing that we lost 10 guys last year and they couldn't do it. Those guys were great, but they couldn't do it. It'd be a little bit sweeter knowing that we did it.'
Johnson is back on the court after suffering a knee injury as a junior and Yarbray expects him to be a do-it-all type. He can play anywhere from point guard to small forward, but all he cares about is helping Chester.
"It's real exciting to put that orange and black on and represent Chester,' Johnson said.
So would the season be a disappointment if the Clippers can't make it three state titles in four years?
"Yes,' Johnson boldly said. "That's it.'
Chester's road to a Del Val title won't be easy. The Clippers will get everyone's best effort every night and it's a deep, talented league that will put Chester to the test.
Penn Wood would love nothing more to be the one to upend the Clippers. Clyde Jones lost his top three scorers from a district team, but he's awfully high on the returning group.
"We've got six or seven guys who played good minutes for us last year,' Jones said. "We lost scoring, but we should be able to pick it up, and we might actually be a better team.'
Senior forwards Amadou Kaba (6-5), Naeem East (6-7) and Jeff Padilioni (6-3) give Jones a healthy-sized front court, while he contends that Malik Jackson, a low Division I or Division II prospect, will lead the team in minutes played and likely scoring.
To say that Academy Park coach Allen Brydges likes his team's backcourt might be understating it a little bit.
"I like our guards with anybody's guards,' Brydges said. "I'll take our chances. We're going to shoot a lot of threes because we're small, but we've got some really good guards.'
When they're healthy, that is. Promising point guard Jawan Collins is dealing with a broken finger, but the sophomore oozed potential last year and progressively improved.
"He'll be our best player,' Brydges said. "We go as far as he goes.'
Collins has help, though, in the form of Travis Smith. The junior averaged 18.3 points in his last six games last year and figures to be a dominant scorer. Terran Hamm is back after missing the last 16 games with a school disciplinary issue, and forwards Cyrie Spencer and Kaleb Taliaferro give the Knights size in the post.
Christian Irons will probably find himself asking what could have been.
If the Interboro senior had been able to stay healthy a year ago, he would be cruising to shatter the Bucs' all-time scoring record and his team, which was 4-0 when he was healthy, might not have stumbled to an 8-14 record. Irons averaged 16.8 points in the four wins, lending credence to the notion that Interboro was a much different team with him.
He's back, as are fellow seniors Joe Hageman, Julian Gallo and Mike McDevitt. McDevitt joined Irons among the walking wounded last year. He scored 11 points in the season opener, his only game because of an ankle injury, but with him and Irons healthy, there's lots of hope for the Bucs.
"This is by far the most talented team since I've been here,' said coach Jeff Webb, in his fourth year as the Bucs' boss.
In a dream world, new Chichester coach Buzz Wood would inherit a roster stacked with experienced players who know what it's like to see big minutes.
Eh, not so much. The Eagles lost just about everyone from last year, including four players who averaged double-digit points, but Wood is optimistic about his crop of players.
DeJuan Santana will be tasked with banging the boards for Chichester, while there's a wealth of young guards like Derrick Welles, Jamai Womack, Eric Baiocco, Shah Ahmed and Jay Nelson who will see big minutes.
As is the custom at Glen Mills, the Battlin' Bulls are starting from scratch after making it to the District One Class AAA semifinal a year ago. Tony Bacon expects to know more about his team in a few games when all of his football players get in basketball shape and a new group gets used to each other. Dawine Harmon, who had a breakout game in the season finale last year, is a good place to start. The 6-4 forward will provide size in the post.
If experience means anything, Kevin Kelly's Sun Valley team will be a handful for teams. Sun Valley boasts seven seniors and has four of its five starters returning, including junior Juwan Chandler, who averaged 11.5 ppg last year.
He'll be flanked by point guard Jay Evans and Shane Gilfoy, Mike Wood and Fran Miller. The Vanguards will need to shore up depth, though.
"If we defend,' Kelly said, "then we should be as competitive as anyone.'