As the Delaware County high school basketball season begins, there is one certainty: It will not end as suddenly and as shockingly as the last one.
Larry Yarbray, the coach at Chester High, the sitting Delaware County Sports Figure of the Year, knows that. He realized that when he took one last look over his shoulder at the goings-on last March, when it was the Aces of Lower Merion retrieving the Giant Center nets as souvenirs from their state-championship victory in Hershey. He accepted that before boarding the team bus for the ride home. He digested it all summer.
"I couldn't be mad,' Yarbray said. "That night was Lower Merion's night.'
The 63-47 victory in the PIAA Class AAAA final belonged to the Aces, then, now, forever. The three-year block that it ended, though, was all Chester's, two state championships, one state final, an undefeated season thrown in, the only one in the program's proud history.
But just as that was the reality as the Clippers were losing to a Pennsylvania opponent for the first time in 79 games (months later, that number glows even more brightly), so was it the burden that Yarbray knew he'd have to carry for a while.
He knows that any immediate repeat of that typhoon of excellence is not only unrealistic, but likely impossible. Hey, it was never done before at Chester, was it? But he also knows that no basketball season on Ninth Street is successful without a state championship, as he has taken more than his share of turns leading that exact chant.
So, he begins again, a long, long way from March, with a different team, a different approach ... and the usual expectation.
"It's a challenge,' Yarbray said. "It's a challenge to get back to the state championship game. And I like the challenge. So because of that, it really wasn't a tough offseason for me. We have 10 new, open spots on this team, and everybody wants to fill one of those 10 spots. For that, they all worked out, three, four days a week.
"And that made it a pretty good summer.'
Gone is Rondae Jefferson, one of the best two players in modern Chester history, right behind — or right ahead of, depending on taste — Jameer Nelson. Jefferson is a regular in the rotation at Arizona, which is off to an 8-0 start, and because he was a Top 25 recruit, there was Chester last season playing on ESPN, with a national schedule. Though the Clippers will never avoid a challenge, that schedule is softened this time, if just a touch. "Every tough team, locally,' Yarbray said, listing, among others, Neumann-Goretti, Imhotep, Atlantic City, MCS from Philly, Harrisburg. For any other program, that would be a handful. At Chester, it is considered a downgrade. Such is the price of eternal success.
"There is no question about it,' Yarbray said. "I tell our players, ' Your era is what you make it.' We can't worry now about last year. We have to start playing now, and our goal, as usual, is to be peaking at state tournament time.'
Guard Conrad Chambers is a Division I prospect who has had some BCS-level looks. Tyrell Sturdivant is a 6-7 power forward, a transfer from Glasgow in Delaware, bound for Division I Stony Brook, which was in the second round of the last NIT. At most high schools in the nation, that would be enough to organize a school assembly, to celebrate so much accumulated major-college talent. At Chester, it's a foundation. So Yarbray will try to fill the other 10 spots from his ever-productive feeder programs, turn his veteran coaching staff loose, and try it all again.
"That last game last year just happened,' Yarbray said. "Lower Merion and Gregg Downer did a great job. But I don't think if we played again, the outcome would have been the same. Shots we usually made, we missed. Shots they usually missed, they made.
"I wish we could replay it. We can't. So, it's time to move on.'
March will arrive soon enough. One way or the other, it will end differently, much differently, this time.