LANSDOWNE — They squeezed into Penn Wood High gymnasium Thursday night, turning away fans as they always seem to need to do when Chester comes for a visit.
Since 2006, Delaware County's premier basketball rivalry has been more than a best-of-two, -three, even -four meetings. It has been the competition to see who will serve as half of the representation in the PIAA Class AAAA championship — five of them Chester's, the other two Penn Wood's.
If there is a year where that string is at risk, this allegedly is the year. The Clippers were dealing with the loss of Rondae Jefferson, one of the country's top recruits a year ago, not to mention four other key players. And the Patriots were far enough away from state final quality last season that coach Clyde Jones and his players had some proving to do.
Consider Penn Wood-Chester I a successful venture to the proving grounds for Jones and his team.
The Patriots went practically coast to coast in a 65-56 victory, with Chester only holding one lead at 2-0 and drawing even once, at 20-20 early in the second quarter. Otherwise, Penn Wood withstood the heat, won the first test and took the early edge in the race to see which of the two teams will be the one the rest of the state will have to go through if it has aspirations of a championship.
The key word for Jones is "early.'
"One of the things around here in this county,' Jones said, "is that people outside of this coaching staff make this game out to be bigger than it is.
"What I try to do is get these kids to do the same thing they have done all year.'
What Jones and Penn Wood have going for them is a team that does not have a motivation issue, and much of that is due to a pair of skinny, high-energy seniors down low in forwards Naeem East and Jeff Padilioni. East played a pair of disparate halves that both served a required function. He scored all 10 of his points in the opening half, then in the second half provided the bulk of his 10 rebounds and two blocked shots, forcing the Clippers to seek a rally that never came from the 3-point arc.
As for Padilioni, he is the type of player good coaches pray will walk into the gym as a freshman.
"Oh, absolutely,' Jones said with a chuckle if he remember the first day Padilioni showed up. "He was a kid ... when we watched him as a freshman, all he did was run around and play hard with no skill set.'
"When Jeff first came up, he was in the neighborhood league around here,' East said. "He didn't have a lot of skill, but he had something that stuck out — he had heart and worked out like crazy.'
The skill set has come around, but if Penn Wood were putting its five top talents on the floor, the 6-3 Padilioni would be parked far down the bench. Yet, there he was in the starting lineup against Chester, battling a frontcourt with a trio of 6-8 forwards in Tyrell Sturdivant, Gabe Adesina and Maurice Henry.
"If you can find somebody in this area who plays harder than Jeff Padilioni, I want to see him,' Jones said. "Jeff plays with an energy and an engine that we've rarely seen. And as he gets better, his energy becomes one of our biggest virtues. It's tough for us to play and match his intensity.'
It might be tough to match, but Penn Wood had enough intensity to never let Chester slip back into the game. It certainly wasn't due to flawless play — the Patriots did turn the ball over in spurts, and in the fourth quarter had a spell where they weren't making the front ends of one-and-ones. But for every bad turnover they would make, or every missed opportunity they had to extend the lead, they would respond at the other end by creating a turnover, or forcing a bad shot, or grabbing a big rebound against a Chester team that, if you looked at the tale of the tape, should have dominated the boards.
"Hard work will beat talent,' East said, "if talent doesn't work hard.'
The teams have 18 days until the rematch, and Chester hasn't become Chester without hard work, and pride, and a furious grasp of tradition. It's tough to say which, if either team will be the one to keep that Delco representation in the Class AAAA final going.
One thing is certain: Neither will get to Hershey in March without its rival demanding it prove it wants it enough in a crowded gym in January.
To contact Dennis Deitch, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DennisDeitch.