William Penn on quest to make history
No big-school team has won three straight District 3 titles since 1955-57 Reading High teams. The Bearcats have that rare chance.
It would be a first.
Since the PIAA introduced the Class AAAA classification for the 1983-84 basketball season, no big-school boys' basketball team has won three-straight titles in District 3.
A quick glance through the District 3 record books highlights another fact: No big-school boys' basketball team has secured a three-peat since the Reading High Knights accomplished the feat from 1955-57 in what was then called Class A. Yet, more than a half century later, William Penn can do just that if it brings home its third straight district title at Hershey's Giant Center in February.
Since the Red Knights' run in the late 50s, several great teams have come close to the three-peat — but none of them have pulled it off.
Future NBA player Stu Jackson led Reading to back-to-back titles in 1972 and '73 — and even a state final appearance in 1973. But Hershey took home the hardware in 1974. Reading was back at it, winning titles in 1976 and '77, the only title missing in their quest for a three-peat coming via an overtime loss to Steel-High in the 1975 final. Carlisle's juggernaut teams of the 1980s, which won four consecutive state titles with players like future North Carolina point guard Jeff Lebo, future 49ers linebacker Lee Woodall and future Syracuse and NBA player Billy Owens, couldn't manage three straight district championships. The Herd lost in back-to-back title appearances to Harrisburg in 1986 and '87.
So what could possibly prevent William Penn from making history?
As it so happens, plenty.
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Most of them have been there before.
Guard Trey Shifflett has played in three straight district championship games, earning his only silver medal in an overtime loss to Harrisburg in 2013.
Kris Johnson hit the go-ahead jumper to seal the 2014 district final.
Point guard Montrel Morgan, like some of his teammates, has won back-to-back district titles. But he won his first title with Class A New Hope Academy before a smooth transition to Class AAAA hoops with William Penn last season.
That might not be enough.
"You just have so many good teams, it's hard to get there three straight years," William Penn coach Troy Sowers said. "Other big schools just need to have one good year (to stop a run).
"What helps us, I guess, is we weren't probably supposed to win it three years ago when we had three sophomores and two juniors."
But if you think Sowers will try to shy away from the feat, think again. He's embraced it.
The Bearcats are playing to win. Just like they do every year.
"We talk about our goals every year ... we want to win everything," Sowers said about winning his school's tip-off tournament, holiday tournament, league tournament, district tournament and state tournament. "My guys just believe they're going to be there at the end."
Teddy Feinberg and Brandon Stoneburg preview the YAIAA boys' basketball 2015-16 season. GameTimePA.com
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The last time it happened, Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. The Philadelphia Phillies had yet to integrate. Fidel Castro had yet to wrest control of Cuba as U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista still ruled. And Penn State football was still almost a decade away from naming a young assistant Joe Paterno its next head coach.
Reading High used a maddening possession game in 1957, slowing teams down by owning the boards. It set a then-Reading record by winning 20-straight games, squashing a mark that was set when its coach, Bill Horine, played for the Knights in the 1920s.
The Knights became the first team in school history to complete an undefeated season in the Central Penn League, going 16-0.
When William Penn entered its late-season matchup against Reading with a 66-points-per game average, Reading topped the Bearcats 43-33. It did the same against Hanover (a team that averaged 73-points-per contest), defeating them 45-34 in the district title game. And it marched all the way to the state final four, losing to state powerhouse Chester in the Eastern Final. By then a key injury to quarterback and guard Sam Preston became a big deal. Reading typically played just six players. And Preston had been limited in playing time since he had been "thrown against the wall," according to the Reading Eagle, in a victory at York — chipping a bone in his ankle.
Preston, however, was just one of a talented cast. Senior forward Willie Pegram was the star, earning the school's first Associated Press first-team all-state honors. He scored 374 points and pulled in 364 rebounds, according to the Reading Eagle.
Pegram helped the Knights adjust to the loss of Don Bertram (class of 1956) to graduation. Bertram averaged 18.3-points-per game as a senior, earning second-team all-state honors.
But by 1958, with Pegram lost to graduation, perhaps fittingly, York officially ended Reading's title run when the Bearcats won the trophy with a 77-44 victory against Carlisle.
Pete Carril, who would go on to become the architect of the Princeton offense and secure one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history when Princeton defeated defending national champion UCLA in 1996, took over the Reading program in 1958. And the great teams kept coming.
None of them, however, could duplicate Reading's three-peat.
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Sowers rattles off a list of contenders he knows his team might have to face this postseason.
Cedar Crest, Harrisburg, J.P. McCaskey and Reading should all be players.
Still, there's some hope for the Bearcats. It starts with a team-first philosophy.
"A lot of high school kids, and adults really, can be selfish," Sowers said. "But we've gotten our kids to focus on a lot of the team aspects. ... We really believe in that formula."
"Everyone wants to be a Bearcat," Sowers said. "The whole city wants to see you playing at York High."It means four players averaging in double figures in scoring. And it has translated to titles. He and his staff have managed to keep a team-first philosophy in place, even with the addition in recent years from players outside the program as York charter schools like New Hope and Impact Academy closed their doors. The William Penn coaching staff sets team rules, keeps it consistent and holds players accountable, Sowers said. The transition for new players has been helped by his own players' team-first attitude, which pushes any new players to jump on board with the winning program.
Sowers knows what's at stake and how rare of an opportunity the 2015-16 season could be. He has big hopes again this year, especially for his three senior guards.
"What a great way to go out: Get three district gold medals to end your career," Sowers said. "It's crazy to think about it.
"It will be a big deal, and it should be a big deal, if it's done."