BY RICH FLANAGAN
(Photos by Kathy Leister for PSD)
PHILADELPHIA-George School’s rise not only to the top of the Friends Schools League (FSL) but also into one of the premier preparatory programs in Pa. has been nothing short of astounding. It harkens back to how so many of the incredible FSL teams began at ground zero before dominating different eras of the league’s illustrious history.
The history is rich, and the accolades are widespread, but when Ben Luber took over at George School in 2019, he had no idea that the future would hold a spot in the PAISAA Tournament championship game. More importantly, he had to go through teams robust with talent after years of being ensconced in only a small sector of southeastern Pa. basketball. Luber left Council Rock North as the program’s all-time scoring (1,969 points) and assists (562) leader and second on the assist list to a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee named Jay Wright.
Luber played four years at Penn State dishing out 418 assists and played against the likes of Acie Law at Texas A&M and Deron Williams at Illinois. After stops on the coaching staffs at Binghamton and Rider, he arrived at the Newtown school – which had made the FSL title game five times prior to his arrival – with his own blueprint and image of what he wanted the program to be and visualized what it could become.
“As simple as it sounds, we created a culture based on honoring each other, looking each other in the eyes and telling each other the truth,” Luber said. “The only players I wanted in that locker room were those who cared, gave their best effort, and didn’t make excuses.”
The Cougars fell, 79-77 in overtime to Perkiomen School in the PAISAA Tournament championship game at Hagan Arena on the campus of St. Joseph’s University. The loss came after George School –playing in the PAISAA title for the first time in program history - advanced the ball with two seconds left in overtime as Kachi Nzeh caught the ball in front of midcourt, but the referees heard calls for a timeout. The Cougars didn’t have one and a technical foul was assessed that gave Perkiomen School two shots and the ball. St. Francis (Pa.) signee Bobby Rosenberger, who had missed a go-ahead jumper from the left elbow just seconds earlier, stepped to the line and calmly sank two free throws to give the Panthers the lead.
Nzeh, the 6-foot-9 senior forward headed to play at Xavier next season, was the first player Luber brought to George School when very few knew about him or the school, in general. Nzeh had won a gold medal in the 400m at the Junior Nationals as an eighth grader with a time of 49.81, so track was his forte, but basketball soon rose to the forefront as the big man learned he could rise above the rim with the best players in the area and, in some cases, nationally.
George School senior Kachi Nzeh in PAISAA final vs. Perkiomen School. (Photo by Kathy Leister for PSD)
He finished with 21 points and eight rebounds in the PAISAA final and was proud of what he helped build here from the team’s improvement to support of the fanbase.
“It shows how much people believe in us and in our program,” Nzeh said. “It hasn’t been the easiest road but the way in which we brought this program to the way it is now, we can pat ourselves on the back. This was a long process and even though we didn’t get the result today we still had a lot of people who believed in us throughout the whole ride and I’m just glad we as a family could get it to the way it is now.”
Nzeh got one last attempt to win it for the Cougars as he intercepted a pass on Perkiomen School’s final possession and hoisted a halfcourt heave as time expired. The shot went off the backboard and the Panthers escaped with their first state title in program history. That shot will not define what Nzeh meant to the culture of George School basketball and the expectations that will come for future players on the roster with the upward trajectory that he started.
“He’s given everything to George School,” Luber said. “He’s a microcosm of what we’re trying to do. He exemplified all those qualities, and he turned out to be a terrific basketball player. He was seeking progression, not perfection.”
Nzeh helped George School (23-7) win 38 games over the last two seasons, including the program’s first Friends Schools League title and the first league title for the program since 1971. The Cougars vanquished Westtown School – a program that had won nine of the last 11 FSL titles – in the semifinals after losing to the Moose in the regular season. Nzeh had one of his best games against the Academy of the New Church in the FSL final at Tom Gola Arena with 18 points and 18 rebounds while teammate Christian Bliss poured in a school-record and FSL title-game record 39 points, surpassing the previous record of 36 set by Friends’ Central’s Mike Cook in the 1999 title game against Abington Friends.
Bliss - the first 1,000-point scorer in program history - is the continuation of that upward trajectory Nzeh helped establish and it comes as no surprise that Nzeh is more than content to leave the program in the hands of the talented 6-4 junior combo guard.
“I’m extremely comfortable with Christian next year and what he’s going to do for this program,” Nzeh said. “He’s a hard worker and one of the most talented guys I’ve played with throughout my basketball career. I’m glad he’s here to continue to grow this program because a lot of people believe in and want to play with him.”
George School junior Christian Bliss in PAISAA Championship game vs. Perkiomen School. (Photo/ Kathy Leister for PSD)
Bliss went 18-for-21 from the free-throw line and finished with 29 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on Sunday. He boasts offers from Luber’s alma mater, Penn State, Villanova, Xavier, Towson, Delaware, Drexel, Loyola Chicago, Florida Gulf Coast and St. Joe’s, where he put together a terrific game and kept his team in position to win. He drilled a patented stepback trey from the wing to give the Cougars a 58-55 lead with 5:38 left to play and that shot was part of a run that saw him score 13 consecutive points. He had the ball in his hands on the final possession in regulation with 10 seconds left but the Perkiomen School (26-4) defense locked down to force overtime.
Players like Bliss and senior Dante Weise, who is committed to play at The College of Saint Rose (N.Y.), were looking for more than a basketball program when they decided to play at George School and one defining factor persuaded both to come aboard.
“Dante and Christian came here because they wanted to play with Kachi,” Luber said. “I wanted more winners in the locker room and guys who hate to lose. That’s what we have but we’re not a finished product.”
Eventually others joined like Carson Mastin, who arrived from The Haverford School and had 12 points in the PAISAA title game, and 6-11 junior Luke Bevilacqua, who came over after winning a Philadelphia Catholic League and PIAA Class 4A title with Neumann-Goretti last season. Bevilacqua emerged as a legitimate post presence this season and will take over the role as the go-to forward down low vacated by Nzeh. Weise and Mastin will graduate with Nzeh, but Bliss, Bevilacqua and 6-2 sophomore Luke Melniczak – who hit three huge three-pointers on Sunday- will be back in hopes of keeping George School on top of the FSL.
The next frontier will be another appearance in the PAISAA final with the experience gained from this loss. George School hasn’t cemented itself as the dominant program in the FSL just yet, but the hope is that the trajectory Nzeh and the 2023 class has put the Cougars on will endure, something some of the great FSL teams have done.
Take for instance, Abington Friends under the direction of former head coach Steve Chadwin, who led the ‘Roos to 649 career wins and 16 FSL championships behind the outstanding play of players like Mike Jordan, Jason Love and Jabril Trawick. Love was part of 108 wins during his time at Xavier where he averaged 11.8 points per game and ended his career with 734 rebounds and 127 blocks in four seasons, which culminated with the incredible double-overtime loss to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 of the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Jordan is now the head coach at Lafayette, but he starred at the University of Pennsylvania where he was 2000 Ivy League Player of the Year and poured in 1,604 career points. Trawick scored 1,167 points at Abington Friends then started 74 out of 126 games at Georgetown which included three NCAA Tournament appearances.
In 2001, Friends’ Central grabbed the torch and with it, won consecutive titles behind Hakim Warrick, Mustafa Shakur and Cook, now the head coach of his alma mater. Cook is Friends’ Central’s all-time leading scorer with over 1,800 points and played at East Carolina and Pittsburgh, where he helped the Panthers to two NCAA Tournament berths. Warrick scored 2,073 career points at Syracuse and, alongside Carmelo Anthony, helped the Orange win the 2003 National Championship before playing eight seasons in the NBA. Shakur scored 1,318 points at Arizona and dished out more assists (670) than any other player under legendary head coach Lute Olson.
Academy of the New Church had their time winning four FSL titles in five seasons from 2005-09 and the first two Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA) Tournament titles. Samme Givens – who scored 1,226 points at Drexel – avg. 19.6 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks per game to lead the Lions to the 2008 FSL and PAISAA title under the direction of his father and head coach Kevin Givens, the all-time leading scorer at West Chester University (2,054 points). Khalif Foster finished his ANC career as the all-time leading scorer with 1,322 points and played at Robert Morris University.
What Seth Berger – the founder of AND1 - has done since taking over Westtown in 2007 has been nothing short of miraculous and the consistency has not been seen in the FSL in the league’s long and storied history. The Moose have captured those nine FSL titles during Berger’s tenure as well as four PAISAA Tournament championships. The lengthy list of players to come through and develop as Division I prospects is an anthology with Daniel Ochefu, Jalen Warley, Dereck Lively II, Noah Collier, Jalen Gaffney, John Bol Ajak, Jake Forrester, Mohamed Bamba, Brandon Randolph, Jameel Brown, Cam Reddish, and his sons, T.J. and Quin Berger.
Ochefu helped Villanova win the 2016 National Championship while Lively – the No. 1 player in the class of 2022 – is playing his freshman season at Duke. Lively, Reddish and Bamba were McDonald’s All-Americans, and Bamba (Los Angeles Lakers) and Reddish (Portland Trail Blazers) are currently playing in the NBA. Warley scored 1,084 points at Westtown and is a starter at Florida State. Forrester scored 1,392 points in his high school career and teamed with Bamba, Reddish, Randolph, and Anthony Ochefu on the 2017 PAISAA title team.
George School wants to be mentioned in the breadth as those heralded programs.
Westtown Head Coach Seth Burger. (PSD photo by Lou Rabito)
Westtown Coach Seth Burger with Former Westtown Standout Dereck Lively ll. (PSD Photo)
The program believes it has the leader in Luber along with the foundation from Nzeh and the emergence of players like Bliss and Bevilacqua to sustain this upward trajectory. With steady growth and setting realistic expectations, Luber has turned the George School program into one of the best in the PAISAA almost overnight, and he feels future accomplishments will become more of a regularity than an anomaly.
“Most people had never heard of George School and the reality is they know now," said Luber.