Congratulations to the West Catholic Burrs, who defeated Deer Lakes 83-55 to bring home the PIAA 3A State Title - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
Photos/Videos: Donna Eckert & John Knebels
By: John Knebels
HERSHEY, PA – While a television crew interviewed the two players most responsible for a newly minted state championship, junior Tariq Jennings answered some questions approximately 50 feet away from the cameras.
Halfway through, two of Jennings’ teammates snuck up behind him and, exposing elfish expressions, reached up high and doused their much taller teammate with cups of water before speeding away with shrieks of innocent joy.
Just one of the numerous ‘moments in time’ as experienced by West Catholic Prep’s basketball team, which on Saturday afternoon at the Giant Center snared the school’s first-ever boys’ state championship title with an 83-55 PIAA Class 3A victory over District 7 champ Deer Lakes.
“Since the beginning of the year, we had a good team,” said Jennings, the first player off bench. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity this year, so for us to win this is special.”
The Burrs’ lopsided victory was fueled by scoring machine seniors Adam “Budd” Clark and Zion Stanford. While the former scored a game-high 32 points on an almost perfect 16-of-18 from the floor in addition to nine rebounds, five assists, and four steals, the latter added 30 points along with four boards, three steals, and an assist.
Witnessing the Batman and Robin duo control the professional-sized court was like watching a conductor orchestrate a symphony. No matter what defensive strategy Deer Lakes applied, Clark and Stanford offered immediate and lethal responses.
Both exited the game after playing all but 3:05 of the 32-minute affair, during which West Catholic outscored Deer Lakes by 83-47 since falling behind 8-0.
“It could have been the stage, it could have been just some jitters,” said West Catholic coach Miguel Bocachica. “Once we started to buckle down and guard, we were fine. Our defense sped the game up. Once we got comfortable, things started to go our way.”
The Burrs’ five-game state tournament streak included four lopsided wins and a 64-63 scare over District 3 toughie Trinity in the semifinals. West Catholic outscored its foes by an average of 68-50.
Before winning the District 12 title and embarking on their state run, the Burrs needed to regroup after a heartbreaking overtime loss to Neumann-Goretti in the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals, West Catholic’s second straight such defeat.
“We lost to a great program,” said Bocachica. “We were fortunate enough to have been there these last two years for the first time in a very, very long time. We’re getting close. We’re not going anywhere. We’ll get ours.
“But I’m proud of how they competed on that stage. I’m proud of how we competed for a district title. And I ‘m proud of how we competed throughout the PIAA state playoffs.”
West Catholic, which collected 30 rebounds, 12 steals, and four blocks, arguably played its best game of the season against Deer Lakes. Respecting the unique opportunity to compete in a state final, Bocachica supplied a startling 13 different players with at least two minutes of playing time, and nine of them scored two or more points.
“We practice every day for these moments,” said Stanford. “It all comes from all the hard work when nobody is watching. This is where it shows . . . in the big moments.”
Before the game started, teammate Clark promised himself that his team would not board the bus home without hardware and an immense chocolate bar traditionally presented to each state champion.
That he joined forces with his lifelong friend made everything much more special.
“It feels great to do that with someone I’ve played with my whole life,” said Clark. “I just wanted to go out with a bang in my last high school game ever. Go out and have fun, and just do what I do.”
Underclassmen such as Jennings didn’t mind taking a backseat to the Clark-Stanford Show.
“Just let them do their thing,” said Jennings. “It they miss, I get a rebound. Just be like Number 11 (senior teammate Amyr Walker, who grabbed six boards) – like a dog. Just get every rebound. Put it back. Just play defense.”
Senior Marcus “MJ” Branker, Jr., who contributed four points and three steals, labeled his teammates’ combined 62 points as “shocking,” but, given their talent, not necessarily surprising.
“Just have to be there for them,” said Branker, Jr. “Their win is my win. I’m happy for them getting 30, and they’re happy for me for just wanting to be on the team.”
Next year, underclassmen such as Jennings (two points), sophomore starter Micah Waters (five points, steal), freshman Kingston Wheatley (three points, two blocks, rebound), sophomore Jaden Banner (rebound), freshman Jah Tyler (two points, rebound), sophomore Zay Muhammad, junior Charles Johnson-Cook, Jr. (steal), and sophomore Naseem Perez (two rebounds) will be counted on to continue West Catholic’s basketball ascension.
As indicated by the aforementioned post-game, impromptu water bath courtesy of Perez and Cook, Jr., don’t be surprised if the much-respected Jennings leads the way.
“Tariq is an amazing young man,” said Bocachica. “Shows up early, stays late. Wants extra work. He’s addicted to basketball. Good things are going to come his way. His turn is next. I don’t doubt that it will come. It’s going to go well for him. Just an amazing young man with a lot of talent.
“Obviously, Budd and Zion led the way this year, and a couple of other seniors,” continued Bocachica. “But Tariq never complained. If it’s two minutes, he’s given me everything in two minutes; if it’s 10 minutes, he’s given me everything in 10 minutes.
“Tariq is wonderful. I love that young man, Hopefully we will be back here and you’ll see him on that same stage, and you’ll see his improvements.”
Bocachica said that at some point, he plans to re-watch every game of the season somewhere private. Though appreciating everyone’s effort, he will undoubtedly become occasionally transfixed while watching his two first-team All-Catholics – Clark and Stanford – provide highlight-reel antics.
“Me as their coach, I’m probably always nitpicking, but I just want them to be the best versions of themselves,” said Bocachica. “Those two guys are amazing. They’ve been amazing all year. They have an amazing friendship, and they have an amazing chemistry on the basketball court. And it just oozes and trickles down to the rest of them.”
After mentioning West Catholic’s basketball staff, student body, administration, and entire community, Bocachica’s final sentiments focused on his players.
West Catholic head coach Miguel Bocachica - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
West Catholic poses with their medals after winning the PIAA 3A state title - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
“I just got a bunch of relentless dudes,” he said. “We started our season 1-5. For us to finish up 20-10 is a beautiful thing, and it just tells you who they are. They’re relentless.
“When we were 1-5, by our energy in our own gym, you’d think we were 6-0, which I wasn’t great a fan of. I wanted them to be a little more upset about being 1-5. But they were super-confident in themselves. We knew that at some point things would flip.”
And flip they did. The state plaque permanently placed inside West Catholic’s burgeoning trophy case will always serve as a historic reminder.
(Contact John Knebels at email@example.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)