Photos: Donna Eckert, Zamani Feelings, James Quinn, Ryan Nix, Kathy Leister, Jeremy Park & Lou Rabito
By: Rich Flanagan
PHILADELPHIA – Ben Luber had a particular vision of what George School could be. When he took over in 2019, he was already synthesizing how to mix his foundational principles with the allure of a program that could attract some of the area’s best to the Newtown school that had never won a Friends Schools League (FSL) title. He formulated those principles from his time at Council Rock North, where he finished his career as the program’s all-time leader in points (1,969) and assists (562), and Penn State.
With cultivation from having played at the Division I level combined with his coaching experience at both Rider and Binghamton, Luber used his familiarity with the area and keen intellect on the hardwood to build George School into a team that could challenge the perennial contenders such as the Academy of the New Church and Westtown School – the program that had developed the likes of Mo Bamba (Los Angeles Lakers) and Cam Reddish (Portland Trail Blazers). The 2022-23 season saw Luber and the Cougars reach the pinnacle of success in the FSL and Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association (PAISAA).
George School (23-7, 7-1 Friends Schools League) set numerous school records, won its first-ever FSL title and reached the PAISAA Tournament Championship Game for the first time in program history. Those notable accomplishments led to Luber being named Philadelphia Sports Digest Non-PIAA Coach of the Year. While the Cougars lost to Perkiomen School, 79-77 in overtime in the PAISAA final at Hagan Arena, it did not diminish the fact that the program set a record for overall and league wins in a season and won the program’s first league title since 1971 (Penn-Jersey League).
PSD Non-PIAA Coach of the Year: George School head coach, Ben Luber - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
For Luber, a historic season was not defined by the result in the last game of the year and a comforting message from a Philadelphia basketball lifer put that into perspective.
“What I took from the loss was that no first-place trophy and championship could define the season that we had,” Luber said. “Fran Dunphy texted me and was really supportive during our stretch run. He texted after the game and said, ‘Let your pride be bigger than your disappointment.’ He meant be prouder of your players than be disappointed in the outcome. It was the greatest team to ever play at George School.”
The Cougars took care of the Academy of the New Church, 64-61 in the FSL title game at Tom Gola Arena behind its dynamic tandem in PSD Non-PIAA Player of the Year Kachi Nzeh and fellow First Team selection Christian Bliss. Nzeh, the 6-foot-9 senior forward and Xavier signee, posted a double-double with 18 points and 18 rebounds while Bliss, the 6-4 junior wing, set a school and FSL championship game record with 39 points, including 23 in the first half. Those 39 points surpassed the previous record of 36 set by Friends’ Central’s Mike Cook in the 1999 title game against Abington Friends. The pair transcended all of Luber’s expectations, particularly Nzeh who was the head coach’s first recruit at George School.
Luber can still recall when Nzeh first visited the campus and how he perfectly fit into the vision of what the head coach was trying to build here.
“He came to campus, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I want to get better,’” Luber said. “It was a process getting to know one another but for me I could tell he was a great person and very humble. What he was attracted to was that a lot of schools were telling him that they needed him, but we told him we want to help him. You couldn’t have asked for a better first recruit.”
Nzeh put together a sensational final campaign by averaging 17.6 points and 10.7 rebounds. His name will be etched just behind Bliss on the single-game scoring list after he erupted for 38 points against The Phelps School in the PAISAA Tournament semifinals to go along with 15 boards. He posted 21 points in the PAISAA title game and finished his career with 1,102 points (played one season at Upper Darby). George School went 40-14 during his time on campus, including an astounding 25-1 at home.
Bliss became the first 1,000-point scorer in program history after tallying 19 points versus The Phelps Schools in the regular season. He avg. 20.3 points and 5 assists per game, and his 578 points this season are a school record. He almost singlehandedly willed the Cougars to the PAISAA title with 13 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter while shooting 18-for-21 from the free-throw line for the game. He’s a multi-dimensional guard with the ability to finish through contact, drill shots from distance and convert late in the game. He boasts offers from Virginia, Villanova, St. John’s, Miami (Fla.), Penn State, St. Joe’s, Drexel, and Xavier, among others. He has scored 1,262 career points to date with one more season remaining.
Bliss can absolutely take over a game and Luber noted that he has continued to learn what he needs to do in the closing minutes to not only get himself open but find his teammates for good looks.
“In the game of basketball, you have four other guys on the court with you and as talented he was last year, he learned the hard way that you can’t win championships on your own,” Luber said. “It wasn’t a selfish act but more so that he wanted to win so badly and put the team on his back that he could forget the strengths and roles of other guys on the team. When we lost to Academy of the New Church in the Friends Schools League semifinals last year, it made him hungrier to win and understand what winning really looks like.”
Joining Nzeh and Bliss on the first team includes Florida signee Thomas Haugh (Perkiomen School), Marquette signee Alassane Amadou (Springside Chestnut Hill Academy), Jordan Dill (Germantown Friends School) and Andrew Phillips (Malvern Prep). Haugh, the 6-9 forward, avg. 19 points, 10 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in his final season in leading Perkiomen School (26-4) to its first PAISAA title. He had 12 points and seven boards in the PAISAA quarterfinals against the Blue Devils as the Panthers made the most of their second straight trip to the state final.
Amadou was one of Pa.’s premier shot blockers this season and his defensive instincts are part of what made him such an appealing prospect to Golden Eagles head coach Shaka Smart.
The 6-9 rangy forward avg. 3.9 blocks and recorded at least three blocks in 17 games, most notably his 10-block performance vs. the Academy of the New Church in the regular season where he also added 12 rebounds. Springside Chestnut Hill head man Julian McFadden felt Amadou, who began his career at Quakertown then played two seasons under Drexel assistant Will Chavis at now defunct Bishop McDevitt, would evolve into a high caliber player from the moment he joined the program.
“I knew it during our first live period after his junior year,” McFadden said. “He started becoming that vocal kid that was talking all the time and so many coaches were coming out to games. That’s when I knew. He knew the switch went off and it unfolded as he started to figure it out.”
With a progressing offensive game, he avg. 8.9 points and 7.1 rebounds, and games like the 20-point, 7-rebound and 9-block outing vs. West Nottingham Academy (Md.) would present themselves. He also showed his expanding range with 21 three-pointers, but his forte was as a lockdown defender by leading the team in rebounds (182) and blocks (102). The defense of Springside Chestnut Hill Academy (17-9, 6-4 Inter-Ac League) was spurred by Amadou’s play and his offense was an added advantage. “He was a three-point shooter then he could make layups and dunk the ball. We wanted to work on his mid-range game from getting the ball in the pinch post and if he were able to get it then had a big guy on him, he could find a way to score at all three levels,” according to McFadden.
Dill, the 5-11 freshman guard, burst onto the scene as an eighth grader and he followed that up by avg. 21.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game while draining 59 three-pointers. He scored 20 or more points in 16 games this season, including a season-high 38 points vs. Overbrook on Dec. 14. He surpassed 1,000 career points against Germantown Academy in the Commonwealth Cup semifinals, becoming the 12th player in Germantown Friends history to reach that mark, and he currently sits at 1,009 career points.
A season after avg. 16.5 ppg and becoming the first eighth grader in FSL history to be named to the All-FSL team, head coach Shawn Werdt emphasized that Dill is performing at a rate not seen since 2015 grad Ray Leon, who scored 1,279 career points.
“Ray was similar in that he could put up crazy numbers and you didn’t feel it because it was a consistent, easy way to score a basket and Jordan is that times five as a ninth grader,” Werdt said. “He has a knack and consistently makes difficult shots. It’s incredible where most kids I would be yelling at and saying we can do better but I don’t say that to him because there truly isn’t a bad shot with him.”
Paul Romanczuk’s return to the sideline in 2021 brought excitement to the Malvern Prep program after John Harmatuk left to take over The Phelps School job. The Friars have won a share of the Inter-Ac title in each of the last two seasons, and the former University of Pennsylvania standout and Archbishop Carroll head coach credits his revival to coaching to the play of Phillips and Non-PIAA Second Team pick Ryan Williams.
“They had proven themselves and had a track record,” Romanczuk said. “I wanted to give them that freedom to go and make plays for our team. Sometimes what they can do on the fly and in a fastbreak situation is better than what me and my staff can draw up. Sometimes we needed to get out of the way and let them perform.”
And perform they did. Phillips, the 6-4 senior forward, avg. 18.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game on his way to 2023 Inter-Ac MVP – the first Malvern Prep player to win the award since Deuce Turner in 2020. He picked up an offer from Jefferson University on April 26 and is playing on the AAU circuit with East Coast Power. He could do it inside and out as evidenced by his 52 percent field goal percentage and 22 made three-pointers.
He had 13 games of 20 or more points, including s season-high 30 vs. Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in the regular-season finale. He finished his career with 951 points. As Romanczuk notes, “he got more explosive and could do some more things off the dribble. As the season went on, he shot the ball from three better and went on a tear while finding his stroke from three.”
Williams holds offers from Temple, Hampton, Towson, Fairfield, Albany, Drexel, and Penn and it’s not hard to see why. The 6-3 junior guard “got stronger and was a better decision maker as the season wore on. He began to create better for others and that’s something he will need to continue to improve upon if he hopes to be a point or lead guard in college. He can really light it up and when he turns it loose, you’re going to get more positive than negative,” as Romanczuk describes. He avg. 17.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 44 percent from the floor and making a team-high 50 shots from deep. He had 10 20-point games in helping lead Malvern Prep to an 18-9 (8-2 Inter-Ac League) record.
Lafayette signee Mark Butler culminated his career by avg. 12.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, and finishing in double figures in 20 games. The 6-foot guard led Penn Charter to a 44-8 overall (16-4 Inter-Ac League) with two shares of the league title and PAISAA Tournament appearances over the last two seasons. His 1,281 career points are sixth on the all-time scoring list at Penn Charter.
Youngstown State signee Christian Kirkland played one season at Roman Catholic, where the Cahillites advanced to the Philadelphia Catholic League title game, then developed into one of the more versatile players in the FSL this season. He avg. 16 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks per game and finished with 1,078 career points.
The Phelps School received a pair of PSD Non-PIAA selectees in 6-9 sophomore forward Will Riley and 6-2 post grad guard IV Pettit – one of the catalysts behind Devon Prep’s 2022 PIAA Class 3A title. Riley, who boasts offers from Oregon, Washington, Seton Hall, NJIT, Kansas State and Illinois, avg. 23.3 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists while drilling 51 three-pointers. Pettit made an impressive 77 three-pointers while avg. 15.4 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game. The former Devon Prep standout made a three in 23 out of 24 games and finished his prep career with 1,807 points.
Deywilk Tavarez suffered through two major knee injuries (and subsequent surgeries) during his junior year to not only return to the Academy of the New Church (18-6, 7-1) rotation but flourish as if he had never been injured. The 6-2 guard recently committed to Delaware State after being named All-FSL First Team following a season where he avg. 19.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 3.5 steals. He had 13 20-point games and sank 47 three-pointers while shooting 48 percent from the field. One of his most meaningful games came in the FSL title against George School where he posted 22 points and 10 rebounds. He scored 1,273 career points (also played at Shipley School and Highland (N.J.)).
Jaren Morton, who played at Bishop McDevitt with Amadou, recently committed to Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and capped off his prep career by avg. 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. The 6-5 guard, who scored in double figures in 17 games, transitioned from an all-around scorer into one of the better shooters in the Inter-Ac with 43 three-pointers. His best game of the year came against Malvern Prep in the regular season final with 34 points, where he knocked down seven treys. McFadden was blown away by Morton’s pinpoint shooting and how it opened up so much in the Blue Devils offense.
“Shooting was a thing he always had, and it was his bread and butter,” McFadden said. “He could certainly score at a high level, and we needed him to do that. He’s a taller guy who can get his shot off against smaller guards and use your elevation to get that shot up.”
Three of the Inter-Ac’s elite scorers were named to the Non-PIAA Third Team in Episcopal Academy’s Kevin McCarthy, Germantown Academy’s Bryce Rollerson and Haverford School’s Luke Rasmussen. The 6-3 McCarthy avg. 18.2 points and 6 rebounds as a junior while hitting 64 three-pointers. He currently stands at 1,037 career points at Episcopal Academy (10-15, 1-9). Rollerson, the 6-foot sophomore, avg. 21.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists this season while recording 31 three-pointers and 38 steals. He accumulated 18 games with 20 or more points with a career-high 35 points coming against Germantown Friends in the Commonwealth Cup. Rasmussen made the most of his return to the Fords after spending time with The Hill School by avg. 11.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 steals per game while making 48 threes. He scored in double figures in eight of his last nine, which included 17 points against George School to open the PAISAA Tournament.
PSD Non-PIAA Second-Team Selection, Christian Kirkland #2, Friends Select School - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister
PSD Non-PIAA Third-Team Selection, IV Pettit, Phelps School (Former - Devon Prep) - PSD Photo by Lou Rabito
PSD Non-PIAA Second-Team Selection, Deywilk Tavarez #5, Academy of the New Church - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert
PSD Non-PIAA Third-Team selection, Kevin McCarthy, Episcopal Academy - PSD Photo by Kathy Leister
Two more George School players round out the PSD Non-PIAA Boys Basketball Team in 6-11 sophomore forward Luke Bevilacqua and 6-1 senior guard Dante Weise.
Bevilacqua chose to join Luber’s team in May 2022 a few months after his former program, Neumann-Goretti won the Philadelphia Catholic League and PIAA Class 4A title. He avg. 13.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field in his first true season of high school basketball. Bevilacqua – with offers from St. John’s, Cincinnati, and St. Joe’s - scored in double figures in 20 games and totaled 402 points this season.
Luber stated that “he just needed to be out there to do what he does. I see him getting better and better, and he might be able to get recruited higher than Christian and Kachi because he played and learned from them.”
Weise was an indispensable part of the Cougars’ emphatic run this season.
“Our team calls him ‘The General’ because he runs the show. At the end of the day, our team wouldn’t have had any of these things this season without Dante. He makes winning plays and he makes guys around him believe,” Luber outlined.
The College of Saint Rose (N.Y.) signee avg. 6.5 points and 7 assists per game, and his 210 assists are the most in a single season in George School history. The Cougars finished 38-12 in his career, and he finished with 762 points, 567 rebounds, 448 assists and 164 steals.
Editor’s Note: The focal reason for constructing the inaugural Philadelphia Sports Digest Non-PIAA Boys Basketball Team was in response to the multitude of players who were not taken into consideration for the annual All-State Team solely due to being fifth-year players. The Non-PIAA or PAISAA criteria should differ from the PIAA as fifth-year players taking an additional year have to attend a private or independent school. Leaving those players off the All-State Team erases their accomplishments from this past season simply because they played an additional year. Therefore, this team was put together to showcase these impressive athletes and acknowledge what they achieved over the course of not only this season but their careers.
Kachi Nzeh. George School
Christian Bliss, George School
Thomas Haugh, Perkiomen School
Alassane Amadou, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy
Jordan Dill, Germantown Friends
Andrew Phillips, Malvern Prep
Ryan Williams, Malvern Prep
Mark Butler, Penn Charter
Will Riley, Phelps School
Christian Kirkland, Friends Select School
Deywilk Tavarez, Academy of the New Church
Jaren Morton, Springside Chestnut Hill Academy
Kevin McCarthy, Episcopal Academy
Luke Rasmussen, Haverford School
Bryce Rollerson, Germantown Academy
Luke Bevilacqua, George School
IV Pettit, Phelps School
Dante Weise, George School
Player of the Year: Kachi Nzeh, George School
Coach of the Year: Ben Luber, George School
Tag(s): Home Schools Inter Academic League Boys Basketball Inter-Ac Episcopal Acad Boys B-Ball Germantown Acad Boys B-Ball Haverford Basketball Malvern Prep Basketball Springside CH Boys Basketball Penn Charter Boys Basketball Non-Conference Friends Schools League ANC Friends Select George School Germantown Friends Westtown School Friends School League