One way to describe Simon Gratz’s season-defining, 71-60 victory over perennial power Imhotep Charter on Dec. 17 would be to note that relentless ball pressure and dribble penetration from the Bulldogs’ guards were too much for the Panthers.
Another way would be to say that the gnats drove the cats nuts.
“They are relentless and amazing,” Gratz coach Lynard Stewart said of his trio of diminutive, dynamic, and doggedly determined senior guards. “If I was on an opposing team, I wouldn’t want to see three guards running around chasing me around, hounding me.
“They’ve been amazing all year, and that’s why we are where we are.”
Gratz (20-4) will face Math, Civics and Sciences (21-5) in the Public League championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Liacouras Center at Temple University.
Gratz’ resurgence from a team that went 3-7 in Public League Division A play last season to the brink of the proud program’s first league title since 2008 can be traced directly to the work of senior guards Yassir Stover, Yasir Rowell, and Edward Harris.
The trio dominated Gratz’ 70-39 victory over Lincoln in the semifinals Tuesday night at South Philadelphia High in a clinical display of the ability of three skilled, speedy playmakers to control action at both ends of the court.
“This is exactly how I planned it," said Rowell, who is in his first year at Gratz after transferring from Eastern Charter. “It started off with AAU with these two in the summer, and our connection has just gotten better and better.
“Every time we play with each other, we already know what’s going on. It’s so much fun. It’s just amazing.”
The 5-foot-7 Rowell is the daring driver, regularly getting to the rim and finishing in traffic among defenders who often are a foot taller. He averages 12.2 points.
The 5-11 Stover is the outside threat, the team’s top three-point shooter and leading scorer with a 17.2 average.
The 5-7 Harris is the pure point guard, specializing in defense and passing. He leads the team in steals and assists.
“As the point guard, I need to be the leader of the team, try to keep everybody together,” Harris said. “We turn it up on defense because defense is where it starts.”
The three guards said their unique chemistry on the court stems from long hours in the summer in AAU practices and games.
“In AAU season, it was us three, playing hard, and we carried it over to this high school season,” Stover said. “We play hard, bring the energy.”
The trio’s energy and competitiveness make for spirited practices.
“We go hard against each other,” Harris said. “We want better for each other.”
Said Stover: “Edward, he’s guarding me all the time, telling he’s got me cornered, just to make me go harder. We do it to each other, and that got us where we’re at today.”
The 6-7 Stewart was a star at Gratz and Temple. But he was a small forward as a player, spending time on the wing and in the paint.
As a coach, he’s found a way to make the best of a three-guard lineup on a squad that also features senior swingmen Ross Carter and Kyyon Gordon and senior center Duane Satchell.
“You talk to any coach, they’re going to talk about their guards first,” Stewart said. “You can have a big, but you need guards. And I just so happen to be blessed to have three of them.
“We took advantage of that. We started the season and I knew I had three guards and I was like, ‘How do I figure out how to play these guys and get the maximum out of them?’”
The season started with eight straight wins, highlighted by that victory over three-time league champion Imhotep Charter. In that game, Stover (18), Rowell (14), and Harris (13) combined for 45 points.
They might have played their best overall game since that win over Imhotep Charter on Tuesday night vs. Lincoln, powering Gratz to a 37-11 lead at halftime with relentless ball pressure on defense and crisp ball movement on offense.