The Del Val League coaches were at a rules clinic in early November, when Academy Park coach Rick Pergolini couldn't resist the urge. Pergolini leaned in toward Penn Wood coach Clyde Jones with a mischievous grin and asked, "Will you guys be scrimmaging the Sixers any time soon?" Jones darted Pergolini a sideways look and laughed.
Yes, the expectations are that high this season for Penn Wood, a team that has never won the Del Val League title in basketball. The Patriots also play in what could arguably be the best league in the state, with defending PIAA District 1 Class AAAA state champion Chester and perennial power Glen Mills.
Penn Wood, Chester and Glen Mills all have the talent and coaching for any of those schools to go deep into the Class AAAA playoffs in February.
But right now, everyone is staring at Penn Wood, which went 23-9 last season, reaching the state quarterfinals. Six of Penn Wood's nine losses came against state finalists Chester and Norristown.
Every key player returns for the Pats, led by 6-6 senior forward Duane Johnson, quicksilver 5-10 junior point guard Tyree Johnson, 6-8, 250-pound sophomore Shawn Oakman and 6-8 senior Thomas White. Making Penn Wood even stronger is the addition of 6-4 sophomore Aaron Brown, who lives in Yeadon and transferred to Penn Wood after starting as a freshman for Catholic League power Roman Catholic last year.
The season hasn't begun, though the hype continues to grow. Jones constantly tells his team it hasn't won anything yet. He also hammers home that a team that's willing to be selfless will succeed.
"The Del Val has always belonged to Chester or Glen Mills," Jones said. "Potential is just that; you don't win any type of crown or any game on potential. Hype could make some kids crack, or our kids could embrace it. My whole point to my team is when you place yourself in a position to win, you have to expect expectations. It's time to deal with them."
Lurking out there is a good young Chester team, which enters this season on a 25-game winning streak after going 33-1 last year, winning the sixth state championship in school history, and second in the last 4 years.
Larry Yarbray takes over for legendary coach Fred Pickett, and inherits a team that returns 6-7 senior forward Rahlir Jefferson, a Temple recruit, and junior guard Laquan Robinson. Yarbray will have 11 new players this season. Watch for these four freshmen: 5-8 guard Kareem Robinson, 6-1 forward Eric Wright, 6-2 guard Jameer Porter, and 6-4 forward Rahmir Green, Jefferson's younger brother.
"People would be making a mistake to look past Chester," Yarbray said. "We'll readjust the lineup and find a solution. We're going to be a great defensive team, challenging and contesting. Once we get it all together, we're going to be a great team. We'll just need to be patient."
If Penn Wood and Chester weren't enough, there is Glen Mills and one of the best big men in the country, 6-10 senior Aaric Murray, who has committed to La Salle.
Bulls coach Craig Mellinger also returns 6-3 senior forward Darnell Plummer, 6-4 senior forward Tyreke Gass, 6-5 junior forward Anthony Hall and 5-9 senior guard Reggie Miles. The Bulls were 19-7, losing in the second round to state runner-up Norristown last year.
"I expect a lot of good nights this year," Mellinger said. "We have kids back who know our system. And of course, we have the big guy, which speaks for itself. This should be Aaric's breakout year. He was still learning the game last year. With all the experience and exposure he received this summer, his knowledge is instinctive now."
Academy Park finished 12-12 overall and lost to Lower Merion in the opening round of the Class AAAA playoffs. The Knights return one starter, senior 5-11 guard Devon Cain. Pergolini is looking for contributions from 6-5 senior Devin Hunter, 6-4 senior Kenny Green, and 6-2 junior Brandon Jackson. Point guard will be a battle between 5-10 sophomore Jordan Tucker and 5-8 junior Taylor Boulware.
Tom Dougherty takes over as coach at Chichester, which went 14-11 and returns 6-4 senior forward Dan Clapp, 6-3 senior guard Malik Carter and 6-2 junior forward Brian Parker.
Interboro's Anthony DiNicola enters his second year as coach of the Bucs, who were 6-17 overall last year, and return 6-2 senior guard Jake MacCrone and 6-foot junior forward Will Harrison. *