Wherever Penn Wood goes this boys' basketball season, it will probably be in direct correlation to the play of Aaron Brown and Shawn Oakman.
Sure, these guys can play. Brown has a scholarship to West Virginia already inked. Oakman, also a standout defensive end, is going to Penn State to play football but wants to, and might very well, play both sports in college.
High school players don't get much more athletic than these two, and their games blend well with each other. Oakman, who is 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, is a bruiser in the paint, someone whom Patriots coach Clyde Jones calls "mean and nasty" on the court. Brown averaged nearly 19 points and 6.5 rebounds as a junior, and, at 6-5, has the versatility to handle the ball.
But Oakman and Brown, who are trying to lead Penn Wood to the PIAA Class AAAA state final for the third straight year, bring another component to the hardwood that might help their team more than anything else - resolve.
"More important than anything," Jones said, "those two guys have brought a work ethic and a tenacity to Penn Wood basketball, and that's just been incredible. Their leadership is incredible."
To overcome last season's harsh end, leadership is what Penn Wood needs. Just weeks after the Patriots beat Plymouth Whitemarsh for the District 1 title, Penn Wood lost to the Colonials in the Class AAAA state championship game. That halted the Patriots' 24-game win streak. They finished 27-4 overall and 9-0 in the Del-Val League.
Oakman concedes that the loss was difficult to take. With their senior year on tap, the two Penn Wood stars talk about focus, hard work, and rectifying past mistakes. A state crown, like the one they won as sophomores, would be the toast of the season.
"I believe we're going to be right back in the same predicament as last year," Brown said, "playing for a state title."
Oakman and Brown are the only two returning starters. The roster lost four seniors from last season's rotation, including Tyree Johnson, who Brown said was the team's "floor general" and primary ball-handler.
To fill the void, Penn Wood will look to sophomore Jerry Price and senior Akil Anderson to handle the point, though Brown, in high-pressure situations, might assume those duties. Darian Barnes, at 6-8, will aid Oakman on the front line.
Except for Plymouth Whitemarsh's C.J. Aiken (now a 6-9 freshman at St. Joseph's) in the state final, Jones can't recall a single big man Oakman hasn't shut down or neutralized in his varsity career. To boot, the coach credits Oakman's high basketball IQ with enabling the team to run complicated sets.
Brown began high school as a pure power forward, unable to shoot much or dribble. Now, he's as sure-handed as any player on the Pats' roster and applies perimeter ball pressure on defense, and he led the team in three-point shooting as a junior.
All those factors, coupled with the drive to reclaim the state title they won as sophomores, have these Penn Wood players eager for the season to begin.
"We bring that intensity to the floor no matter who we're playing," Brown said, referring to the team as a whole but primarily himself and Oakman. "We have that intensity. . . . And to go against players like that, it's pretty hard to beat because they go with a will that's unstoppable."