IT HAS BEEN MORE THAN a decade since Upper Darby has started a basketball season 6-0.
The Royals were expected to be pretty good this season, but not this good, not this fast. Upper Darby was a very young team, learning a new motion offense, when it went 10-11 in 2009-10. Consequently, the Royals didn't qualify for the District 1 playoffs for the first time in a while.
The Royals had five losses by three or fewer points. That's not been the case this year. In fact, the Royals might have been the most exciting team to watch in the first month of the season. Two of their six wins have come on buzzer-beaters by junior Brandon Hashim.
"I think we're playing right where I expected," said coach Bob Miller, who is in his ninth season. "We had a really good summer, the kids hit the weight room and did a lot of the things we expected them to do. To be 6-0, that is a little unexpected, in the way we've done it. You get a little lucky with the buzzer-beaters."
It just happened to be the same player - Hashim - who did it twice in 2 weeks. On Dec. 11 against Germantown Academy, the Royals never led until the end of the game, and were down by nine points entering the fourth quarter. They chiseled that down, setting the stage for Hashim's first round of heroics. He nailed a 15-footer as the buzzer went off, giving Upper Darby a 62-61 victory over GA.
Then, last Thursday against Lower Merion, Hashim hit a shot at the top of the key to beat the Aces, 48-47.
A 6-1 junior guard, Hashim is leading the Royals in scoring with 13.8 points per game, followed by 6-5 senior wing Terrence Bridgers (10.9 points) and 6-5, 230-pound senior center DeRon Harris (10.8).
"That's a big key, spreading it around and having three players who can score like that," Miller said. "Hashim has been there every night, but we've been spreading it around and that's caused some problems for other teams."
Upper Darby has also made 15 more treys than opponents this season, averaging seven a game. The Royals have seen different types of defenses, from man-to-man to triangle-and-twos to various presses. Still, the Royals have answered.
What's also bolstered Upper Darby's success is its defense. Since the first two games, the Royals haven't given up more than 47 points in a game.
"It's been kind of crazy in the Central League so far, and some of the teams that were down last year, their level has come up, and we don't expect to go undefeated," Miller said. "We are surprised to be 6-0, but in back-to-back-to-back games, we still have Conestoga, Ridley and Lower Merion. The best thing about that is we'll get some of those games at home. I absolutely like what I see so far. We're 6-0 and we can't stop what we're doing."
Chester had a tough season last year - by Chester standards, that is. The Clippers seem to be playing with a vengeance this year, starting 5-0. It's beyond where the Clippers were last year, when they finished 16-11 with a young team that has returned 10 players. A record of 16-11 can be acceptable in a lot of places, but not Chester.
"With the work my returning players put in, I knew we'd have a good start; we had a lot of close losses last year," coach Larry Yarbray said. "The guys got stronger and got used to playing with each other. The way we lost last year, losing a lot of good, close games, the kids had to learn through that adversity. The kids felt disrespected. It was a bitter taste in their mouths. They've been working their tails off and with Penn Wood right up the street getting all the attention, the kids see what's going on and want to do something about it. We're back to playing the type of up-tempo style Chester is used to playing."
The Clippers have relied on a nucleus featuring Erikk Wright, Lamon Church, DeQuann Walker, Maurice Nelson, Rondae Jefferson, Kareem Robinson and Richard Grandbury.
It's very possible that the best two teams not only in Delaware County but in District 1, could be 2010 state finalist Penn Wood and Chester. The first step in their Del-Val League rivalry will come Jan. 6 when the Clippers host Penn Wood, with the second game Feb. 1 at Penn Wood; that game will likely be played at a neutral site.
"We have more help, with Lamon Church and DeQuann, and we're going hard in practice," Wright said. "We do think we have to prove something this year. Last year, we weren't a typical Chester High team. This year, we are. We're able to put full-court pressure on, and
we're much bigger physically. We're much more experienced and I think that's been a big key."
Strath Haven coach Tom Dougherty has a team full of athletes. He thought his team would be OK, able to hang with any anyone in the Central League. But there have been signs that the Panthers could be better than OK, after going 11-11 and losing in the first round of the District 1 Class AAA playoffs last year.
It was a matter of staying healthy and being consistent.
The Panthers have gotten that message the first month of this season, going 5-2 overall, 2-2 in the league, including a nice victory against Ridley. Strath Haven, behind Chazz Fisher, Omar Randall, Christian Martin and Chris Keenan, has been a surprise in a helter-skelter Central League, which seems to be wide-open.
"It's a long season and a lot of things could happen, and you don't know what could happen with us," Dougherty said. "We had 44 summer-league games and that plays a big part of our good start. The players were pretty good in juggling their various schedules. We may have two or three basketball-only players. But I do like what I see and where we are right now. Not being used to winning, 5-2 is certainly a great start to our program." *