By Josh Verlin
Will Chavis knew he had his work cut out for him when he took over the boys’ basketball program at Bishop McDevitt High School this May.
The Lancers had been an afterthought the three years prior to his arrival this offseason, winning all of two Catholic League games in the last three years — both times against fellow PCL basement-dweller Cardinal O’Hara. Last year, McDevitt went 4-18 overall and 1-12 in the Catholic League, with only one player averaging in double figures on the year.
There was no expectation of winning, inside or out. This is, after all, a program that’s never won a boys’ basketball league championship, whose definition of a successful season fell much shorter than those the minds of the Neumann-Goretti’s and Roman Catholics of the world.
Fast-forward eight months, and it’s clear that McDevitt has come quite a ways in a short period of time.
A win over West Philadelphia in a non-league game on Martin Luther King Day moved the Lancers to 10-2 on the season, which is two victories shy of its total from the last three years combined.
They’re an unbeaten 9-0 in non-league play — but more importantly, they’ve already picked up a win in Catholic League play. Last Friday, the Lancers traveled to Archbishop Ryan, which had just come off beating Archbishop Wood, and handed the Raiders a 71-63 defeat. That one game, Chavis said, opened plenty of eyes around the league.
McDevitt might not be ready to win a league championship this year — their non-conference record is spiffy, but the strength-of-schedule hasn’t been nearly as demanding as many other Catholic League teams — but no longer are the Lancers a guaranteed ‘W’ for their opponents.
“[Archbishop Carroll coach] Paul Romanczuk told me yesterday he had a guy at the Ryan game and they actually scouted McDevitt,” Chavis said. “In the past, that probably hasn’t happened, so that tells me people are paying attention to the kids and how hard they’re working.”
An Engineering & Sciences product who played his junior and senior seasons of college for Hall of Famer Bobby Knight at Texas Tech and then played professionally in Europe, Chavis got his first coaching experience at the high school level in Germany for several years.
He faced quite a challenge in his first few practices with McDevitt, quickly realizing he had a roster full of players who didn’t know what it took to be successful. The few seniors he had who had played varsity had been beaten down by years of losing; the more talented underclassmen Chavis had on the roster had no varsity experience at all.
“When I first got to McDevitt, there was a lot of dissention between the players, the feeling wasn’t just there,” he said. “Through open gyms and preseason, we came together a little bit, and continue to work hard.
“We have players that didn’t pay varsity that don’t know the Catholic League, and then we have payers that know the Catholic League but at a very low level, didn’t try to achieve anything,” Chavis added. “It’s meshing those two things together and try to get it all to come together so we can try to have one common goal, and that goal is to try to play as hard as possible to our potential.”
Two sophomore guards in particular seem to be leading the turnaround.
Point guard Ahmir Harris and shooting guard Robert Smith are making waves in their first year of varsity ball. Both spent their freshman season at Roman Catholic, Harris on the junior varsity team and Smith on the freshman squad. They both made the decision that Roman wasn’t for them; Smith was considering Valley Forge, but after Harris chose McDevitt, he decided to stick with his friend.
Now, they’re starting together at the varsity level.
“This has been a good start of the year, and we’ve just got to keep pushing to the top,” said Smith, a 6-foot-tall left-hander and the Lancers’ leading scorer at 15.5 ppg. “A lot of people said we weren’t supposed to be where we’re at right now.”
Harris, a 5-11 point guard with a strong frame and a confident floor game, gave a lot of credit to Chavis for showing the players the way, both in terms of developing the right mentality and on-court skill development.
“Some people were kind of scared [of him] at first because they’d never played at a high level, how he wants to play,” Harris said. “I was fine. He’s a nice guy, he’s a helpful coach, it was easy.
“He teaches us a lot of stuff…for me, certainly he helped me shooting-wise, now I can shoot, I really couldn’t shoot before. He boosts our confidence, the things he teaches us, he shows us ways to use it, he shows us it works.”
Smith and Harris aren’t the only sophomores who are seeing a healthy portion of playing time for McDevitt. Classmates Jamil Manigo and Shamir Mosley have both had double-figure scoring outputs in league play so far, and Kyle Hines is chipping in off the bench. Junior guard Seneca Willoughby and senior Da’Quane Williams are the two upperclassmen seeing the most minutes, along with senior guard Tahmir Thompson.
But the long-term success of this program depends on how those younger players develop over the next few seasons, and Chavis knows it.
“That’s a really tough thing, to build a program, because it’s going to take time,” Chavis said. “I think we have a good foundation because we started young…a program comes when you build players that people can associate with, so hopefully we can start with those guys to build a program that people can recognize and notice.”
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