The PIAA District 1 title is like a family heirloom to the Chester High basketball program, passed carefully, guardedly from one Clippers team to the next. Each year, the thought prevails that they don't want to be the ones who drop what has been built by previous Chester teams and passed to them.
The legacy is that important, dating back to grown men who by now are out of college and in their mid-20s.
But this Chester team has a larger vision of success - and winning its seventh straight PIAA District 1 Class AAAA championship yesterday with a 61-47 victory over previously undefeated Norristown at Villanova's Pavilion was just a step toward its ultimate quest of winning a state title.
The victory marked a district-record 36th straight tournament win for the Clippers, who previously shared the streak with Lower Merion set in 1944. It was also Chester's 20th straight victory.
Winning the district crown means the Clippers' path to a state title might come a little easier, with games closer to home, when Chester (28-1) begins the state tournament Saturday against Williamsport at a site and time to be determined.
Chester's ravenous defense - led by the steady inside play of Russell Johnson, Nasir Robinson, Rahlir Jefferson, and some key contributions from Mark Burrell - spelled the difference against Norristown (28-1).
Chester's Karon Burton (20 points) was the game's top scorer, while Pittsburgh-bound Robinson added 18 points and 12 rebounds and Johnson collected 12 points and five rebounds.
What won't show is the stellar defense Johnson, Jefferson, Robinson, Burrell and Mark Collins played.
They stifled Norristown's attempts to drive to the basket, like a four-headed octopus extending its tentacles, forcing Eagles guards to alter their shots every time they entered the lane.
"We went big tonight and that's something I haven't done that much this year," Chester coach Fred Pickett said. "But we also had to do some adjusting with our lineup, which forced us to do things differently."
With Kevin Green-Germany, Chester's outside sniper, strapped to the bench in early foul trouble, the Clippers trailed throughout much of the first half until Robinson's slam with 3 minutes, 53 seconds left in the second quarter them up, 18-17. From there, Chester never was behind again, building a 22-18 lead by halftime.
But the Clippers did so surviving perhaps their worst quarter this season, when they started out in a 5-0 hole and couldn't hold on to the ball in the opening period.
In the first 8 minutes, it was hard to tell which team was the six-time district champion and which team hadn't won a district title in nearly two decades (Norristown last won a district title in 1990). The cool veneer Chester has carried throughout this season was torn away to reveal a skittish, unsure team that turned the ball over on its first three possessions and didn't score until 5 minutes were left in the quarter.
Pickett had enough of the uncharacteristic play and called a timeout with 5:50 left in the opening quarter. He pulled his team together and emphatically pointed his right index finger downward to the court.
"Coach Pickett basically told us to relax and keep our heads, stay focused and we'd be OK," Robinson said.
"We let the emotions and the atmosphere get to us," Johnson said. "We knew that wasn't us. Once we calmed down, we were OK."
Pickett never had any doubts: "This team has played the most grueling schedule of any team I've ever been associated with at Chester. We were a little out of character, but I thought what we were going through was more self-inflicted than anything they were doing. We were hurting ourselves."
Once the Clippers got under control, the game began turning their way.
Pickett let his team bask in collecting yet another district title, but it didn't come with hoopla or excessive hugs and high-fives. The newest trophy for the Chester award case came with a business-like grin.
"It's nice we won this for a seventh straight time, but winning the district doesn't really mean anything to us," Burton said. "We've kept the attitude this whole season that we haven't won anything yet until we win the state title. It's the only thing that counts to us." *
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