Sunday, May 3, 2015

Clippers are the pride of Chester

Chester High basketball is riding another wave of success

Coach Larry Yarbray holds the 2012 state championship trophy, flanked by Darius Robinson (left) and Rondae Jefferson.
Coach Larry Yarbray holds the 2012 state championship trophy, flanked by Darius Robinson (left) and Rondae Jefferson. STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

At one end of Chester High School’s gymnasium — better known as the Clip Joint to all of its denizens — orange banners hang high on the wall. Like in most places, they serve to celebrate the school’s athletic accomplishments.

League and district titles in sports such as football and girls’ track are honored on these banners. What’s absent on the wall, though, is any mention of far and away the school’s most successful athletic program. The basketball banners have their own section.

Behind the opposite basket on the other side of the gym, white banners hang, all but one commemorating state championships won by the school’s powerhouse program. The message is simple, if unsaid: Basketball is what drives Chester High athletics, and when it comes to their true passion, school and town alike view Del Val League titles as nothing more than steppingstones to state championships.

“It’s a testament to the basketball culture in the city,” coach Larry Yarbray says of the program’s sustained success. “Everyone bleeds black and orange.”

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History and tradition are a big deal in Chester.

Seemingly everyone around town enjoys rattling off their favorite years: 1983, 1989, 1994, 2000, 2005, 2008, 2011 and 2012. And while the eight PIAA championships are a state record in basketball, they don’t tell the whole story.

No, eight seasons alone can’t encompass the rich history Chester basketball has enjoyed.

There are names like Granny Lash, Paul Williams, Zain Shaw, John Linehan and Jameer Nelson, to name a few. There are also talented teams that made memorable playoff runs not represented on a banner, including nine that fell short in the state title game.

In a city that places so much emphasis on the past, the current crop of Chester players has a healthy respect for those who came before them. At the same time, the program is enjoying the most successful era in its proud history because of the current crop. Even in Chester, consecutive state championships and an undefeated season had never been done. Before last season, that is.

The Clippers, who return three starters, enter the season ranked in the top five in almost every national poll. With such an accomplished core returning, it’s only natural to wonder if complacency will set in. Just how will these Clippers, winners of their last 58 games, stay motivated?

An answer to the tricky question comes into focus when watching the team practice: Basically, there’s no time to worry about motivation when the guy you’re playing against is trying to dunk on you.

“It’s a war in practice,” senior guard Darius “Day-Day” Robinson says.

Chester’s collective passion for the game leads to fierce internal competition on the court among everyone who picks up a basketball. There’s an attitude instilled from an early age that Yarbray sums up as “everybody wanting to be the man.”

This competitive spirit might be best manifested during Clipper practices, which are fastpaced and physical affairs. Oh, and there aren’t many rules, because they would just ruin a good thing. In Yarbray’s eyes, constant whistles take the juice out of a practice’s competitiveness.

“No out of bounds, no fouls, none of that in our gym,” he says. “Once you get accustomed to getting those type of things, you hesitate or make the wrong decisions during games.”

For most high school teams, even good ones, there is a distinct hierarchy at practices.

While the starters act as themselves, the second team is relegated to scout-team duty, trying to best simulate the next opponent for the starters’ benefit. At Chester, the reserves’ existence is predicated on trying to beat the first team at its game.

“Most of the time in previous years, practice was harder than the games,” Yarbray says. “You come in here and every drill was like a one-point game. You had guys diving into the bleachers to get the ball to their teammates because they wanted to win.”

Practice intensity is also buoyed by the fact that almost all second-teamers are part of the regular rotation. It’s only fitting that in Chester, with so many talented players, the team utilizes its deep talent pool to win game after game.

Chester’s game plan is simple, one based on strength in numbers. Maybe the other team’s top players can hang around with the Clippers, but they often don’t have an answer for Chester’s depth. So the starters play extremely hard and when they become tired, a talented substitute comes in fresh off the bench and does the same. It’s a vicious cycle for opponents.

“Most teams can’t go past their seventh man and they’re not accustomed [to going deeper],” Yarbray says. “You get to the eighth, ninth and 10th man and put them in pressure situations, it’s completely different [for them], and especially with the way we attack. It’s not like we are playing zone or halfcourt style. We’re up in your face.”

Besides internal competition, motivation also will come from Chester’s national schedule and the challenges it presents. Over the weekend the team is flying to Florida to play in the prestigious City of Palms Classic. There they will encounter a loaded field that features eight teams in MaxPreps.com’s Xcellent 25.

“I really believe you have four Division I ballplayers [on this team], so with that being said, we’re going to play against stiff competition,” Yarbray says.

Florida isn’t the only place where Chester will be on the national stage. In January, the Clippers will take trips to Wisconsin and Massachusetts to play two nationally ranked teams, Utah’s Lone Peak and Chicago’s Whitney Young. And if that weren’t enough, local power Neumann-Goretti waits in February for a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN2.

Suffice it to say, Yarbray isn’t shying away from putting his team’s winning streak on the line before the playoffs roll around. Then again, his team is equipped to play against the nation’s best. For starters, Yarbray has possibly the school’s best player since Nelson at his disposal in Rondae Jefferson.

The 6-7 small forward and Arizona commit does a little bit of everything for the Clippers.

Whether it’s scoring, passing, rebounding, blocking shots, or defending, Jefferson takes care of it. But mostly, and while it’s a tad redundant, he’s a very skilled player who plays with maximum effort.

When Jefferson refers to running hard and outworking his opponent as “little things,” he’s mistaken, at least in the opinion of those who have evaluated him. Playing hard is something coaches consider a skill, one a consensus of national recruiting analysts believes that Jefferson excels at.

“I just want to win so whatever it takes for me and my team to be successful, if that’s me scoring 10 or 20,” Jefferson says.

Over Jefferson’s career, Chester’s star player and his team have developed a mutually beneficial arrangement. Last season, the PIAA Class AAAA Player of the Year averaged only 12 points but was free to affect the game many other ways.

In return, his teammates took away any huge scoring burden that might have rested squarely on his shoulders at other schools. Add it all up and the Clippers didn’t lose.

“It’s not like ‘I gotta do this’ because you’ve got teammates that are going to help you,” Jefferson says. “You’ve got a great coaching staff that’s making things easier, putting you in situations that make the game better for you.”

Yarbray is a realist. He knows having Jefferson in the lineup makes his job a whole lot easier.

While the coach won’t oversell his best player as some sort of savior, he doesn’t play the role of curmudgeon and sell Jefferson’s impact short.

“Team sport,” Yarbray says.

“It’s [the team] going to roll with or without you. It might be a whole lot easier with [Rondae], don’t get me wrong, and I tell him that.”

Jefferson has grown accustomed to having plenty of help.

Robinson, a physical, 6-1 shooting guard, and Richard Granberry, an athletic, 6-7 center, also return from last year’s starting lineup. Steady point guard Rashan Dejarnette will lead the bench brigade.

When comparisons to last year’s team are brought up, the coaches and players seem to agree on one thing: They will miss the defense brought by tiny guards Kareem Robinsion (Day-Day’s brother) and Shanier Cottman, two players who thrived

playing the fullcourt pressure defense Yarbray employs.

“They were the best defensive players I’ve seen in a while,” Jefferson says.

The job of replacing them will be left to two impact transfers, guards Conrad Chambers (Friends’ Central) and Isaiah Warren (Archbishop Carroll).

Chambers holds scholarship offers from Temple, Drexel and Iowa State, among others.

The general feeling around this Chester team seems to be that while it’s possibly more skilled offensively, work needs to be done in order to match the defensive prowess that defined the 2011-12 Clippers.

Nonetheless, the Clippers still will play pressure defense. They still will win a bunch of games. They still will go 10 deep. For a city that truly bleeds orange and black, there always will be players to fill Yarbray’s rotation.

As long as he has a rotation to fill.

On Saturday afternoon, there is a buzz inside Showalter Intermediate School. A different type of school is in session.

There are bleachers on only one side of the gymnasium, so about 300 people are crammed on that side, a standing-room-only crowd. It’s a noisy group, one that will erupt on cue whenever one of the 6-, 7-, or 8-year-olds playing in the game scores a basket.

Talk with anybody in Chester about basketball, and the Biddy League gets brought up sooner rather than later. As much attention as the high school team receives, the future Clippers also are on the city’s collective mind, also doing their part to satisfy Chester’s insatiable appetite for hoops.

“Any given Saturday, you’ll see this many people come in and out of this gym,” says league president Ralph Dorsey, looking on at the games.

In a major sense, Chester’s unbridled enthusiasm for Clippers basketball is sentimental. At the Biddy League, the city cultivates their boys’ talents as basketball players and simultaneously watches them grow up.

When they are 4-6, players hear the same cheers they will hear when they skyrocket to 6- 4.

Chester takes immense pride in being along for the entire ride.

“A lot of those guys [on the team], we taught them how to tie their shoes before they could even dribble a basketball,” Dorsey says.

From a pure basketball standpoint, the Biddy League is an effi

cient machine, serving as one huge de facto farm system for the high school team. Case in point, every member of the current Chester team honed his skills in the Biddy League, a fact that doesn’t elude their coach.

“You get to see kids from the age of 6, 7 that can play and you get to see their progression,” Yarbray says. “By the time they get to 10, you can see, ‘Well, these four, five kids in this age bracket can play,’ and you can see the 11- and 12-year-olds that can play.”

Of course, basketball itself isn’t the only reason the Biddy League exists. According to Dorsey, one of the purposes of the program is to expose kids to role models like the league’s volunteer coaches. And the ultimate goal is to steer them away from the temptations of the city’s streets.

It’s no secret that Chester has its problems, including high crime and murder rates. While the city of around 34,000 people can take credit for producing an unusually high number of talented basketball players, there’s also a large amount of crime for a place its size. When Dorsey talks, it’s easy to tell that he has seen people slip through the cracks.

In addition to having worked in the city’s Department of Health, Dorsey is a barber. And in Chester, the barbershop serves as one of the community’s hubs. He openly admits to having given some people their very last haircuts.

On the other hand, Dorsey knows many people whose lives have gone the other way, such as school principals. That list includes himself, and Dorsey credits basketball for keeping him out of trouble. Knowing how the game helped keep his life on track, Dorsey tries to make sure his league emphasizes things besides basketball.

“The outlet is basketball, but ultimately what’s going to get [most of ] the kids through [to college] is academics,” says Chester Middle School coach Andre Moore. “For example, you never hear that Rondae Jefferson is an honor-roll student, but he is.”

Moore is a teacher at Toby Farms Intermediate School, so he has firsthand knowledge of how both athletics and academics work in the school district.

Like people at all levels of Chester basketball, Moore emphasizes the enjoyment he takes in being involved with something positive. The underlying message is right there if you listen carefully: They don’t like how their city is portrayed.

“There’s a lot of great people in Chester,” Moore says.

Unfortunately for Chester High basketball, the program is facing a much larger hurdle than any body they will face on the court this season. The financial troubles of the Chester Upland School District, which came close to shutting down completely last year, are threatening the school’s future. And with it, Chester’s main source of civic pride, the basketball team.

Despite the very real threat, Yarbray says the turmoil won’t hang over the team simply because it has no control over the situation. When asked about how community support of the schools compares to that of the basketball program, he answers matter- of-factly.

“If we had that [level of support], we might not be in this predicament if you ask me,” he says.

“We need more parents to come out, stand up and speak.”

The Chester Upland School District situation could have huge implications on Pennsylvania’s basketball landscape.

With all of the talent in Chester, the district can’t hold onto all of its star basketball players as it is. If the school shuts down, that number likely will increase dramatically.

Two members of last year’s Philadelphia Catholic League first team, Roman Catholic’s Shep Garner and Archbishop Carroll’s Yosef Yacob, hail from Chester. And there are many others playing at schools all over the region. But if Chester High closes, where will future Rondaes, Day-Days and Riches end up? It’s an interesting question, one everyone in Chester hopes they won’t have to face.

In the 9-10 age bracket of the Biddy League, the talent and potential already are on display.

There are three-pointers, stepback jumpers, no-look passes, crossovers, and all other types of advanced moves. Just like the high school practices, the Biddy League is very competitive.

So competitive that Chester’s current McDonald’s All-American candidate won a total of one championship during the time he played in the Biddy League — from the ages of 5 to 12. Just one.

“Around that time I was just a defensive-player type guy, just having fun with it,” Jefferson says. “I dribbled a lot because I didn’t have a lot of help on my team, so that made me a better dribbler.”

On a Tuesday night, the Clip Joint is packed for the first game of the season, a capacity crowd on hand by the time the junior varsity game starts. After all, it’s been 262 days since people of Chester had last seen their Clippers play.

“It’s electric, packed, standing-room- only,” Yarbray says. “This is the fun time for the community.”

With a nod to the past, the 1983 and 1989 teams are honored before the game to loud applause. After the ceremony, the current players take the floor, in what they believe will be the first step toward a threepeat.

Chester’s opponent is McCaskey High School from Lancaster. The Red Tornado are coached by former Clipper Steve “Bird” Powell, a starter on the 1966-67 team that went 27-0 before losing in the state title game to an historically great Ambridge team. McCaskey entered the season ranked sixth in Class AAAA by the Harrisburg Patriot-News.

With an Arizona assistant looking on, Jefferson starts the season with a bang. After his reach-behind steal ends up in the hands of Robinson, Jefferson leaks out ahead of the pack and throws down an emphatic dunk to start the season off. He would score the Clippers’ first eight points and 13 of 21 in the quarter.

The stands are full of kids wearing Chester jerseys, soaking up the atmosphere, dreaming of taking the floor one day.

Jefferson and Robinson are good examples of players who were exposed to the program at a young age. Just 5 years ago, it was Nasir Robinson and Rahlir Jefferson leading the Clippers.

Day-Day and Rondae were the kids in the stands, cheering on their older brothers.

“I was always like, ‘I can’t wait to get here,’ ” Robinson says.

The game is broken open during a 28-9 second quarter, one in which Chester flexes its bench muscles. Dejarnette, who would start for almost all of the other teams in the state, looks very comfortable running the Clipper attack. After the Clippers get off to a rocky start with sloppy passes that result in turnovers, their sixth man comes in and settles them down, finishing the game with 13 points.

“It really doesn’t even matter,”

Dejarnette says of coming off the bench. “I just get in [the game] and do what I have to do.”

Also noteworthy is 6-2 Diamonte Reason, the 11th Clipper to see the floor and an intriguing athlete. At different points in the second quarter, Reason skies over the rim for a tip-in and knocks down a deep three with ease. Again, he was the sixth player to come off the bench, right before someone many consider to be a future star, fresh- man forward Marquis Collins.

Another sub that has his own story is Warren, who made his debut for the orange and black after playing previously at Carroll. Warren’s father, Brian, used to be the JV coach at Chester.

“It was a great experience,” he says of his first game at the Clip Joint. “With people I know and grew up with, I enjoy playing for them.”

Warren is involved in the only truly scary moment of the night for the Clippers, a two- on-zero alley-oop to Jefferson that goes awry. After the play, Jefferson laid on the floor in pain for about a minute, before getting up without any assistance while wearing a smile on his face. He returned to play the second half, albeit while running gingerly, and ended the game with a ho-hum line of 19 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and three steals.

While Warren and Jefferson laughed off the botched play after the game, the moment served as a stark reminder about the program’s uncertain future. Maybe Chester looks invincible now, but there might not be many future alley-oops to laugh off if the school-district situation doesn’t improve.

Fred Pickett has seen his fair share of great players at Chester. The coach from whom Yarbray took the reins in 2008 won 331 games and three state titles in his 13 years as head basketball coach.

After Chester’s 83-57 win, Pickett stands on the court and starts identifying former players who made contributions to the program’s success. He points to multiple guys as they file out of the Clip Joint with the rest of the crowd.

“The history is all over the place,” he says, smiling.

No more than with the current group.

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