There were no television cameras inside that gym on Route 352 in Lima. No confetti dropped from the ceiling. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of their league — winning it last week meant as much to Penn State Brandywine players as whatever happens in the days ahead at Madison Square Garden or anywhere, in the Big East or the Big Ten.
That comeback when the whole thing seemed to be getting away from them? Their point guard from West Philly wondering if he should get out after a string of turnovers? That same point guard took the game over, bringing home the title.
Those Penn State Brandywine seniors took a jagged journey to even be in that Delaware County gym playing for a Penn State University Athletic Conference title, in a league for the Penn State campuses that aren’t yet in the NCAA, playing for the chance to get on a bus this week and go play for a national title.
Who cares if most people have never heard of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association. This was the first league title for Penn State Brandywine. Anyone in the gym last week saw these guys could play with NCAA Division III schools, had certainly put as much into the game.
That point guard who took things over? Donte Winfield also works the front desk at the Marriott Courtyard in Springfield a few nights a week, sometimes missing practice. New coach Ben Kay, a former West Chester assistant, can live with that. Kay knew when he took over that he wanted Winfield to run his team.
“Ben called me at 2 a.m.,’’ said Winfield, a former Simon Gratz High player who had played junior-college ball in Maryland.
“I said, ‘I’ve got to call him, like, right now,’ ’’ Kay remembered telling himself. “He’s probably awake.”
“I was awake,’’ Winfield said.
Another key senior, West Chester transfer Terrence Brown, who played high school ball at Communications Tech, grew up around the corner from Winfield in West Philadelphia. They just had no idea they’d grown up around the corner from each other until Kay drove them home one night and went to the same place.
Winfield and another senior, James Fisher, who played at Upper Darby High but has deep West Philly roots, go back a decade, from the days playing at the Jewish Community Center on Haverford Road at City Line Avenue. Fisher works days as a teacher’s aide at Chester High, then gets to practice and takes night classes. He’s the team veteran, in his fifth year at the school.
None of them necessarily expected to be playing ball for Brandywine this season, including the holdover.
“I was the one they called uncoachable,’’ Fisher said.
Fisher didn’t dispute it. He always played hard, but that was his rep, and the new coach saw why. Maybe a week into practice, Kay sat with Fisher, asked if he wanted to coach — that’s what he’d heard. Fisher said he did.
“Could you coach yourself?’’ Kay asked. “What would you say to yourself?”
The conversation hit home. Fisher turned into one of his leaders, Kay said.
Brown hadn’t seen much playing time at West Chester but said Kay didn’t push him on Brandywine. There was no 2 a.m. phone call.
“It had to be his decision,’’ the coach said. No chance they win the league without Brown, Kay added.
“I had a chip on my shoulder,’’ Brown said of not playing at his last stop.
An 18-0 run by Penn State Wilkes-Barre, from 8 down to 10 up early in the second half of the league title game, started after Brown, the leading scorer to that point, got hit in the head and had to come out. He didn’t return until Brandywine was down. Three straight Winfield turnovers also contributed to the run.
“Back to back to back,’’ Winfield said. “I almost gave the game away.”
He turned to his coach and said, “Take me out.”
“I looked at him like he had 55 heads,’’ Kay said, ignoring the thought.
“He let go,’’ Brown said. “Next thing you know, he scored back to back, had an and-one. The look in his eyes, he was in the zone. Just let him go.”
All three of these guys talk about how incredibly special the whole thing is, this run when the sport had almost turned them loose.
“We know a lot of guys get washed up,’’ Winfield said. “Guys we grew up with. I didn’t want to be that.”
A friend playing professionally in Mexico texted Winfield that he’d never won a college title. Those days that never seemed to end, choosing between practice and a paycheck, were worth it now. Nobody knows this league? Nobody knows what national title they’re playing for this week? Nobody traveled this path.
Winfield will be back working the front desk next week. No missed practices lately. March Madness includes them.
“I took off this week from work,’’ he explained.