By Rich Flanagan
Chris Conlan was a member of Penncrest’s staff for the last three seasons. He can recall the success the Lions had against neighborhood rival Strath Haven on the hardwood in that time. He remembers holding the Panthers to 23 points in their first meeting of the 2018-19 season, one of several nightmarish contests those Pantehrs endured in a 3-19 campaign.
Conlan was “a Penncrest guy” growing up, but his cousins attended the Media Bowl rival, so he was going to his fair share of Panthers games. When the head coaching position at Strath Haven became available in the offseason, Conlan jumped at the opportunity. He led the team to the district playoffs in Year 1 and added another accolade to his resume Wednesday night.
Luke Edwards scored 16 points, including five in the fourth quarter, and forward Robbie Guilday added 11 points and six rebounds as Strath Haven held off Holy Ghost Prep, 54-46 in a District 1 Class 5A playback final to advance to the state playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Conlan is setting a new foundation within the Panthers program. Bringing a young team to the state tournament is a tremendous start in that effort.
“Everyone bought in,” Conlan said. “All of the coaches and especially the players. To go from three wins to the state tournament is pretty impressive. For them, that’s a testament to them buying in and pushing each other.”
Edwards scored the first two buckets of the contest on 3-pointers but did not have another field goal in the opening half. Guilday stepped up, particularly in the second quarter, scoring eight of his points. His last bucket of that quarter was a layup from the left side off of an assist from Ibo Pio (six points) to give the Panthers (17-9) a 21-15 lead with 1:36 remaining until halftime.
The importance of the win to the Panthers’ resurgent season was about more than just the states berth for Guilday.
“We want to leave our legacy and we want future teams to remember us,” Guilday said. “Most importantly, we want to build our program back up from the bottom.”
Tyler Mish led the way for the Firebirds (25-4), the Bicentennial Athletic League champions, with 25 points. He sank two free throws to cut the deficit to one in the second quarter, but Will George drilled one of his two triples in the third to push the lead back to four at the 4:09 mark.
Edwards, who hit two baskets to help the Panthers close out the third on a 12-5 run, noted that last year’s struggles were the driving force this season.
“It’s a really exciting moment,” the junior said. “We worked really hard for this. Every practice, we talked about how we were 3-19 last year and we wanted to prove to everyone that we can make a run and go far.”
The Firebirds had their chances in the fourth. Jack McDermott scored in the lane then Mish hit two free throws to cut the lead to 44-42 with 1:55 remaining. The Panthers iced the win by hitting 10 of their final 14 shots from the charity stripe with Holy Ghost Prep over the foul limit. The Firebirds only converted two field goals in the final two minutes.
Strath Haven will face Unionville in the fifth-place game Friday to determine seeding for the state tournament.
While Strath Haven may have fallen to Penncrest three times this season, including in the Central League semifinals and district quarterfinals, they will both be playing in March. Strath Haven could potentially meet the Lions once again in states. But for now, they will celebrate a return to the state tournament for the first time in over a decade.