Deep rotation, fast pace has TCA on quite a roll

By Matthew DeGeorge

As Christian Academy coach Malik Walker surveyed his team in the off season, he knew he’d have to find a way to replace his leading scorer from 2018-19. But he was also sure that he returned some very valuable assets for that quest. In his fourth year at the helm, Walker knew that this year’s team would include an eight strong senior class, most of whom he’d had in the program since they were freshmen. So even though Tehron Phillips, who averaged 15 points per game on an 11-11 team last year, was gone, there were plenty of ingredients for success.

The special spice to the mixture, though, is an up-tempo style that has TCA averaging 71.5 points per game, tops in Delco this season. And the payoff is a 13-3 record, including a 10-0 start in the Bicentennial League.

“Being that I’m starting three guards, they bring a lot of energy to the court,” Walker said this week. “That’s one of the things that I wanted coming into the season, to be an up-tempo team. We’ve been preaching that to them through preseason workouts, open gyms, just to get on the fast break as much as we can.”

The Crusaders haven’t gotten to their prolific scoring numbers the usual way. They’re in the middle of the pack in terms of 3-pointers made (69 in 16 games, just 4.3 per contest). And they aren’t skewed by a few big games: They’ve topped 90 points twice but have landed in the 70’s on seven occasions. TCA is the only Delco boys squad averaging more than 70 points per game, with Bonner-Prendergast next at 69.7. Only eight teams are over the 60-point mark.

Instead, the secret is a deep rotation that allows TCA to push the pace. Walker has an 11-man roster at his disposal; all 11 have played in at least 13 games this season. Five players have scored more than 100 points, led by 1,000-point career scorer Grant Sareyka (315 points, 19.7 per game). But all 11 players have scored at least 25 points this season, indicative of balanced contributions.

That balance reinforces Walker’s eagerness to go to his bench early and often, with eight seniors and three juniors on the team. And it alleviates worries about players tiring.

“I feel like I have two starting fives really,” he said. “I don’t feel discouraged if I have to look down the bench and grab one of our reserves. We shouldn’t miss a beat.”

The road gets tougher, starting with Friday’s trip to Dock Mennonite for Bicentennial supremacy. TCA’s next three games are on the road. But the Crusaders are firmly entrenched as the second playoff seed in District 1 Class 2A, which sends two teams to states.

••• Episcopal Academy’s non-league schedule didn’t exactly go to plan this year. But compared to what transpired last season, it was infinitely more manageable.

A year ago, second-leading scorer Alex Capitano missed seven games, all in the league. He’d scored in double-figures every game until he got hurt Jan. 8 against at Penn Charter. The Churchmen entered that game with an 8-7 record; they finished 11-14.

This year had the potential to go down the same path. Capitano was injured Dec. 4, and the Colgate commit missed five games and most of a sixth. Four of his absences overlapped with Andrew Alikakos’ seven-game stint out, and Alikakos’ first game back was the first out for fellow starter Malcolm Folk.

But first-year coach Brian Shanahan has kept it together for the Churchmen,

who are 9-11 after a daunting non-league schedule.

“In the out of league, we played a lot of tough teams, and it can go either way out of league,” Capitano said last week after a 46-34 handling of Haverford School. “It’s not like the league, there’s not scouting, so you never know who’s going to step up in those games. And we had a lot of those games, so they prepare us for games like this.”

Capitano is averaging 18.5 points per game. He scored 33 in his first game back, then went off for 40 in a win over Ohio’s Western Reserve to snap a six-game losing streak. Alikakos is averaging 11.1 points per game, including double-figures his last four outings and a career-high 27 points last Friday. Colin Chambers (10.4 ppg, team-high 45 3-pointers) helped keep the team afloat amid the absences as EA has won six of nine.

••• The battle for the top District 1 Class A seed will come down to TCA and Chester Charter Scholars Academy. In the head-to-head Jan. 8, the Sabers had the edge, a 61-56 win.

CCSA has an 11-4 record, and the losses are to the presumptive top seed in Class 2A (Dock Mennonite, which they avenged a week later) and three of the top four seeds in Class 5A (West Chester East, Penncrest and Unionville).

But more impressive is how they’ve gotten there, and the third-year varsity program in its first campaign under Dan Spangler has shown a lot of toughness. The Sabers won the Wilmington Christian Tournament despite missing two starters, Bruce Rogers and Sean DeShields, for the weekend. Once they came back, Tyler Howard, the 6-10 junior who has shown great improvement this year as a nightly double-double threat and leading scorer at 8.5 ppg, missed two games.

All three are back, which puts CCSA in a strong spot. And with two spots available for District 1 teams in the state tournament, both they and TCA could find themselves making history.