Not even minutes removed from a 78-40 loss to powerhouse Imhotep Charter in the PIAA Class 5A boys basketball final, Exeter’s Reece Garvin and Kevin Saenz were looking ahead.
The two players were vocal in postgame interviews about the work that they would immediately undertake to get back to another deep postseason run. Eight months later, that same focus has not left the seniors’ mindsets in the slightest.
“I think our expectations should be how far we went last year,” Garvin said. “We should carry out the momentum from last season and do bigger and better things. We were 1-for-3 on championships last year. Hopefully we will get there for three more this year.”
“We’ve been getting better since March 27, as soon as the state championship was over,” Saenz said. “Staying in the gym, playing clubs, AAU and different summer leagues. Just trying to play with different kids that you don’t see very often and trying to get better.”
After playing in the Berks Conference championship game, winning the District 3 Class 5A title and making it to the last possible game of the season, it’s clear that nothing short of the same will suffice for the Eagles’ senior leaders this season.
During the 2022-23 season, Exeter went 27-7, won its first division title since 1984, its first District 3 title in program history and advanced to the PIAA championship game for the first time since 1974. Not to mention, the Eagles held a 10-point lead over eventual PIAA Class 6A champion Reading High in the Berks Conference final before falling 70-63.
To say the least, Exeter is hungry for more.
“A lot of people are still doubting us from what we did last year,” Saenz said. “But we’re coming, we’re still hungry. We’re coming for it.”
The Eagles will have to combat their fair share of changes in order to replicate last season’s success.
Exeter lost All-State second-team center Anthony Caccese and All-State third-team point guard Zyion Paschall to graduation. In addition, head coach Matthew Ashcroft, who led the team to a 56-35 record over four seasons at Reiffton, stepped down in May.
Replacing Ashcroft on the bench is Jefferey VanGorder, a former college coach at Hamilton College, Carnegie Mellon , Ursinus and Muhlenberg College. Though Van Gorderer is aware of the team’s success from a year ago, he is maintaining neutral expectations as he prepares the underclassmen for more minutes than they may be used to.
“We haven’t talked too much about making it back to states and that’s on purpose because this is a completely different team,” VanGorder said. “So we have to replace three starters (Caccese, Paschall and Teddy Snyder). Reece and Kevin have been tremendous leaders so far, along with Alex (Kelsey), which has been really good.
“And then even though Aidan (Dauble) and Jayden (Ware) played some significant minutes at times last year in big games, they didn’t play a ton of consistent minutes. So we’re trying to get those guys (underclassmen) ready to play a lot more minutes than they’re used to.”
Garvin averaged 11.3 points per game last season while Saenz averaged 11.1. Though they did not see as many minutes on the court during the regular season, Dauble and Ware saw significant time during the postseason and made key plays throughout.
Aside from Garvin and Saenz, no other returning player averaged double-digit points. Kelsey, a senior who averaged 5.4 points, provided a dominant presence on defense, and especially showed up in crucial playoff games.
Kelsey, a 5-11 guard, was dialed in as he scored a team- and career-high 13 points to lead the Eagles to a gritty, 62-57 win over Fox Chapel in a state first-round game at Reiffton.
All three seniors have begun the work to elevate those around them to a consistent standard of success that will hopefully yield another long postseason season.
“They’ve been great in the offseason,” VanGorder said. “Obviously a lot of the football guys have football season, but Reece and Kevin have been at every open gym. They were another coaching voice on the floor, which was great for me in getting to know these guys.
“Everything is different, everything I’m talking about and the language (I’m using) is different than what they’re used to the last four years. So those two picking up and being able to explain things to some of the younger guys, and even guys in their grades that haven’t played as much, has been a huge help.
“Alex Kelsey has come in and I’ve been very impressed with his ability to, on the fly, help some of the younger guys, show them where to be. We talked about competing and Alex is the ultimate competitor, so he’s getting guys better.”
That work to motivate the inexperienced players began during last year’s postseason. Though they may have not been in the games, younger players such as Ware (a sophomore 6-1 guard), juniors Brady Murray (a 6-0 guard) and Carter Redding (a 6-0 guard), as well as senior Devon Nester (a 5-11 guard) saw what it takes to make championship runs and should carry that mentality as they get more minutes.
“The younger guys were along with us for the bus trips and being courtside at all the games,” Garvin said. “So they know what the experience is like, even if they weren’t necessarily out on the court yet. And I think that makes them even more hungry to want to get out there and actually be the ones on the court and put stuff up on the banners.”
“A lot of guys who didn’t play last year are going to play more this year,” Saenz said. “Last year they were sitting on the sideline and watching me and Reece practice, and this year since they’re getting into it, I feel like they have a lot more motivation and they’re pushing to play; everybody’s fighting for minutes.”
Motivation is certainly not hard to come by within this group as Kelsey, among others, knows that the most important thing heading into the season is that their team, from top to bottom, shows up and continues their intensity.
“I feel like we have a lot of potential,” Kelsey said.
With enough energy and passion to spare, there is seemingly no doubt that the Eagles’ greatest strength lies in their unity and desire to reach the pinnacle. And while there have been many changes since last season, the same values of positivity and selflessness still appear to be at play.
“The core values that we have as a group are: Having fun, embracing each other and being selfless in your role; cheering for other guys,” VanGorder said. “There’s a lot of little things, but that energy is important for me. I want guys standing up and cheering guys on so I think as long as we stick to those core values that we’ve been talking about, I think it’ll be more fun for the guys.
“I’m a big positive energy guy so we’re trying to preach that in every practice and every drill that we do.”
Source: Berkshire mont