La Salle ready to bring home program’s first title

Explorer guard Najee Walls out together a 13-point performance as part of a 23-point win over Lower Merion. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Explorer guard Najee Walls out together a 13-point performance as part of a 23-point win over Lower Merion. (Photo: Josh Verlin)

Andrew Koob (@AndrewKoob)

La Salle College High School isn’t quite known as a “basketball school”

The football team was crowned state champions in 2009 and, between 2008 and 2012, were Philadelphia Catholic League champs for five consecutive years and District 12 champs for four.

The Explorers’ lacrosse team holds four Pennsylvania state championships: 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2013. They’ve also been crowned Catholic League champions seven of the last nine years.

La Salle’s baseball team won the state championship in 2012, a Catholic League title in 2013 and were District 12 champs both of those seasons.

The basketball team hasn’t had as much postseason success, but that’s rapidly changing. They continued a program-defining playoff run with a convincing 71-48 win over the defending AAAA state champion Lower Merion Aces in the quarterfinals.

“It means a lot,” head coach Joe Dempsey said following the Explorers’ victory. “It means a lot to the community and, I’ll tell you what, La Salle wins a lot in a lot of other sports and I’m just happy to do it in basketball. All of the athletic teams are well-coached and well-represented. But in basketball, we haven’t won a title so this is kind of special for us.”

That victory leads to their first semifinal appearance in school history and sets a date with the Chester Clippers, another program with a strong basketball tradition with eight state championships to their name, their latest coming in 2012. The Clippers were also the team to stop the last Explorer attempt at the state semifinals, beating La Salle 68-50 in the quarterfinals of the 2011 state playoffs.

Dempsey credits a tough Philadelphia Catholic League for preparing the Explorers for this unprecedented run. Of the 14 teams in one of the toughest leagues in the state, only two (La Salle and league champion Neumann-Goretti) are still playing basketball.

“I don’t know if we feel overshadowed, but for basketball, it’s tough,” Dempsey said. “We’re fourth in our division. So that’s a tribute to the kids. Every game in our league is a war and I think you saw the benefits of that tonight.”

This is the same league that has featured a team in the either the AAA or AAAA final since 2009. Only Neumann-Goretti, Roman Catholic and Archbishop Carroll have been able to make it to the final game of the season, going a combined 4-3 with Neumann winning three of those games.

What makes the Explorers’ postseason run so much more improbable is what they had to replace from last year’s team. That team, which featured Division I players in Amar Stukes (La Salle) and Steve Smith (Fairfield), relied heavily on the six upperclassmen that graduated last year.

Those Explorers didn’t make it out of the PCL playoffs, losing to rival St. Joe’s Prep by 17 points in the quarterfinals and finishing the season at 15-8.

La Salle, now 22-6 following the victory, is now two wins away from bringing home the program’s first basketball title. Forward Jalen Herdsman, who put together a 13-point, 10-rebound performance against Lower Merion, is ready to to prove that the Explorers deserve to call themselves champions.

“A lot of people really didn’t expect us to go this far, but we keep pushing. We think we’re the best team in the state and we’re going to try and prove it out there every time.”



 

Dave Burman
105.5 WCHX radio
Lewistown, PA