Photo courtesy of Moving Pictures/Hector Martinez.
By David Cordova
The state of Pennsylvania has a lot of talent when it comes to basketball, whether it’s in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, or in suburban towns. But one thing is certain: there is elite talent everywhere. Especially at one school in a very small town called West Chester
The name of the school in the town, is called the Westtown School, which is 25 miles west of Philadelphia and was founded in 1799 by the Religious Society of Friends. It is an institution that has an enrollment of nearly 700 students and has a 600-acre campus and a 14-acre lake. It is an institution that gets students prepared for college in all aspects, mainly academics.
But one program has been giving the program plenty of notoriety, as of late, and that is their varsity basketball program. Over the past decade they have won six Friends School titles and two PAISAA titles. And they have done it all under one coach.
The coach in question is Seth Berger, who is now in his 12th season as the head coach at Westtown. If there’s anyone that knows about basketball, it is Berger, who was the one of the original founders of AND 1.
When asked what led him into coaching, Berger replied, “With my life, there’s two things I really want to do is have fun and make a difference, and at the end of the day, high school basketball is the best combination of both. I get to do something that I love, in the sport that I love, and make a difference with young men.”
On the school itself, he added: “You know, I believe so much in the community, our values. If a kid is going to come to Westtown to play basketball, he’s gotta have three things. First of all, he’s gotta be a great kid. Second of all, he’s gotta be a great student and third, he’s gotta be a good basketball player. Basketball is actually last. And the community upholds the kids, supports the kids. My kids have been here since pre-Kindergarten and it’s the reason we live where we live and I hope to coach there for a very long time.”
In his time, at Westtown, Berger has sent countless players to college, and more than 15 of them to Division I colleges, including Daniel Ochefu, who played four years at Villanova and was a member of the 2016 national championship team.
Other players that are currently playing Division I are Jair Bolden (George Washington), Anthony Ochefu (Stony Brook), Brandon Randolph (Arizona) and Cameron Reddish (Duke). Last summer, after spending a year at the University of Texas, Mohamed Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the NBA Draft, and is now in his rookie season with the Orlando Magic.
In a short span of time, Berger has built a big-time program that continues to rise on the national scene. All of that was shown last year in “We Town,” the documentary on the program that was shown through Amazon.
When asked if he thought the way they were portrayed was accurate, he replied, “Yes, it was. You know, at the end of the day, I think they did a great job getting in the minds of the kids, what it’s like to be a high-level basketball player and a high-level student, having to balance both of those things at a place like Westtown. I think what people don’t understand about these kids is that they’re kids, so we look at a kid like a Mo Bamba or a Cam Reddish or Brandon Randolph or Jalen Gaffney. We expect them to be perfect, to be 28-year-old pros and they’re not, they’re 17-year-old kids and so, I think, seeing a winter in the mind is great, and seeing the commitment, in my opinion, that it takes to the kids to help them be their best, from inside the program and I thought the movie did a great job with that.”
On how he felt about Bamba getting drafted to the pros and also Reddish & Randolph having success on the college basketball scene, Berger added: “You know, I love seeing all the kids that I’ve coached have success, whether it’s being middle school teachers or NBA basketball players or someone that’s working on Wall Street as an investment banker. These kids are all going to do great things when they leave Westtown and it’s great to see.”
This year’s Westtown squad has been phenomenal on the court as they have compiled a record of 23-5 this season, as they have played in events such as the Empire Invitational, the PSA Prep Showcase, Mid-Atlantic Invitational Tournament, the Slam Dunk to the Beach Invitational and the Lehigh Valley Showcase.
When asked about the production of this year’s team, Berger replied, “This team is amazing. We started the season 4-3 or something like that, we had injuries, we’ve had some amazing wins. We beat Roman Catholic without two starters, we beat Brewster with Bol, third game back. The thing that’s great about this team is they play together, they share the ball, no one is looking at the box score at the end of the game for their points, there’s only one score that matters: how many points did we get, how many points did the other team get.”
This year’s team is loaded with plenty of Division I talents as they have two seniors that are committed to Division I schools in 6-foot-3 guard Jalen Gaffney, who is going to UConn, and 6-foot-10 center John Bol Ajak, who is going to Syracuse.
Other talented players on this team is 6-foot-8 junior forward Noah Collier, 6-foot-10 sophomore forward Franck Kepnang, 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Jalen Warley and 6-foot-3 junior guard Tyler “T.J.” Berger, who is also the coach’s son.
When asked about Gaffney, who has an explosive first step on the court, Berger replied, “Jalen is a [future] NBA basketball player, you know, he’s tall enough, he’s super-fast, he’s an incredibly-smart kid, so he thinks the game when he’s out there and he’s obviously worked on his skill level, so in my opinion, Jalen is going to walk into UConn, I think he’s going to have an opportunity to start, and he’s got an opportunity to be an NBA basketball player, he’s a phenomenal teammate and a phenomenal captain.”
On the gift of having two dominant big men in Ajak and Kepnang, who both have wingspans of over 7 feet, he replied, “You know, essentially, I think Noah [Collier] is more like a big wing [forward] when he plays & he’s starting to make shots. Defensively, he’s an impossible matchup, because a guard can’t guard him and a big can’t guard him and we use him offensively in so many ways. John Bol Ajak is really, if you think about it, a future NBA player, he’s a 6-10 guy making threes, making decisions on the perimeter, taking charges and then Franck is an elite defender, you know, he’s got a 7-6 wingspan and uses it to protect the rim. All those guys have a real chance to be pros.”
At the current time, the program is getting ready for another run at the Friends League title and the PASISAA tournament. With the way things are rolling, there’s no reason why Westtown can’t be mentioned with programs such as Oak Hill, IMG and Brewster. The world now knows what is brewing in the small town of West Chester, Pennsylvania. And there’s nothing but progress going down at the Westtown School.