Dear Friends of Lower Merion Basketball,
A State Championship and a spectacular Sunday in Spring. What more could you want for the ultimate Aces Nation celebration? After taking a few photos back at the gym, the team boarded a school bus for the quick ride to Suburban Square. When we arrived, a crowd of fans had already lined up around the parking lot, awaiting the start of the victory parade. Tuning up in the back corner of the lot was the Overbrook String Band, a staple of the Philadelphia Mummers scene, dressed in full regalia. The players spread out in their designated convertibles, generously donated by friends of the program, including Fleetway Leasing of Bala Cynwyd, BMW of the Main Line, the Freeland family of Wynnewood, LMHS teacher Rob Schanne, Danielle Kazanicka of Narberth and alumnus Bill Bahr, who drove his beautiful '57 Chevy pick-up. The fire department provided two trucks as well, setting the stage for a colorful and cacophonous procession.
Joining the current players were champions of years past, including former All-State guard Harry Middleton, representing the '41 and '42 championship teams - Donald "Peanut" Palmer of the '43 state title squad - and Cary "Butter" Walker of the '96 team. The alumni car rolled out of the lot behind the string band and LMHS cheerleaders to lead us down the road back to school.
While I expected a crowd to send us off, we had no idea that so many people would turn out along the route. (This parade thing is new to most of us!) As we turned out of Suburban Square and down Llanfair towards Montgomery, there was another big group of fans waiting for us and then even more along Montgomery and all the way up to the school. Our guys handled it like pros, waving to fans and reaching out to the scores of young kids who followed the caravan, giving them high fives and returning their thumbs up and "#1" signs from start to finish. At one point I turned around to kind of soak it all in, and I thought to myself, this is absolutely perfect. The gathering of people young and old stretching up, down and across Montgomery Ave. - the roars of cheering fans, the string band's parade music and the siren of the firetrucks - and all for this fantastic and deserving team. It really was incredible, just an unbelievable moment for the kids and the entire community. The pictures tell it all, and they're now up on in the multimedia gallery (link at left).
We arrived at the gym and concluded the parade with a ceremony honoring the team. LMHS principal Dave Piperato welcomed the community and delivered an eloquent salute to the squad, praising the players and coaches for setting an example that with hard work and dedication, anything is possible. With the help of friend Heather Murray, the Dawg Pound followed tradition in leading the crowd in a spirited rendition of the National Anthem. Board President Larry Rosenwald, in his championship t-shirt, then thanked the team for their remarkable run and praised Coach Downer for his celebratory dance steps. We then acknowledged our championship alumni, which drew a standing ovation from the appreciative fans. Middleton and Palmer were part of the last 'golden era' of Lower Merion basketball, part of a run that included three consecutive state championships - Walker hit the game-winning shot in the '96 title game, the apex of the early part of this, the most recent 'golden era' of the '90's and 00's.
Chris Colameco (aka Superman in the Dawg Pound fan section) followed, and joined assistant coach Chris Vernick for a brief tango to make good on a pre-playoff promise of "what he'd do for a state championship. "We then watched a terrific highlight video created by 10th grader Matt Buchwald and 11th grader Mike Perkel which featured some of the top moments of the season."
And finally, we introduced each of the players one-by-one to an enthusiastic, and extended standing ovation. Coach Downer took the microphone and thanked the fans for their undying support this season, calling 'Aces Nation' the best fans in all of Pennsylvania. In one particularly emotional moment, he left the podium to find his father in the stands, who gave him a huge hug for delivering on the best 76th birthday present he could think of: a state championship.
A team autograph session and bar-b-que capped off a perfect afternoon - fans lingered for hours chatting with players, reliving moments of the season and talking with great anticipation about the promise of coming years.
Given the success of this year's team, it's no surprise that the Aces are well-represented on post-season awards lists. But the accolades this year are truly exceptional. Garrett and Ryan both earned All-State honors, marking the first time since 1942 that two Lower Merion players made the All-State team in the same year. (Greer Heindel and Harry Middleton accomplished the feat in 1942.) Garrett was named 1st team All-State for the 2nd consecutive year - both players also earned 1st Team All-Central League honors. Garrett finishes his career as the school's 2nd all-time leading scorer with 1349 points - Ryan, who led the team in scoring this year at 18.6 ppg (including a remarkable 22.9 avg in the playoffs), finished with 1318 points, placing him 4th in Aces history.
And while we already knew him to be Coach of the Year material, it's now official. Gregg Downer has been named the 2006 PA Coach of the Year. Downer led the Aces (28-6) to the 2006 State Championship, his 2nd title and 3rd State Finals appearance in 16 years at the helm. During the past 10 years, his teams have earned seven Central League titles, have made six State appearances, have advanced to the District Final 4 five times, including four District Finals. The Aces' State Playoff record in that span is a gaudy 15-4.
(The All-State and Coach of the Year winners are determined by an AP poll of high school sportswriters and broadcasters in Pennsylvania.)
For those who just can't get enough Aces basketball, we'll continue to provide information on the website highlighting Aces-related events and activities for the upcoming summer. The annual Narberth Summer League is a great opportunity to catch our guys and many of the area's best players in action. Visit www.narberthbasketball.net for schedules and more info. And if you happen to be in Conshohocken next Monday night (4/10) at 8:30 PM, you can check out our young guns (Greg Robbins and Eric Stahler) playing against some of our elder statesmen (Ryan, Garrett, Ernest, Jon and Eric B.) in the Donofrio tourney at the Fellowship House.
No banquet details yet, but we'll post information as soon as the date, time and location have been determined.
There are a limited number of black, gray and white t-shirts, rally towels and posters still available on a first-come, first-served basis. The gear will be sold in the school store during regular school hours and online beginning Wednesday (check out the Dawg's Den link on the homepage). Special thanks to B & E Sportswear and Mike George Printing for the quick turnaround on all the merchandise.
**Please note that we are re-printing the double-sided white championship roster t-shirts to add the name of a very important member of our coaching staff and basketball family whose name inexcusably did not appear on the printer's version. I think everyone would agree that 'Shootah' Dave Stotter, the best high school shooting coach in America, needs to take his rightful place on that gear so please bear with us for a day or so as we make the correction. No one will ever forget 9 points in 29 seconds in the championship game and that moment, coupled with the tremendous improvement of so many of our players, could not have happened without Dave's dedication, devotion, passion and commitment to this program.
For anyone who is willing and able, aceshoops.com is seeking contributions to help keep the website going strong. We think the site is really a special thing and in order to keep it alive, the student who designed the site (10th grader Ben Toll) needs funds to cover the costs of hosting fees, expanded server space, web broadcasts (which attracted thousands of listeners) and new programming. It would also be nice to give Ben, who has done a phenomenal job, a stipend for all of his excellent work. In March alone, the site received more than 2 MILLION hits and nearly 4,000 unique visitors. If you're interested in helping out in any way, please email firstname.lastname@example.org! Special thanks to Athlete's Advantage, the site's first official online partner - we appreciate their continued support of the program!
Thanks to all of you who have made this season such a special one. It truly has been a pleasure to have you on board for this unbelievable journey. And if you ever need a reminder of how mind-blowing this whole thing has been, consider my personal favorite! Did you notice that during the playoffs, a mini-me Superman started appearing in the stands? I thought it was crazy seeing young fans dress up as some of our star players, but this kid was in full Superman costume imitating one of our star student section fans! (See above - Chris Colameco) And for that, Superman, you are the final Fan of the Week for the 2005-06 season.
(And, of course, we'd better see you in the stands next year!!)