Chester HS Succeeds Despite Financial Problems
The program’s 58-game winning streak didn’t come easy.
by Jeremy Treatman
You are Larry Yarbray, the head basketball coach of the Chester Clippers (PA). You are the biggest man in town. You are the gatekeeper to Chester’s nationally-ranked basketball team. All the locals watch your every move and expect to celebrate with a state title in March. In Chester, it’s always, win it all: or else. You know…No pressure!
This winter, you enter the 2011-12 season with a bigger than usual bulls eye on your back. First, you are the defending PIAAA AAAA champions. Second, you haven’t lost since December 30, 2010. Third, you are playing a national schedule that includes Christ The King NY, Neptune NJ and Imhotep Charter, PA.
But now on top of all that, something bigger is on your shoulders. The mountain to climb has become event larger. And way steeper. The Chester-Upland School District is broken. Rumors persist daily that the high school will close. It could be before the first game. It could be in January. It could happen before the district and state championships even begin in February and March. The news is devastating, not to mention distracting. The newspapers and TV are reporting it will take millions to keep the school afloat long enough for the Clippers to keep their huge winning streak and championship hopes alive.
What do you do?
“We were totally up front with the guys the whole season,” said Yarbray, a Chester star himself who played collegiately at Coppin State. “When there was bad news, we told them. When there was hope, we told them what was happening.”
So how did the kids handle it?
“There were times when they were down, and hung their heads. It was hard on everyone. Can they really close Chester High School? And when will this happen?” Yarbray recounted. “My advice was always the same. It’s out of our control. We have to do what we can control. We have to stay eligible with grades, have to go to study hall, have to practice hard. We have a chance to make history. Our response is, Let’s win a state championship. If we do that, they can’t ever take that away from us.”
On March 25, 2012, in front of 8,000 fans at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, Chester did it again. The Clippers beat rival Lower Merion, Kobe Bryant’s alma mater, 59-33, to win their second straight AAAA title: a feat never done before even in Chester, the basketball capital of the state. The Clippers will enter next season with a 58-game winning streak.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Yarbray. “First it was a pleasure to win one [title]. Then, we ran the table during the season. Then we won the whole thing again. I never could have imagined this when I took this job four years ago.”
Chester’s 32-0 season is really not that hard to see. Their star player, junior Rondae Jefferson, is a 6-foot, 8-inch man-child who can defend any position on the court, run the offense, or post-up. In the District 1 final win over Lower Merion, he had 17 points, 24 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 steals and 6 blocked shots. He had 11 points and 13 rebounds in the championship win. If he ever learns how to make foul shots and improves his jumper, pundits say you are looking at some form of Lamar Odom and Rajon Rondo. But it’s safe to say the ACC and Big East offers will be rolling in, in addition to Temple.
“It really starts with your star player,” said Yarbray. “When Rondae doesn’t care about his points. and is the hardest working player on the team, everyone feels the same way. If he wanted to he could score 25 points every game. All he wants to do is win. And that’s all any of the kids wanted to do. Our captains Erikk Wright and Darius Robinson were the same unselfish way.”
Yarbray’s Chester team was not the most gifted offensive team in Chester’s long history, which now includes a record eight state championships. But defensively, Chester had three bigs over 6-6, quick, on-the ball guards, pressing units, and game-changers like in-your-face Shanier Cottman coming off the bench.
“We played many different kinds of teams in the season to be prepared for the post-season,” said Yarbray. “We were able to use different units and players in many situations. If I needed a big team, I had it. If I needed to substitute a full-court pressing team, I had the guys to do it. If I needed Rondae to guard another team’s best player, I could do that. “
“It was just a great team effort,” said Jefferson, who is a top-25 recruit and whose brother Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson starts for Temple. “We just work hard in practice, do what we need to do in school, and listen to our coaches. If we play as a team, we feel like we can keep winning. I’m so proud of all of our guys.”
Chester’s achievements are really remarkable. Most of the other teams atop the national polls such as Oak Hill Academy Va, St. Anthony NJ, Findlay Prep NV, are schools that recruit. Chester’s kids come from Chester. But how can they be so good every year?
“I really think that every kid grows up in Chester and wants to be a Clipper,” said Yarbray. “We have dedicated coaches in the biddy leagues and travel ball and eventually AAU. There is a seriousness to playing here and everyone wants to succeed.”
As for the fiscal crisis at the school, it remains an issue. Yarbray said there is a five-year plan on the table between the state of Pennsylvania and the school district to keep Chester afloat. Chances are the resilient district will follow its resilient basketball team and stay open. After all, can they really close Chester High School?
Jeremy Treatman is the founder and co-director of playbyplaycamps.com and playbyplayclassics.com. In total 49 NBA players, including Chester’s Jameer Nelson, played in one of his Scholastic Play-by-Play Classics.