If your plan is to be a dominant basketball team, you need a combination of things working in your favor.
It starts with a solid overall vision of where the program is headed.
Tyrone coach George Gripp has that, and it’s never really changed in the 13 years he’s been on the job. He prepares his team to play fast, dictate the tempo with defense, and get out and run. It’s a fun style of basketball when the pieces come together.
That’s where another key comes into play. Great teams need great point guards, and once again, Coach Gripp can cross that off the list. Heading into the 2018-2019 season, Gripp has arguably the top point guard in the Mountain League in his son Damon, a player who as a freshman did as much to bring the Golden Eagles back to their frenetic style of play as anyone.
Beyond that, it takes some players who can score the basketball, and there are plenty of those in the Golden Eagles’ stable this season, some proven on the varsity level, others waiting in the wings.
Game experience and maturity are a plus as well, and that’s the one area that could tell the story for the Tyrone boys this season because in so many other ways the Golden Eagles are primed to become a major player not only in the Mountain League but in District 6 and beyond.
“The younger guys know that there’s going to be a lot expected of them this year,” said Gripp. “This is going to be the youngest team I’ve ever coached — six freshmen, five sophomores, and a handful of upperclassmen. There’s going to be times when we have sophomores and freshmen out there. But with the amount of basketball these younger guys have played, they do play beyond their years. The only thing that worries me is sometimes we’re going to come up against some senior-laden teams with a size difference. But if we don’t buy into them trying to play physical with us and we just play our style and get up and down the floor, I think we’ll be fine.”
Size wasn’t an issue last year, when the Golden Eagles finished 17-6 and were one zany buzzer-beater away from playing in the District 6 4A championship, and yet the team was no bigger than the one it will put on the floor this season. Led by 6-foot post Andrew Ferguson on the glass, the Eagles used toughness and positioning to hold its own as a rebounding team every night. Ferguson was helped by guards Parker Mitchell and Jake Meredith, who were always active on the boards, and the departure of those two leaves big shoes to fill in a lot of ways, but none more glaring than when opponents miss shots.
It’s no surprise then that rebounding has been a focus for Coach Gripp and his staff in the preseason.
“We’ve been going over rebounding, and that’s going to be an Achilles Heel all year,” said Coach Gripp. “We think that just because we’re faster and quicker than most teams that sometimes we don’t need to box them out. When we get focused in and everybody understands that the defensive possession doesn’t end until we secure the rebound, I think we’ll be okay.”
Now a senior, Ferguson is one of the players Tyrone will need to once again play bigger than his stature, and there’s nothing he’s done so far that would indicate he wouldn’t. A part of Tyrone’s rotation as a sophomore and starter as a junior, he’s given Tyrone a toughness on the inside that can’t be measured. He’ll be helped inside this season by Corbin Moon, a 6-foot-3 senior who Gripp feels can be a big part of Tyrone’s game on the boards.
Tyrone’s ability to secure rebounds will also determine how well the team sets a pace of its liking. Coach Gripp would like to get it and go, and who wouldn’t with a player like Damon Gripp leading the break? Damon ended his freshman season averaging 7.5 points per game, and once he eased into his role by the Christmas tournament season, he could be counted on for solid scoring production on a nightly basis. He’s fast, quick enough to defend from end to end, and his court vision and basketball IQ are high end.
But he’s still one player, and as much as he impacted the team last season, it doesn’t change the fact that Mitchell, Meredith and Dylan Thomas left behind big holes in the offense when they graduated. The trio accounted for just under 40 points per game, and those numbers aren’t easily replaced, but Gripp feels this year’s team has plenty of capable scorers who have been itching to get their turn.
“I think we’ve got eight or nine guys who could score 20 points on any given night,” Gripp said. “It’s going to be tough for teams to take away one guy because I know other guys can step up. The thing that sets this group of guys apart is every one of them grinds every day at practice. They’re ready for that challenge and to step into the spotlight. In years past when better teams took our top guys away the guys who needed to step up didn’t do the work necessary to shine in that spotlight. These guys are putting it in every day. They love to play the game of basketball, and that’s a luxury we haven’t had in a while.”
There were younger players who had their moments last season — players like the smooth shooting Blaine Hoover and the always-active Brandon Lucas. They were able to do it as supporting pieces, and now they’ll be doing it as the main guys, but Gripp feels they are ready.
What excites Gripp the most about his team may be its basketball acumen and adaptability. It’s a group that gets the game and can make adjustments on the fly. It may be the squad’s biggest strength, and it’s going to lead to some long nights for teams who can’t handle the onslaught of Tyrone’s pressure.
“We have to get up into people. We have six presses we’re going to use, and hopefully two or three of them are going to stick,” said Gripp. “We have to play fast. We have to get points off our press. If we play teams like Bellefonte and Penns Valley who slow it down and play a 2-3 zone, that plays to their advantage. We want to get into people, create turnovers, and create all kinds of havoc. We like to play fast, that’s our style, and that’s the way those kids like to play.”
It’s a style Gripp thinks can compete with the best of the best, both in the Mountain League and in Districts. Tyrone will get its toughest push this season from defending District 6 4A and Mountain League champion Huntingdon, which returns the core of players who were one game away from the PIAA final four last season. It’s a group that plays a game every bit as fast and up-and-down as the Golden Eagles, but Gripp likes the challenge.
Gripp said he sees a tight battle afterwards between the Eagles, Central, Bellefonte and Clearfield.
“We know Huntingdon is going to be the top dog this year,” said Gripp. “They’re not as deep as they were last year. I feel we’re the deepest team in the Mountain League. Although we are young, I don’t think anyone has nine or ten guys like we can stick out there on the floor. Hopefully that will be an advantage for us.”
12/7 vs. Bellwood-Antis
12/12 at Bellefonte
12/14 vs. Penns Valley
12/18 at Huntingdon
12/21 at Clearfield
12/27 Kiwanis Tournament
12/29 Kiwanis Tournament, TBA
1/5 vs. Richland, 5:30 p.m.
1/9 at Bald Eagle Area
1/11 vs. Philipsburg-Osceola
1/12 vs. Johnstown
1/15 at Central
1/17 vs. Mount Union
1/19 vs. Bellefonte, 4:30 p.m.
1/23 at Penns Valley
1/25 vs. Huntingdon
1/29 vs. Clearfield
1/30 at United, 7:15 p.m.
2/1 vs. Bald Eagle Area
2/4 at Central Mountain
2/6 at Philipsburg-Osceola
2/8 vs. Central
All games start at 7:30 p.m. unless noted.