Derry boys basketball shooting for 1st playoff win in program history

Thursday, February 25, 2021 | 6:05 PM

Motivation can come in many forms in basketball.

For Derry, the WPIAL playoffs, while open this year to every team because of disproportionate records and games played — a reflection of the pandemic — did not come with a free pass.

Coach Tom Esposito still wanted his team to earn their keep during the regular season.

“These teams that knew they were going to the playoffs way back at the start of the season, how did they stay motivated?” Esposito said. “I wanted our kids to have a goal in mind.”

Derry ultimately decided it was competitive enough to be in the WPIAL Class 4A tournament. The Trojans (5-6) will host Southmoreland (2-16) at 6 p.m. Monday in the preliminary round.

The Trojans are the 13th seed. Southmoreland is No. 20. The winner plays at No. 4 Quaker Valley (12-4) next Thursday in the first round.

“I wanted our guys to feel like they earned their way in,” Esposito said. “This has been a season unlike any other. We navigated through it with a lot of focus and toughness. We knew on any given day, it could be taken away.”

Derry did have a program shutdown, although the district would not confirm if the stoppage was because of covid-19. The Trojans played Feb. 13, but did not have another game until Tuesday at Knoch.

They returned to practice Sunday.

“I think that may have been our best practice of the year,” Esposito said. “Last week, we had several team meetings virtually, and we had film sessions with X’s and O’s. We used the time for teaching moments. I think it greatly helped.”

A 55-44 win over Freeport on Wednesday snapped a three-game skid for the Trojans.

Esposito used to coach at Homer-Center in District 6, where an open playoff format was present. But he said teams had an unwritten standard that qualifiers needed to have a .500 record to make the postseason.

“I’m an old-school coach,” he said.

This will be Derry’s third straight playoff trip — a program record. The Trojans still are looking for the school’s first playoff win in boys basketball.

Now, the players are out to prove they deserved the postseason trip.

“We knew going into the season that even though the playoffs were going to be an open tournament, we weren’t guaranteed to get in,” Trojans senior guard Ryan Bushey said. “With this year being so abnormal, I thought the open tournament was a fair way for us to potentially play more games and just have fun playing.”

Bushey, who had a 41-point game against Knoch, said the team’s eight seniors rallied together after an 0-3 start.

“We all sat down and started talking about how this is our last season together, and how we aren’t guaranteed any games and what we can do to change that,” Bushey said. “It then all started in practice and we’ve been going 100% every day to make ourselves better.”

Derry won four in a row after the slow start, including a 64-61 win over Knoch. Wins over Freeport, Keystone Oaks and Deer Lakes followed, which helped the Tr0jans’ in-house case.

Despite losses to Burrell and Mt. Pleasant, Esposito saw fit to add Derry’s name to the lost of 20 others competing in the 4A bracket.

“We are trying to get better every day,” said Bushey, who leads the Trojans with a 16.2 scoring average and 3.0 assists. “And we are going into the playoffs with a lot of confidence so that we can win our school’s a first playoff game.”

Senior 6-foot-5 forward Sam Jones also has been a bright spot for Derry, averaging 10 points and nine rebounds.

Derry was averaging a Section 1-low 49.6 points and allowing 56 a game.

“The thing with us is that if we shoot the ball well, we can play with a lot of teams,” Esposito said. “I am anxious to see how we do. Our kids want to play. They want to compete. They deserve to play more games.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at or via Twitter .


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