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Chatham men’s basketball seniors looking to cap ‘amazing’ journey

Jeff Vella
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Jeanine Leech | Chatham athletics
Chatham’s Isaiah Brown ranks third in the PAC with 16.4 points per game.

Four years ago, Isaiah Brown traveled nearly 1,000 miles to join a first-year college basketball program in an unfamiliar city.

That inaugural season at Chatham — which coincided with the school’s first coed undergraduate class — brings back fond memories, even though the team went 5-22.

“A lot of times, it was just nothing but heart. It wasn’t X’s and O’s. We didn’t know that much. We were all freshmen, just going bonkers against the older teams we were playing against,” said Brown, who went to high school in Little Rock, Ark., and was recruited through an exposure camp in Kansas.

Fast forward to today, and Brown is a player of the year candidate in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference on a contending team. His journey has mirrored that of the Cougars, who are 15-8, 9-6.

“It’s been amazing,” said Brown, a 6-foot guard who ranks third in the conference with 16.4 points per game. “We had to go through humbling times.”

Chatham’s breakthrough season has come under first-year coach David Richards, who took over in July after original coach Andrew Garcia left for an assistant position at Division I South Carolina Upstate. Richards, a New Castle native and former Westminster player, said he emphasized improving on the little things, particularly defensively. Brown said intense practices in which fouls are almost never called have helped create “grit and substance.”

Whatever Richards is teaching is working. The Cougars rank first in the PAC in steals per game (7.4) and fewest points allowed per game (66).

“They’ve bought in on the defensive end,” Richards said. “They really compete hard on defense. They take pride in it. They take pride in stopping the other team’s best players.”

Richards, who never had been a head coach at any level, said seeing the original players experience success as seniors has made this season even more satisfying.

“They really deserve this,” Richards said. “They’re the ones who started the program. They’ve had a lot of ups and downs.

“I can’t tell you how much it helps that they come every day to compete and make this team better. There hasn’t been anyone complaining about shot selection or minutes. It’s always ‘How can we make this team better? How can we find ways to win?’ ”

Brown is one of five seniors who has been there since the beginning. The group includes point guard Anthony Bomar (Bethel Park), who leads the PAC in assists per game (5.8), steals per game (2.0) and minutes per game (35.6), along with swingman Alex Schoppen (Central Catholic), who is third on the team with 11.1 points per game.

Then there’s transfer Will Sandherr (North Allegheny), a senior guard who won a PAC championship as a freshman at Saint Vincent. Sandherr, who is second on the team with 14.1 points per game, said he was drawn to Chatham while watching them play as an opponent.

“I remember I could just feel the positive energy and the dynamic from their team,” Sandherr said.

The Cougars start all seniors, so despite the program’s limited basketball history, they have a lot of experienced players.

Sandherr said having Brown as a teammate is “almost like you’re playing with Kobe Bryant” because of his passion and winning mentality.

Bomar serves as the team’s vocal leader, and Sandherr is the “energy guy,” Richards said.

Chatham, tied for second place with Westminster (11-13, 9-6), finishes the regular season Saturday at first-place Saint Vincent (19-4, 12-2) before the PAC Tournament starts Tuesday.

The program’s first home playoff game likely awaits, but the players are aiming for much more.

“It would mean so much,” Brown said of a conference championship. “We started off this season (with the slogan) ‘banner season.’ We want that to happen. We want to leave our mark on campus and have younger players in the future shoot for it.”

Jeff Vella is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at [email protected] or via Twitter @JeffVella_Trib.