BEVERLY, Mass. – A year ago, anyone could have predicted this result before the season. This year, not so much.
While any championship feels great, you have to think Phillips Exeter head coach Jay Tilton feels especially good about the one his team took home in dramatic fashion on Sunday by a 49-46 margin over Hotchkiss, their second NEPSAC Class A title in a row.
“This feels completely different,” said Tilton. “It’s a very different team, the road they traveled to this point was very different. The biggest thing where it helped me was that there was less unknown when we got to this point.”
Tilton knows this team was not in the most enviable position. They came up after last season’s team had a great run to the Class A title and a few even thought they might have been the best team in the gym on championship day. While every team is different, this one didn’t have nearly the talent or experience, including that playing together as last season’s team had several who had been teammates on the travel circuit. They were sure to be compared to last year’s team, different though it is.
A lot of things were carried over. Tilton didn’t change how he went about things, from scheduling to making sure the players were on top of academics first and foremost. (To that end, Tilton noted with a laugh, “They have to go back and write papers tonight for exams tomorrow.”) He played a similar style, and at the end of the day this championship is more of a testament to his coaching and not only because they had less talent. Repeating is exceedingly difficult, period.
And at this school, winning is not only not the first order of business, but it’s harder because academics is the overriding mission more so than anywhere else. The players on this team all have the grades and scores to go to just about any school they want to. It’s almost like being in an Ivy League school at the prep school level.
When NEPSAC realigned a few years ago, Phillips Exeter went from the toughest class – the old Class A, which is now Class AAA – into the new Class A. They previously had to compete with all the powerhouse schools at the top of the pecking order. Class A now is not easy, but it’s one where a school like this can win it all. They still play many of the same powerhouse schools on their schedule, in part because the academic demands mean playing games within a reasonable proximity to the school. But Tilton also likes that because it gives the players a chance to play their way into a scholarship, and he could see it pay off here. With those games, this team was battled-tested for the tournament.
Perhaps no one exemplified that better than MVP Jeb Helmers (6’3″ Sr. PG, Greenville (SC)). Everyone who saw it will talk about his game-winning three-pointer that might have barely touched any iron going through the net with 2.5 seconds left, but he did much more. He had a big rebound of a free throw miss, then hit two free throws as they tried to seal the game. Hotchkiss tied it on a three-pointer by Columbia-bound Noah Daoust (6’8″ Sr. PF, Dorval (Que.)), setting up Helmers’ heroics.
Helmers was a steady hand throughout, also playing good defense and running the show. That he scored ten points won’t grab headlines, and even his big shot doesn’t do justice to his importance.
“A steady hand is who he is,” said Tilton. “He is just a steady kid in all aspects of who he is. I’m not surprised that he was the one with the big plays down the stretch.”
In some ways, this season was a microcosm of the program over a long time now. Tilton talked about the foundation being laid a long time ago. They have been building towards the kind of success they have had recently. This season’s team started with humble origins, but built towards success and had it at the end once again.