Reputations are earned. The opposing team doesn’t get the same feeling when they play the Yankees in the playoffs as they do if they were paired with the Tampa Bay Rays.
When Tom Brady had the ball in his hands in the waning minutes of the most recent Super Bowl, Falcons fans were nervous because they knew what he was capable of.
It takes a high school or college program at least a decade of sustained winning and multiple championships to earn a reputation that gives them an advantage before the game is even played.
Locally, no team possesses this storied reputation and home court advantage more than the Chester High School basketball team. The Clippers have won a Pennsylvania-record eight state championships, 23 district titles, and made 36 appearances in the District 1 Class AAAA championship game.
“It takes a while for it to happen. You can’t have a program winning for five years and then not winning. Every year we are in the mix to win a state championship. That’s how you build your reputation as a winner,” said Athletic Director Andre Moore who discussed Chester’s Biddy Basketball program where kids, as young as six years old, play in front of big crowds.
Born and raised in Norristown, I was well aware of the Clippers’ lofty status in high school basketball hoops. It’s hard not to notice a school less than 25 miles away producing McDonald’s All-Americans and sometimes playing on ESPN.
My dad, who supported his alma mater, Plymouth-Whitemarsh, studied the brackets: “If we win that game, we have to play Chester” or, after optimistically predicting a run through the playoffs, a gloomy, “then Chester.”
The result was almost a foregone conclusion.
I experienced the feeling first hand when I attended Norristown High School and became attached to my school. The Eagles put out some quality teams. After I graduated, one featured future Temple star Khalif Wyatt. But no matter how hopeful I was when I saw the playoff brackets, I knew all roads to glory went through Chester.
We bought my husband’s parents’ house in the mid 2000’s, and just this year, I heard a familiar refrain coming from the kitchen table. “…then we have to play Chester. If we beat them, we’ll qualify for States. But if we lose, we could get in with a playback”
I wanted to tell him to bet on Option B. I know how this story ends.
“Where would you have to play Chester?” I asked from the other room.
He didn’t appreciate my burst of laughter as a response.
On Saturday, Feb. 25th, eight-seed Upper Merion Area visited top-seed Chester in the PIAA District One 5A Boys Basketball Quarterfinal.
Chester’s facilities aren’t the modern mecca some are used to, but it wouldn’t matter if the Clippers were playing on a gilded court or at a playground, their results are usually the same. Just check out the banners and the stuffed trophy case in the lobby.
The home court advantage is evident in pregame. Their music seems a bit louder. They seem focused yet at ease. The cheerleaders are the loudest and are supported by the dance moves of Thomas “Tom-Tom” Wilmore, who has been a fixture at home games for 15 years.
Oh, by the way, Chester’s home court is like playing basketball in a sauna.
Wilmore’s reason for the ever-present humidity?
“Because I bring the heat!” he said. “I gotta take it up to another level and get the crowd into it.”
Going into the game, the Clippers lost only once at home in district play in school history. According to announcer James Howard, the Voice of the Clippers since 1997, the team has a 91 percent winning percentage at home since 1980. “Sometimes the kids feel pressure by all the tradition. They know they are not supposed to lose here. They do well with the pressure, though,” Howard noted.
Upper Merion sprinted out to an 11-1 first quarter lead but, some of the Vikings faithful and me, were waiting for Chester to unleash its wrath. It’s like dropping a mouse in a python’s tank. It might not bother with it immediately, but sooner or later, it is going to swallow its dinner whole.
“You know, Upper Merion is 1-1 when we play Chester in the district playoffs,” my husband reminded me as the Vikings headed into the fourth quarter with a two-point lead.
The greats always leave you with the sense of impending doom. Chester doesn’t win because of the name on the front of the jersey or all the contributing factors to their home court advantage. They win because of the players who learn the game at a young age. They win because they are better. Their defense is usually suffocating and the players want to uphold the weight of reputation.
“We don’t look past any opponents. Any team put in front us we respect. Our kids don’t feed into any of that because on any given night we can be beaten,” said Moore.
On this night, they were beaten. Upper Merion eked out a 53-50 win. The usually rocking gym turned eerily silent. It was the first time I ever witnessed the Clippers lose and the only time I have heard plans being made for “after we beat Chester.”
Katie Kohler is a SPIRIT staff reporter and sports enthusiast.