Lower Merion basketball boasts a proud and storied tradition and is among the most successful programs in Pennsylvania history. Since the turn of the last century, Lower Merion teams have amassed more than 1400 victories and a .634 winning percentage. In that span, the Aces have had 80 winning seasons and have earned 33 league titles, 40 District 1 playoff appearances, 15 District 1 titles, 21 District 1 Final Four appearances, 26 State Playoff bids, 12 State Final Fours and seven PIAA State Titles (second-most of any program in Pennsylvania).
The Lower Merion basketball legacy includes the tenure of William “Andy” Anderson, who guided the Aces to four state titles, including three consecutive titles in ’41, ’42 and ’43 and finished his career with a remarkable 346-49 record. When Anderson took the program’s reigns in 1927, PA high school basketball was dominated by teams from Western PA and Lehigh Valley. “Andy,” as he was known, is widely credited for the game’s development and popularity in Southeastern PA. When he won his first title in 1933, it marked the first time that a team from District 1 had earned the PIAA championship.
Anderson’s teams featured the services of a number of first-team All-State selections, including Al D’Amora ’30, Ira Rich ’40, Charles “Dutch” Sivertsen ’41, Harry Middleton ’42, Greer Heindel ’43 and Don Evans ’43. Heindel remains the only player in Pennsylvania history to have started on three consecutive state title teams.
Lower Merion enjoyed continued success during the ‘50’s, compiling winning seasons in all but three years during the decade. During the early 1960’s, Mitch McDaniel became the school’s first 1,000 point scorer. In 1964, the Aces moved from the historic Down’s Gymnasium – which still exists today – into a new facility, known as the Main Gym. (Prior to 1933, the Aces played in the original 1910 high school building in a band-box gym known as “The Pit.”)
The late 1960’s and 1970’s proved to be a golden era in Aces history, with the Aces’ emergence at the top of the newly-formed Central League. Previously, the team had competed in the Suburban League. In 1967-68, the Aces captured their first Central League title under the direction of Coach Larry Davis with a roster led by Ardmore legends Tommy McDaniel ’68 and Billy Holland ’69. Coach Bill Stephens guided the program to two District 1 titles in ’76 and ’78 and four more league championships in the decade. The Stephens years boasted a number of outstanding individual talents, including future NBA player Jim Brogan ‘76. Brogan and classmates Kevin Lonesome and Sam Brown formed the core of the ’76 team which won 22 consecutive games en route to the program’s first District title in more than 30 years.
The Aces notched four playoff appearances in the ‘80s and captured a Central League title in 1984. In the ‘90’s, the program returned to glory thanks in large part to the arrival of two individuals: Coach Gregg Downer, who began his tenure in 1990, and the greatest player in Lower Merion history, Kobe Bryant. Downer set the tone early, guiding an upstart ’92 Aces squad to the first 20-win season in more than a decade. Bryant arrived a year later and his talents helped catapult the program to the national stage. In 1996, the Aces rode a 30-game winning streak to a District title and their first state title in 50 years, finishing the season 31-3. Bryant ended his career as Southeastern PA’s all-time leading scorer at 2883 points, surpassing schoolboy legends like Wilt Chamberlain and Lionel Simmons. Downer’s teams continued to excel, winning 11 Central League titles (most recently in 12-13) and finding consistent success in District and State play.
In 2004-05, a Cinderella Aces squad shocked the Pennsylvania basketball world by reaching the State Finals after a fourth place league season. Seeded #12 in District playoffs, the Aces caught fire in the postseason and became the lowest seed ever to advance to the State Finals, capturing the hearts of “Aces Nation” with their gritty play, determined spirit and frequent last-second heroics.
In the 10th anniversary year of the Aces '96 title, the team returned to the Finals and won the 2006 AAAA State Championship. For the 2nd consecutive year, the Aces clawed their way to Hershey by knocking off top-ranked opponents in the playoffs, capping the run with a 60-58 victory against Schenley in a classic final contest. The Maroon & White earned back-to-back trips to the Championship game for the first time since 1942, ’43. Seniors Garrett Williamson and Ryan Brooks earned All-State honors, marking the first time since 1942 that two Lower Merion players made the All-State team in the same year. Williamson finished his career as the school’s 2nd all-time leading scorer with 1349 points; Brooks finished with 1318 points, fourth-best in Aces history. The Associated Press named Downer the 2006 PA Coach of the Year.
The 2007-08 campaign marked the final season in the history of the Main Gym. The gym was demolished in June 2008 to make way for the new Lower Merion High School. In 2009-09, Coach Downer surpassed Bill Anderson as Lower Merion’s all-time wins leader, notching his 347th victory in a mid-season victory against Radnor. The season also capped the stellar career of Greg Robbins ’09, who was part of program-best 94 victories during a four-year varsity span. Robbins tallied 1,619 points (2nd all time) and became the first Aces player since Greer Heindel ’43 to earn All-State honors in three consecutive seasons.
After two years of play at Bala Cynwyd Middle School, the team returned to Ardmore upon completion of the new Lower Merion High School. On December 16, 2010 the school community dedicated the Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, a beautiful facility the Aces will call home for years to come.
In 2013, the Aces did what the experts thought was impossible, shocking nationally-ranked Chester 63-47 to win their seventh state title, avenging a loss to the Clippers in the 2012 state final. Many longtime LM fans called it the greatest victory in the history of a proud and storied program as the Aces took down a team that had won 78 games in a row over three years against Pennsylvania opponents and two consecutive state titles. The Aces finished the season with a 30-3 record, a #21 national ranking and capped a two-year run in which they won 59 games and two-straight Central League titles in undefeated fashion. They set a new record for consecutive league wins (42) and notched four wins against nationally-ranked opponents during the season. In the state playoffs, they beat three district champions. Downer was again named Coach of the Year and senior BJ Johnson earned First Team All-State honors for the second consecutive season, becoming the first Ace to do so since Williamson. Johnson finished his career with 1,241 points. Senior Raheem Hall became the first LM player to start on three consecutive state playoff teams since 1943 (Heindel) and the first since Robbins to earn First Team All-League honors three years in a row. Senior Yohanny Dalembert was named 2nd team All-State. All three players were named to the All-Southeastern PA Team. The Aces were named the Philadelphia Inquirer's 2013 Team of the Year.
*Photographs recently discovered by the Lower Merion Historical Society provide evidence of a flourishing program as early as 1903.