Coach Seth Berger Leads Westtown School Boys’ Basketball to Success
Talent and a legendary roster are big parts of the equation.
Seth Berger is standing in the vestibule of the Westtown School gymnasium describing his various orthopedic breakdowns to the girls’ basketball coach, Carrie Timmins. It’s an impressive litany that includes a shoulder, knee, thumb and hips, all of which will need some form of surgical attention in the coming months. For now, his method of relief is cortisone. Timmins has something else in mind. “Why don’t you get it all done at one time?” she proposes. “That way, you’re completely down, but you’re done with it.”
It’s a sound strategy. But should Berger choose the nuclear option, he’ll have to wait until March, because he doesn’t want to miss a minute of his team’s 2016-17 season, which is shaping up to be the best in school history. Since taking over as head coach in 2007, Berger has lifted Westtown to the top of the Friends Schools League and the Pennsylvania independent-school pile. During that time, he has coached a collection of first-rate athletes, including Daniel Ochefu, who helped Villanova win the national title last season.
But Berger has never had a team like this one. There aren’t too many schools that boast a roster with so much talent: the nation’s fourth-best senior, the fourth-ranked junior and the No. 40 senior, along with at least two other Division I prospects. Westtown will travel the country to play some of the nation’s finest programs, appear on ESPN, and attempt to climb the USA Today Super 25 table, where they debuted at No. 11. “We want to prove we shouldn’t be 11—we should be No. 1,” says Cameron Reddish, the heralded junior.
The Westtown Moose roster—a menagerie of players from Pennsylvania and New York—is a testament to Berger’s ability to create an environment where players feel they can thrive, be seen by the best coaches in the country, and enjoy themselves in a boarding-school setting that replicates what they will encounter in college.
“It’s definitely fun, just knowing what everybody on the team can do,” says senior guard Brandon Randolph. “Everybody is hard to guard. Nobody can stop us.”
Randolph’s superlative proclamation is forgivable, given how stacked the team is. The Moose look more like a college team in terms of height, thanks to a starting lineup that starts at 6-foot-6 and tops out at 6-foot-11, making it bigger than some NBA outfits.
This year’s pearl is Mohamed Bamba from Harlem. He came to Westtown in 2014 from Cardigan Mountain School in New Hampshire and has established himself as a coveted recruit. Bamba can play three frontcourt positions and has a freakish 7-foot-8 wingspan. On the first day coaches could visit players, Kentucky’s John Calipari met with Bamba at 7 a.m.
Randolph has already signed to play next year at Arizona, after fielding offers from nearly all of the top programs. When Reddish was an eighth and ninth grader at the Haverford School, he lurked on the perimeter, deferring to his elders. Now, he’s a 6-foot-8-inch point guard who can hit the long ball and create opportunities.
While Ochefu is known for his standout play with the Wildcats and his current status as a member of the Washington Wizards, his brother Anthony, a Westtown senior, is headed to Stony Brook next year. And in June, Forrester added an offer from Temple to his collection, which will undoubtedly continue to grow.
Berger has been building toward this since he took over the program. Cashing out after starting, nurturing and growing the athletic apparel company And1, he looked for the one thing that would make him happiest. A longtime basketball addict, Berger decided that coaching would allow him to “help kids in the most fun way” he could.
He hopes that he has found a home at Westtown, where he plans to be “useful” until he’s 70, spend the next five years overhearing “whispers about when [he’ll] retire,” finally walk away when he’s 80, and be buried by the lake on the Westtown campus after he dies. He has tried to run the Moose program like a college outfit, which he can do since he has no other job at the school. Berger watches coaching videos constantly and is grateful to his mentors: Temple coach Fran Dunphy, Lafayette’s Fran O’Hanlon and South Jersey prep-school coaching legend Bill Lange Sr.
When Berger began at Westtown, he searched actively for players interested in becoming part of what he was building. Now, he doesn’t have to do much recruiting. Word-of-mouth among athletes—and their desire to play with top teammates against excellent competition—has created a demand. “Every year, more and more good players, good students and good kids want to come to Westtown,” Berger says.
With that comes a big-time schedule. Westtown will take part in the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., the Slam Dunk to the Beach tournament in South Carolina, and the Spalding Hoophall Classic in Springfield, Mass. “We want to play on the biggest stages,” Bamba says.
In addition to facing some of the country’s best competition, the Moose will also focus locally. They will be trying to win another Friends Schools League title—Berger has four in nine years—and repeat as state independent-school champions. Last year’s crown was the first-ever state title for Westtown.
But the real show is often at practice, when Bamba, Forrester and Ochefu go at each other, and Reddish challenges Randolph. With such an extraordinary collection of talent, every possession brings something worth watching—and a reason for Berger to delay surgery.