Lenape sophomores Tayvon Gaither and Derek Simpson entered the 2019-20 basketball season with something to prove.
Gaither was ready to show he could play at the varsity level after refining his skills on the freshman and JV teams last year. Simpson was ready to show opponents he was healthy and to take on a leadership role after a wrist injury hampered him during his first season on varsity.
Through the first few weeks of the season, Gaither and Simpson have proven to everyone just how good they are. The two are leading the Indians in scoring through their first eight games, averaging more than 14 points per game each. Their efforts helped guide Lenape to a 6-2 start, including a first-place finish in the Score at the Shore Tournament at Southern Regional High School over the holiday break.
It’s fitting to see Gaither and Simpson together on the top of Lenape’s leaderboard. The two have played together since fifth grade on travel and middle-school teams and have developed strong chemistry both on and off the court.
“I pick his brain a lot,” Simpson said. “I know what he’s thinking. I know the way he plays. I know how he gets. We’ve definitely got close over the years.”
Simpson entered the season as one of South Jersey’s more talented sophomores. As a freshman, he earned the starting point guard spot on the varsity team and was electric right out of the gate. In just his fifth career game, Simpson scored 29 points, dished out seven assists and had three steals in a 77-55 win over Wall Township on Dec. 27.
A couple weeks after the Wall game, a broken wrist sidelined Simpson for about a month. The injury caused him to miss a large chunk of Lenape’s conference schedule and even when he returned, Simpson admitted he wasn’t at 100 percent. The injury fueled Simpson’s determination entering his sophomore season.
“He started out the year (last season) and was really, really good,” head coach Matt Wolf said. “It’s hard to rest for six weeks and come back and be the same player. This year, he’s bigger and stronger, so he doesn’t get as tired as easily.”
While Simpson impressed on the varsity team last year, Gaither was trying to make an impression at the JV level. Gaither saw Simpson playing significant minutes at varsity and it motivated him to work harder so he could join him.
“In the summer time and the pre-season is really when I put in the hard work, getting in the gym and getting my shots up,” Gaither said. “Just working on the little basic things.”
Gaither’s second career game on Dec. 21 against Rancocas Valley was when he emerged. The day didn’t begin well, as Gaither did not start after being late to a team film session. But he got some motivation just before entering the game.
“I didn’t want to get down on myself for not being able to start,” he said. “Coach told me not to worry about it and keep my head up. Once I came in, I was just really amped and hyped to play.”
Gaither had a huge game, scoring 22 points to lead the Indians to a 70-53 win. Gaither went on to score 11 points in a win over Asbury Park on Dec. 23 and then scored 14 or more points in each of his next three games.
Wolf said he had always known Gaither would be a talented player and would have a role on varsity this year. But he believes Gaither has emerged quicker thanks to his ability to shoot well from three-point range.
“He’s been able to step up to the three-point line,” Wolf said. “On the freshman team, he played more inside … so he never showed that he could really step out.
“He played some JV for us last year, but we knew he would contribute to varsity this year,” Wolf added. “We didn’t know how quickly that would come. He stepped in right away and has been a pleasant surprise offensively.”
The contributions of Gaither and Simpson combined with the strong leadership of seniors such as Connor Kennedy and Anthony Cortese have helped Lenape become a contender in the Olympic Conference. Entering last Thursday’s home game against Cherry Hill East, the Indians’ only two losses had come against Camden Catholic and Paul VI, two of the top-ranked teams in South Jersey, according to multiple local publications. In both losses, Lenape held a late lead before coming up short.
“We don’t want to ever lose,” Wolf said. “But the way we have lost, we’ve fought. We’ve fought and fought and it’s only going to make us better come playoffs.
“We’re just going to correct our mistakes so they don’t happen again.”