Christian Isopi didn’t know if he could play college basketball.
But his coach did.
And last summer, when the Archbishop Ryan High School team was playing in a summer league, Joe Zeglinski told Isopi that if he was willing to grind, he could play in college.
“He turned to me and said, ‘You know, you can definitely play at the next level,’ ” Isopi recalled. “I asked him what I had to do to make that happen and he said, ‘Work.’ So I started working hard from that point.”
Zeglinski was right. And Isopi more than did his part.
Isopi, a 6-foot-6 big man who provided the Raiders with height and muscle all season, will bring that frame and a whole lot of effort to Gwynedd Mercy next year to continue his athletic career.
“I visited in October, and it was really nice, it felt like another home,” said Isopi, who lives in Chalfont. “It was a really good atmosphere, the coaching staff was great, the guys on the team, everyone was just great guys. It’s exactly what I was looking for.
“I also like that it’s not too far. I can go home if I need to, my parents can come up. I think they’ll be at every home game, I can’t see them not coming.”
The Griffins are getting a big man who can do a lot of things on the floor. But they’re also getting a great teammate, and Isopi proved that right from the start of the season before Christmas.
The Raiders met St. Joe’s Prep in their Catholic League opener, and Isopi was penciled in as a starter for the first time in his PCL varsity career. But on paper, the Hawks had a lot of talented guards, which meant lots of running and not a lot of set plays, where Isopi excelled. So the decision was made to go with a guard-heavy lineup, and Isopi would start the season on the bench.
Not ideal, but you’d never know it from how he acted.
“I didn’t care, really at all, because I wanted to win and (Zeglinski) knows what he’s doing,” Isopi said. “I’d rather not play and win. And we won. So I played, but I didn’t start, and I was happy. We needed a win, we got it, so why would I care who started?”
He didn’t get too comfortable on the bench. That was the last time he’d start a game on the sidelines.
And, truth be told, the Raiders didn’t use a lot of players and they had very few big guys on the squad, so Isopi didn’t just start, he rarely came off the floor.
He became the post presence the Raiders needed, but more than anything, he was the last line of defense, keeping opposing players from getting to the rim.
He credits it all to the hard work he and his teammates put in.
“I think the reason I’m doing better is because of how hard I worked, starting in the summer, we all did,” Isopi said. “Offensively, I got better because I started taking my time. Before, I would get the ball and all I would think about was scoring, so I would rush it and sometimes I’d miss the rim. I learned this year that when you have the ball, you control the game.
“Defense was always what I was best at. I just try to put in the effort there. Defense is a lot about effort. Plus, we had Aaron (Lemon-Warren, Gediminas Mokseckas) and Dom Vazquez who can score. I didn’t have to be a scorer, until Aaron went down.”
When Lemon-Warren suffered a broken foot in late January, many were ready to stick a fork in the Raiders. But that wasn’t smart.
Ryan not only made the playoffs, but it advanced to the Catholic League semifinals, qualified for the state tournament and made it to the quarterfinals before the season, as well the school year, was spoiled because of the coronavirus.
“It would have been nice to play it out and win a state championship, but it was nice to go out with a win, even though we didn’t know it was the end,” Isopi said. “This was a special year. A lot of people gave up on us, but we never did. It was really a dream season.
“We played in the Palestra. We beat McDevitt. And we were playing in the state tournament. If we went through the two-week quarantine that they originally said, we would have had Aaron back healthy, too. Not sure how much he would have played, but it would have great to have our team play together again.”
Ryan loses just two seniors, although both Mokseckas and Isopi are huge losses, Isopi believes the Raiders should be good next year, too.
He’ll be busy with the Griffins, though. He’ll also be busy with his studies.
“I’m majoring in accounting,” Isopi said. “I wanted to major in engineering, but I took an accounting class this year and I loved it. It’s what I want to do.
“I knew I wanted to play college basketball, but I wasn’t sure I would. I wouldn’t want to just go to school and do nothing, I would get bored. I’m glad I have a chance to play.”
But he’ll always miss Ryan.
“The thing I’ll miss the most? Everything,” Isopi said. “The people. Definitely the people. The teachers, my friends, my teammates and my coaches. It’s been great.”