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B-Ball Man at Stern Ensuring Top Season

January 22, 2009 By:
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Yonni Eckmann
The Stern Hebrew High School boy's basketball team has yet to lose a game. At 7-0 -- including a convincing win over Barrack Hebrew Academy, a team they're scheduled to challenge again on Jan. 24 -- the members and coach are starting to entertain the notion that they can run through an entire season without suffering a defeat.

The team is currently ranked 14 on the top 25 list of Jewish day-school teams, according to www.jvelite.com, which rates teams on a weekly basis.

There are several reasons why. The team's core players have all been together for four seasons and have become a tight unit. Coach Ira Stern -- no relation to the family for which the school is named -- has had time to instill a mindset for tough defense and smart, unselfish offense. This year, several seniors, including point guard Josh Halperin, 17, and shooting guard Chason Danzig, 17, are both regularly contributing more than 10 points a game.

But, unquestionably, the biggest reason, literally, is 6-foot-6-inch Yonni Eckmann.

On a squad where no one else tops 6 feet, the 18-year-old's sheer height and innate skills have made him a big threat on both ends of the court. The weekly poll on jvelite lists him as a candidate for player of year.

Eckmann, who is averaging 15.7 points per game, is equally dangerous inside the paint and from beyond the perimeter. On defense, he plays like he can block any shot taken by the opposing players. Unfortunately, Stern said that kind of aggressive play has gotten Eckmann into foul trouble.

During an interview after a recent practice, Eckmann recalled his freshman season, when the team went 3-16. By last year, they had improved to 14-9.

'How Much Can We Lose By?'

"My first year, we joked around and would say, 'I wonder how much we are going to lose by,' " said Eckmann, who lives in Wynnewood, and takes an hour bus ride each day to and from the Northeast Philadelphia school.

"Because we've been playing with the same group for four years, we know where everyone is; we know when somebody needs help," said the teen.

The team competes mostly against Jewish day schools, as well as other private and charter schools. In addition to going undefeated, the main prize is a March tournament at Yeshiva University in New York, where they will compete against 18 Orthodox schools from throughout the country.

Stern is an unlikely basketball powerhouse. With just 42 boys in the high school, they don't have many potential players. Moreover, while most teams practice daily, Stern does so twice a week.

"The demands of our curriculum is the reason our sports teams have limited time to practice," said head of school Rabbi Mordechai Wecker.

For that same reason, Stern has opted not to have the team join a league, so there are less games than in a typical high school season.

Eckmann hopes to keep up basketball next year; he'll be studying at a yeshiva in Israel, and plans to compete in an inter-yeshiva league.

But he's got no shortage of other interests -- and accomplishments -- off the court.

A longtime Boy Scout, last month he was awarded the coveted rank of Eagle Scout. For his volunteer project, Eckmann recruited dozens of friends to help build and install new shelving in the basement of his synagogue, Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood.

Whatever his basketball future holds after high school, Eckmann says that he's relishing his time on the court with his Stern teammates: "It's great to have a Jewish team -- to go running around the court with our yarmulkes and saying, 'We can compete with you.' "

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