Favorite athlete: TJ McConnell
Favorite teams: Eagles & Sixers
Favorite memory competing in sports: Beating Reading in overtime at the Geigle Complex
Most embarrassing/funniest thing that has happened while competing in sports: Getting yelled at by coach.
Music on mobile device: Country
Future plans: Attend the United States Naval Academy
Words to live by: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
One goal before turning 30: Travel the world
One thing people don’t know about me: Born with a cleft lip.
By Ed Morrone
Sean Yoder is a huge Philadelphia 76ers fan, and it’s no surprise he lists Sixers’ guard T.J. McConnell as his favorite player.
McConnell came into the league with little fanfare, an undrafted free agent who had to develop a multi-faceted skill set at the professional level to make an impression. Now, McConnell does a little bit of everything — and does it well, even if it’s not flashy — en route to becoming a key cog on one of the NBA’s most exciting teams.
And while Yoder and McConnell are not mirror images of one another, there are certainly parallels when you look a little bit closer. For starters, Yoder had little attention from collegiate basketball coaches heading into his junior season at Pennridge. After a sophomore season where he learned the ropes, Yoder averaged more than 16 points per game as a junior. However, he did more than just score the ball. Standing just 6-foot-2 and Pennridge’s point guard, Yoder also became the team’s leading rebounder, was its top assists man, turned himself into a relentless attacker of the rim and developed into a more than capable defender on the other end.
Add it all up, and the Division I offers began to pour in like a flash flood. By the time his junior year bled into AAU season, Yoder had received offers from Marist, Colgate, High Point, Canisius, New Hampshire, Wagner, Vermont, Furman, Campbell and the United States Naval Academy. In the end, the disciplined, regimented structure of Navy’s curriculum fit Yoder’s persona, and the now senior will head to Annapolis in the fall.
Not bad for a kid who was still finding himself and getting his feet wet after his first varsity season sophomore year.
Yoder doesn’t necessarily excel in one area more than all others; rather, like McConnell, he became the sum of his total parts, and a plethora of college programs took notice.
“My dad played college basketball at Moravian, and he and I always talked about how much multi-dimensional players can help a team,” Yoder said. “There are guys who can only do one thing and that’s it, but that’s not me. If my shot is off, I still want to be able to positively affect the game, and I can do that with how I pass, rebound, defend. The energy I bring, how I get my teammates involved - these are all other aspects of the game that I pride myself on.”
Whatever Yoder is doing seems to be working for both himself and the Pennridge basketball program. A season ago, Yoder helped lead the Rams to a 19-9 overall record and a 9-3 mark in SOL Continental play, which included a berth in the PIAA tournament. Eight games into the 2018-19 campaign, Pennridge is 6-2 overall and 1-1 in conference play. Through the first six games, Yoder was averaging more than 24 points per game while again leading his team in both rebounds and assists.
Yoder grew up in a hoops family, with his brothers playing the sport in addition to his dad. By the time he got to middle school, Yoder began to focus more on basketball when he realized it could take him somewhere. Once he got to Pennridge, he realized more and more that the game could actually serve as the vehicle that took him to college.
“I think my work ethic has always been there,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to get better and perfect my craft any way I can. As I got more experience at the varsity level and got more time on the floor, my confidence increased. Once I got my feet wet as a sophomore, I saw what I had to do to improve and get to the next level. Then, junior year, everything fell into place. My shot started falling, and we had a great group of unselfish guys who loved playing with each other. When you have the chemistry we did, it makes things a lot easier.
“It also helped me become a more vocal leader, which is what I’m all about now. You have to lead by example, but you also have to be vocal and get the young kids to where they need to be. That can be some encouraging words or a kick in the butt when they need to pick it up. That’s why I’m there. I think leadership is a strength of mine, and the Naval Academy noticed that.”
It’s clear that it takes a special, unique kind of person to commit his or herself to a service academy, especially when that person is playing a sport full-time on top of academic and other miscellaneous responsibilities that come with going to such a disciplined institution.
Yoder was drawn to Navy for many reasons. He loved the structure and organization the school provides in addition to the expectations it demands of its students. Yoder also believed it fit his personality as someone who was meant to lead.
“When I visited Navy, the team felt so close-knit,” he said. “You’re all in the same boat with the military aspect, so basketball becomes kind of an outlet, a safe space where we can have fun and enjoy a game. I’m a pretty disciplined individual, and I think I can thrive in that type of environment. It gives you opportunities that no other school could give me after I graduate. Navy will set me up with friendships, relationships and career opportunities, and the people you meet are generally incredible. That connection to people is what pushed me over the edge.”
Yoder’s high school basketball coach has no doubt that his star player will fit in just fine at Navy, even if there is an initial period of adjustment just like the one he experienced at Pennridge.
“It will be challenging, especially the first year, but Sean is up for that challenge,” Dean Behrens said. “Sean is very structured in how he approaches his day and he’s also conditioned, so he won’t have any problem handling the physicality of the navy. Of course, you never know until you live it, but he’s as prepared as possible. Navy got a kid who can do it all.”
Behrens listed Yoder’s biggest strengths on the court as getting to the basket, his midrange game, rebounding and defense. He lauded Yoder’s athleticism and said Yoder has improved his three-point shot in a big way, and while he needs to get stronger in preparation for the college game, Behrens said there’s no need for Yoder to put on 20 to 30 pounds of muscle, either.
For his part, Yoder concurred that getting to the basket is one of his biggest strengths, though he wants to use this season to work on finishing with a higher frequency. He also expressed a desire to become a better jump shooter overall, especially in this era when collegiate basketball programs live and die behind the three-point arc.
As far as individual goals go for his senior season, Yoder said he doesn’t really have any. He’s committed to play Division I ball, so now he just wants to focus on improving every day. After that, Yoder is solely focused on his team, wanting to help his younger teammates as much as he can in the time he has left while also enjoying every second he has with his fellow seniors.
“Down the road, I’d love to make the playoffs, win the conference and all of that good stuff,” he said. “But one thing at a time. I think we’ve really started to find our identity the last few games, and I want to stick to that. Just trying to keep the guys together and keep that team chemistry on point.”
As a student, Yoder has always taken his academics seriously. If he didn’t, there’s no way he would have been admitted to Navy. As good of a ballplayer as he is, these service academies don’t mess around when it comes to grades, and Yoder is especially cognizant of that fact. He knows basketball can only take him so far and will ultimately end one day, and Yoder has always been enough of a forward thinker to often wonder what comes when that day does arrive. Though he’s not sure exactly what area of study he is going to major in once he gets to college, Yoder understands how well he does in the classroom is what’s going to really matter.
Away from the court and classroom, Yoder is an enormous Philadelphia sports fan who enjoys spending time with his family, friends and teammates. He’s also very involved with his church and has been on two weeklong mission trips to Haiti the last two summers, an eye-opening experience for certain.
“We spent a lot of time with orphaned kids, and it’s just tremendous outreach,” Yoder said. “Our problems here are almost next to none compared to what they have to deal with down there. It’s crazy to see that level of poverty and yet see how content and happy the Haitians are with what they do have. In America, we are so fortunate and are trained to think of the negatives and things we don’t have while the people of Haiti thank the Lord every day for what they do have. It really opened my eyes the two weeks I spent there. It changed my outlook and just generally offered a different perspective.”
As the holidays and a new year approach, Yoder has reflected on how thankful he is for where basketball and the last four years have led him. He’s achieved a dream, and it’s something he’ll never forget as long as he lives.
“Playing college basketball has been a dream of mine since middle school,” Yoder said. “I just wanted to play at whatever level after high school. It’s kind of hitting me right now that it’s right here in front of me. I’m incredibly fortunate to be in the position I’m in. It’s kind of crazy to think I’m a Division I basketball player, but at the same time, I still have to be a leader on the court and keep my grades up in the classroom. I’m excited.
“I can’t say enough about my coaching staff the last four years. I’ve learned so much and they developed me into the leader I am now, which is one of the reasons Navy went so hard after me. It’s been an eye-opening experience, and I will miss the fun we had at Pennridge so much. Playing with my best friends, my brothers, fighting for them and playing for each other - if you’re not having fun doing that at the end of the day, then you’re not doing something right.”