The SportsTalk Shop: HS Basketball Recap (Part 2)

As promised in last week’s blog, I did want to share a few of my reflections on the high school basketball season before we jump full force into our Lehigh Valley spring sports coverage.

Let’s start with the “good” things:

  • The District Semifinal contest at the PPL Center may have been a once in a lifetime experience for many associated with the event. Perhaps the biggest crowd we’ll ever see at a Lehigh Valley basketball playoff game was enhanced by two great games and many of the participating schools’ best players of all time converging at the same time. You could argue that the teams featured the four largest fan bases of any team in the region, which certainly make for a truly special night for many fans, athletes, parents and administrators.
  • The 6A boys and girls brackets were very competitive. Both Easton and Nazareth (in my opinion) were two of the best large school teams in the state entering the PIAAs, and both were eliminated in the first round.  The boys’ matchups were almost always entertaining as well in the league, district and state levels.  While there were a few blowouts and quite a few ‘lower seeds’ advancing deeper into the state playoffs than normal, these teams were usually quite talented and the contests were very competitive.
  • The nice-sized crowds at many of the larger schools featuring girls’ games as well as for both boys and girls teams at some of the smaller schools were encouraging. While not getting the media attention the EPC does, the Colonial League has some great crowds at most of their playoff games.   Bangor is an area that always supports its sports programs that followed its team well. Notre Dame fans were out in full force for both their boys and girls playoff runs.

Also, the Becahi girls had a nice turnout for many of their playoff games—most of them very one-sided with their Hawks dominating the opposition, and we already talked about the four schools (Allen, Emmaus, Parkland, Pocono Mountain West) who showed up in droves at the PPL Center.

  • Last and certainly not least, congratulations to the Nazareth wrestling squad and the Bethlehem Catholic girls basketball team for their dominating seasons, culminating with raising the state championship trophy. The Blue Eagles and Golden Hawks are two of a handful of teams from the Lehigh Valley that have state titles so far this school year.  We’ll be honoring Nazareth’s program on this week’s “SportsTalk” show (live, Thursday at 7pm) and we will be featuring more of this year’s PIAA champions (and hopefully we’ll add a few more title winners this spring) to upcoming editions of our Thursday night program—so keep checking back to the RCN-TV website for the dates and more details on when we’ll feature more championship teams.

And now…a few areas of concern:

  • As I predicted several weeks ago, the level of competition in many of the classifications below 6A was not nearly as strong as in years past. While I applaud the idea to get more schools involved and to try to create a “winning atmosphere” for as many kids as possible, it certainly diluted the overall quality of playoff games.  There were some very close—and very competitive–games overall, but there were also more blowout games in which the outcome of the game was never in question.  In 20 years of watching high school games as a media member and as a fan, I had only seen one “mercy rule” game in my life (many fans didn’t even know this rule existed for basketball until this year).  This year I sat through three games (including one state game) in which the contest’s clock just continued to run in order to let the losing team ‘off the hook.’  The combined margin of victory in the last four playoff games I broadcast was 108. Looking over the statewide brackets, there were many more games that were either “mercy games” or came close to invoking this dubious “rule” in league, district and state rounds.  To combat this, there is talk that the PIAA is putting together a “competitive committee” to balance the playing field for some schools.  Considering the state’s governing body just revamped their entire system and it resulted in more lopsided victories than ever before, I am very skeptical that things will change any time soon.
  • The attendance at a number of the mid-sized and smaller schools was not good (and, for some games, I’m being kind with that term) for premiere playoff games. I can understand smaller turnouts for mid-week games played in the afternoon and/or schools that have a far distance to travel.  But when the fans from Jim Thorpe outnumber three other Lehigh Valley schools for a district semifinal game, followed by a similar scene for the title game—and both were at sites in the heart of the Lehigh Valley—it did not represent the area very well.  One of the mid-sized classification’s championship games featured–at best–half-capacity and was not played at a gym that has a huge bleacher sections.

Granted, the overwhelming support at the bigger school games I’m sure made up for the games featuring lower turnouts.  Also, by having many more playoff games and inviting more teams in, I don’t think there’ll be any question that the final numbers of total playoff tickets will (and should) be higher than in years past.

I think overall it was a very good season for high school basketball.  With the graduation of many talented people this June, the summer basketball leagues will be even more intriguing as coaches look for people to step up and fill in some gaping holes.  Check back to the “SportsTalk Shop” in the coming weeks and months as we feature interviews and video of your local teams participating in spring and summer events.

Behind the Mic: Winter Bye-Bye

The season of 2016-17 officially came to an end this past weekend with the VIA All-Star basketball games being played.  Outstanding seniors donned their school’s uniforms for the last time and Lehigh Valley basketball was officially over.  There is no better time to reminisce…  Here are my top ten memories of this past season.

  1. The RCN TV team – I have spent more than 40+ years with this group and they never cease to amaze me with their work ethic, their dedication and their skills. Imagine over 100 winter productions laying wire, setting up cameras at the top of arenas, preparing the announcers’ booth, working the game and reversing the whole process when the game ends.  Now imagine doing that over and over and over again.
  1. East Stroudsburg North – This team had to put together a winning streak down the stretch just to get into the EPC playoffs and districts. They lost to Bethlehem Catholic in the EPC semis on a last second shot but came back to beat Whitehall, Central Catholic, and Pottsville to win their first District championship in school history.  The icing on the cake was their first-round state win (also, the first in school history) before finally falling.  It was a memorable season to say the least.
  1. Lafayette women win at home – On February 25, the Lafayette women were playing Colgate in the final home game of the year. They had not won a game at home all season.  In as entertaining game as you could see, the Leopards prevailed by a 90-85 score.  I’ll never forget how happy the women were along with their staff that they got this win on Senior Day.  Then, despite winning only two league games all year, they went on to win the first round game in the Patriot League Tournament.  More smiles.
  1. Lafayette hires new head football coach – Despite the winter sports season being about basketball and wrestling, the news that Lafayette hired a new head football coach makes my top ten. I loved working with former head coach Frank Tavani and, obviously, was saddened by his departure.  John Garrett was named the new head coach on December 21.  He enters Lafayette with a tremendous resume with both college and NFL experience.   Having attended some spring practices, there is a renewed energy in the staff and the players.  I’ll take that same energy into next season.  Go Leopards!
  1. Tom and John – All the respect and praise I feel for the RCN staff carries over to my color analysts for high school and college basketball, Tom Stoudt and John Leone. Obviously, the three of us spend a great deal of time together and it is full of conversation, joking, ribbing, and good times.  The winter goes very quickly when you are around these guys!
  1. Allen’s fan base – Many of us in the media have been lamenting the absence of good crowds for the high school basketball games in the past few years. Interest just seemed to lag.  Not this year.  Gyms were filled, for the most part, and the Allen fan base wins the award for the greatest support.  I think interest was up throughout the Valley, but no team had more support, both adult and student-based than the Allen Canaries.  There is nothing better than a high school gym filled with two good teams and an enthusiastic crowd.  There were plenty of both this season.
  1. Emmaus’ run in the PIAA state playoffs – This team went in as the #4 seed from District XI – a seed we had never had before the increase in classifications. In other words, before this year, they would not have even gotten into the playoffs.  They sure made the opportunity pay off.  No boys’ team from the Lehigh Valley went further into the playoffs.  They beat Cheltenham and Harrisburg before losing in double overtime to Carlisle in the most exciting game of the year.  Talk about seizing the moment.
  1. The individual talent – I have never experienced a year with so much talent on so many teams, both boys and girls. It did not seem to matter which gym you would walk into. You knew that there would be two or three or sometimes eight great players.  One night a doubleheader featured eight 1,000 point scorers (unheard of).  Martin, Williams, Iorio, Kachelries, Kachelries, Johnson, Singh, etc. on the boys’ side, and Blount, Brugler, Cyr, Luma, Zamolyi, Medina, Bloshuk, etc. on the girls’ side.  Most graduate but, hopefully, the next group is ready to make history as well.
  1. The Bethlehem Catholic state championship – This team won a school-record thirty games, breezed through the PIAA state playoffs and won their first state title in history. They were led by Jose Medina, who has won 75 games in three years as their head coach.  His team won the five state games by an average of 21.2 points (oh, my!!).  I just loved the way they played and the demeanor of the entire staff.  You can feel good about rooting for this team.
  1. I think #1 on every fans’ list this season was the amazing crowd (8,000 +) at the PPL Center for the EPC semifinals.  It featured four great teams – Allen, Parkland, Emmaus, and Pocono Mountain West.  The games did not disappoint, the venue was spectacular, and the crowd was awesome.  When I think back to my playing days (no snickering here, please), we had to travel to the State Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg to handle the crowd for a Lehigh Valley District semifinals and finals. Going to the PPL Center may have been one of the best nights ever for Lehigh Valley basketball.  It’s my #1!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. How about Mississippi State stopping the Connecticut women’s basketball winning streak at 111 games. Last year, UCONN beat Mississippi State 98-38.  The tables were turned in overtime this year 66-64.  UCONN was going for their fifth straight NCAA title.  They started their streak on December 23, 2014.  Look at the recap:

http://pmd.cdn.turner.com/ncaa/big/2017/04/01/1337884/1491026111912-uconn-missst-v3-mov-1337884_960x540_2104.mp4

  1. Sunday marked the 31st anniversary of the three-point shot (19’ 9”) in college basketball. It is perhaps the most dramatic change in modern basketball.
  2. The Flyers will not make the NHL playoffs. They were finally eliminated after losing on Sunday.
  3. The Dodgers and the Indians are the favorites to win the National and American League pennants with the Cubs and the Red Sox close behind.
  4. The Phillies won 71 games last year. Manager Pete MacKanin said he hopes to win ten more this season or one-half of the 162 games they play.  Based on last year, 81 wins would have put them in third place in the NL East behind the Mets and the Nationals.  A fan can only hope.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: “FINAL” 2017 Basketball Poll

I have to keep it real here—it was not the most exciting regular season in terms of monitoring our scholastic ranking system this winter.

While we’ve seen some well-played games (last Friday’s Freedom/Liberty game by far the best contest I’ve called this winter) and I’m anticipating a very entertaining post-season, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement among our “SportsTalk” poll results over the course of the regular season.

Before we get to our last rankings of the year, here’s a quick recap if you are not familiar with our program.

Our pollsters are comprised of a combination of local media members (Morning Call’s Keith Groller, RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach and RCN basketball Announcers Tom Stoudt and Dennis Laub and Lehigh Valley Basketball Rankings’s Toomey Anderson).  We also have three distinguished head basketball coaches giving their insights on the top teams in the Lehigh Valley area.

All District XI schools were eligible for the poll and were divided into either our “big schools” (5A & 6A classifications) or “small schools” (4A & below) rankings.

The “small schools” consist of Wilson, Saucon Valley, Bethlehem Catholic, Northwestern, Palisades, Palmerton, Salisbury, Notre Dame-GP, Moravian Academy, Lincoln Leadership, Pen Argyl, Northern Lehigh and Catasauqua.

The “big schools” are Bangor, Central Catholic, Southern Lehigh, Whitehall, Allen, Dieruff, Easton, Emmaus, Freedom, Liberty, Nazareth, E. Stroudsburg North & South, Pocono Mountain East, Pocono Mountain West, Stroudsburg, Northampton, Parkland, and Pleasant Valley.

As far as our “final” results…which looked very similar to what our pre-season poll looked like:

Big School Basketball Poll—Class 5A & up (8 pollsters)

  • Allen – 40 points (8 first place votes)
  • Emmaus – 26 points
  • Parkland – 22 points
  • Pocono Mountain West – 14 points
  • Bangor – 13 points

____________________________________________________________

Small School Basketball Poll—Class 4A & Below (7 pollsters)

  • Becahi – 35 points (7 first place votes)
  • Salisbury – 24 points
  • Notre Dame-GP – 23 points
  • Saucon Valley – 15 points
  • Wilson – 5 points

Just to recap, Allen maintained its standings as the area’s (and the state’s) top “big school” team all winter by running the table (through this past weekend), and was only really challenged in a handful of games all year.

Among the “smaller schools,” Bethlehem Catholic lost just three league games to date—all by three points are less, and all of them to bigger-sized schools.

The only other teams that had any significant in-season movement in our polls were Parkland and Wilson.  The Trojans  got off to a slow start and fell off our poll completely before  bouncing back and, now, looking about as good as any team in the region (except perhaps Allen, who they played Monday night on RCN-TV).  The Warriors, under a new coach and armed with a very young squad, have made a late-season push and end the season as our “number five” team.

One other note, while Pocono Mountain West slid down from its “number two” position in our preseason poll, I had one local head coach whose opinion I really trust tell me last weekend that he is seriously concerned about “West” and does not want to face them in the post-season.  The Panthers dropped a few regular season games that, on paper, they probably shouldn’t have lost—but with all the talent on that squad and the match-up problems they could create–they very likely could play deep into the league and/or district tournaments.

To help break down these results in further detail and to talk about the Colonial League and Eastern Pennsylvania Conference playoffs, RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach will join us on this week’s “SportsTalk.”

We’ll also talk about high school basketball in the DC region on this Thursday’s show as DMV Elite’s Marcus Helton will join us via Skype to talk about the area’s regular season, identify the top players and teams and look ahead to a busy final week of the regular season.  Marcus will also give us some upcoming “match-ups to watch” along with his take on which teams will have the most success in the region’s post-season tournaments.

So tune in to the show this Thursday at 7pm or catch the podcast at rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk and let us know your basketball opinions and questions. If there’s a team, athlete or playoff match-up you’d like us to address on that show, be sure to email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and tune-in for our panelists’ responses!

Behind the Mic: Feel-Good Stories

After spending around ten hours on the road this past weekend driving to Worcester, Massachusetts, and watching Lafayette get beaten badly by Holy Cross 42-0, I was not in a very good mood as I sat down to write this week’s blog.  After all, the Leopards, who have been completely decimated by injuries this season have been outscored by 122-7 the past three weeks and have not scored a point in the last ten quarters.  I spend quite a bit of time with the players and the coaches each week and feel their pain and sense of frustration.  It certainly weighs on all of them and I, too, by virtue of my relationships with them, feel equally “down”.

Suffice it to say, I sat at the keyboard on Monday morning and I needed a lift – a feel-good story.  But, I did not find one – I found THREE!  I don’t know whether you need to read these stories as much as I needed to write them.

Let me start with a former Easton High defensive football player named Chevy Graham.  You may not remember the name.  He was part of Easton’s two District Championship teams in 2009 and 2010 and started in the secondary the next two years and played in the McDonald’s All-Star Football Classic.  He was not offered any Division I scholarships and only one Division II offer (East Stroudsburg University) came his way.  But, he always felt he could play at a higher level.  When his father moved to Wichita, Kansas, Chevy decided to apply to Kansas University and play football.  He decided that; Kansas University still needed to be convinced.

So, his first semester, he sat in the stands for every game.  The following January, he went to a tryout for the KU team.  And just like he had predicted, he made the team!  The first year, he played on special teams.  This season, he is now a starter in the secondary as a cornerback and living his dream to play Division I football.

And lest you think Chevron (his real name) is just going to school for football, he is a chemical engineering student who is a member of the Academic Big 12 team, and is an Honor Roll student.  Just like his major, he was able to formulate a plan to enjoy a game he loves and play it at the highest level.  Read more about Chevy in Jesse Newell’s post:

http://cjonline.com/sports/hawkzone/2015-10-15/stands-starter-kus-chevy-graham-rewarded-leap-faith

The next two “feel-good” stories center around two of our Lehigh Valley teams – the Allen Canaries and the Dieruff Huskies.  This past weekend both of them won!  If you do not think that’s a big deal, the last time the two Allentown schools won on the same weekend was November 8, 2002, 13 years ago!

Dieruff beat Pocono Mountain West 33-20.  Now Dieruff has won other games this year (over ES North and Pocono Mountain East) and they did win four games last year, so their plight has not been quite as desperate as the Allen Canaries.

Allen had not won a football game since 2009 – they had lost 28 in a row.  Last year, they were outscored 403-71 and ended the season by being shut out by Dieruff 35-0.  This season, prior to their 28-27 win over East Stroudsburg South, they had been outscored 296-57.

As a former player and coach, I have the utmost respect for kids and coaches who continue week after week to go out and compete knowing the outcome will not be favorable.  These same kids still hit the weight room, still practice five days a week, still take the field on Friday night, still attend classes, still remain academically eligible, and still hope.  It is so easy to just walk away from this commitment especially when it is rare to reap the rewards with victories.

High praise belongs to the head coaches – Kyle Beller of Dieruff and George Clay of Allen, who, also, persevere and, every now and then, they get rewarded for their efforts, maybe not in wins, but in the gratification of working with his players.  This weekend, however, both were rewarded with wins!

That’s what happened this weekend, so congratulations to Chevy, to Dieruff, and to Allen.  And now, I “feel-good”.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. Mets or Royals? Royals really have good hitters up and down the lineup.  I like the Mets’ pitching.  The Mets are destined to win the World Series.
  2. Watching the Eagles on Sunday, who do you blame for the losses? The receivers drop too many passes; Sam Bradford throws too many interceptions; they cannot run the ball; and the hurry-up has little or no effect on the opponent.  And they still could win the NFC East.
  3. If you are looking for the perfect college football atmosphere this coming Saturday, watch undefeated #21 Temple take on #9 Notre Dame at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. This could be the best Temple team ever and the campus and Philadelphia area are ready to explode.  Notre Dame, with a national rabid following, will be out in full force.  The atmosphere will be electric!
  4. It’s a typical year in the EPC South – Liberty beats Parkland; Parkland beats Easton; Easton beats Liberty; with Central also beating Easton and Nazareth also beating Liberty, Parkland is looking like the champion. Freedom still has an outside shot.
  5. Freedom (7-1; 5-1) tries to rebound from their first loss of the season when they host Easton (7-1; 4-2). You can watch the game LIVE on RCN-TV.  At 10:00, the Colonial League championship should be decided when undefeated Notre Dame takes on undefeated Saucon Valley.  Saturday, Lafayette takes on Bucknell and Liberty plays Central.

Gary's Picks

NFL PICKS LAST WEEK – 7-7; OVERALL 68-37 (65%)
NFL PICKS (WEEK EIGHT)
 

NEW ENGLAND
KANSAS CITY
ATLANTA
ARIZONA
GIANTS
MINNESOTA
SAN DIEGO
CINCINNATI
TENNESSEE
JETS
SEATTLE
GREEN BAY
CAROLINA
ST LOUIS

Reflections on the 2012-13 Basketball Season – The SportsTalk Shop

High School Basketball Thoughts: Reflections on the 2012/2013 Season

First of all, this is for amusement purposes only.  It is simply based on my memory of the games that I saw in person this year, and not a collective decision of all games in our coverage area this season. There were some tremendous accomplishments by young people in the Lehigh & Delaware Valley areas, and some moments that will stick with me for quite a while.  I’m glad to have the opportunity to share some of these experiences with you—and you’re more than welcome to add your own on our “comments” section to highlight the young men and women’s outstanding achievements this winter!

In no particular order, some of my “honors” for this year’s HS boys and girls basketball seasons include:

BEST GROUP OF SOPHOMORES –Constitution High School. These guys practiced against the State Single-A champs as freshmen a year ago, and looked impressive enough to defend their titles when I saw them play.  They can not only play up-tempo basketball with the best of them, but they seem like a very smart group and have a really quality head coach in Rob Moore. Don’t be surprised if they make a regular appearance in PIAA championship games for the next several years.

BEST DYNAMIC DUO — CCHS’s Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman & Jean Lee Baez. They were not only two of the most talented players in the Eastern PA region coming into this season, but they actually got BETTER as the year went along.  MAAR started the season as the single-biggest scoring threat in the Lehigh Valley Conference, and as the year unfolded, developed the challenging skill of making his teammates better, while still being one of the most dynamic scoring machines in the region. Baez also improved in all facets of his game (which includes adding 30-percentage points to his free throw average) and should become the most dominate post player in the area for next year. They have solid role players around them — all of whom will get better with a year of experience with their new system and by having these two players on their team. As of this writing, Central’s final chapter hasn’t been completed yet for this season, but I have no doubt that they will win titles again in 2014 and go deep into the state playoffs in the senior seasons for both Abdur-Rahkman and Baez.

BEST BASKETBALL IQ – Nazareth Girls team. They showed on RCN SportsTalk that they can have some fun (although I couldn’t get them to sing like the boys team did a few years ago), but when the whistle blows, they are a no-nonsense team that is very focused and always seems to make the smart play, on offense or on defense. On highlights after making a basket, when our cameras get a “reaction shot,” they’re always looking at the opponent’s defense, pointing out opponents making adjustments or cuts down-court, or sniffing out an outlet pass to make a play on it.  They can play “junk” defenses with the best of them, and had a perfect balance of talent (one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams of all time) and smarts (knowing WHEN to shoot the 3) to become the first-ever Nazareth team to win two major titles in one school year.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Freedom’s loss in the state playoffs.  If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times this year,  “Joe Stellato is such a nice guy.”  And he absolutely is. But I also don’t know of another coach who works harder or is better prepared or has a better understanding of his team.  I thought (and many people were rooting for) his team to earn some semblance of a post-season honor this year; either a title or a state playoff win. They lost to two quality teams in the league & district playoffs.  I don’t want to take anything away from Upper Darby, but the Patriots had the lead several times in their opening round state playoff game and just took some mind-numbing bad shots when they didn’t have to.  I know that loss will stick with me until next season … and I can’t imagine how tough it’ll be for Coach Joe and the absolutely fabulous “Riot Squad” fan base to bounce back from (hey guys, don’t forget to put my face on a poster for next year—if you can find enough trees for all the paper you’ll need).

NICEST “EVENT” – Bangor Boys basketball team. I’m identifying them for a few reasons. One, their ‘almost win’ over a streaking Wilson team up at the Pensyl Gym in mid-January. They were without four regulars for the game and had the potential to be blown-out in one of the biggest regular season matchups of the year (I had thought so anyway). But Bron Holland’s team battled and was down by two possessions late in the game (they did get a bad break late as well) before Wilson won the game and continued their tremendous regular season run. The team also got a chance to witness a major Top 25 NCAA upset in person at Gola Arena. Then, of course, they battled back to win a thrilling Colonial League Championship (their first in 25 years) in OT and avenge the Wilson loss.

MOST OVERACHIEVING TEAM (although they shouldn’t have been) – Parkland Boys basketball. I’m giving them the nod for this because I was shocked at how many pre-season prognosticators didn’t expect this team to do as well as they did. Sure, they were picked to win the North Division in the LVC this year, but I was amazed by some of my announcing colleagues who labeled some of the Trojans’ early season wins as “upsets.”  Even late in the year, a number of our local experts thought the way they matched up against Freedom would be too much for the Trojans to overcome—and those predictions ended up looking disastrous, with Parkland making the district championship victory look seemingly easy. They had a solid all-around player in Austin Beidleman (and I do have to give credit as always to Mr. Keith Groller who continued to have a solid “Stone-Cold Lock” by making Austin THE player to watch this year on our “SportsTalk” HS Basketball Preview show in December), a very heady point guard in Jimmy Hahn, a inside and outside threat in Justin Zajko, a player I had touted last year in Nick Rindock (insert my “see-I-told-you-so” line here), and some nice “role” performances by the likes of Austin Jones, Nick Selvaggi (boy did he come up looking solid in the playoffs) and others. Most of these players are back next year, so be on alert and don’t try to underestimate this team again in 2014.

BIGGEST INDIVIDUAL MATCH-UP FOR NEXT YEAR – Vincent Eze vs. Phil Pierfy.  Both of these underclassmen have made great strides over the last two years. Both have the potential to be major players at the college level—although each one has their own, very different style. The Notre Dame/Wilson match-up is always a fierce rivalry and is competitive at least twice a year regardless of the team’s records and standings position, but I’m hoping I can see these two players do battle at least once next year.  I’d hate to be one of the people that might have to choose between one or the other for the best center in the Colonial League next year.

PLAYER MOST SORRY TO SEE LEAVE –Liberty’s Greg Noack. No player came over to the announcers’ table more often in 2013 and say “hey how you doing,” or “thanks for doing our game” than Mr. Noack this year and no one had more pressure put on him to do well this season. The Canes season ended a bit earlier than I had thought this year (they got a TOUGH matchup with Williamsport in the “Chester” bracket), but through all the ups-and-downs, this year, Greg helped his team earn an LVC title this year and made for some great memories for the loyal-Liberty fan base.

PLAYER(S) MOST GLAD TO SEE RETURNING –Liberty’s DeShawn Oyeniyi & K J Williams. No player made more of a difference for his team nor improved from last year more than the guy whose last name no one can correctly pronounce (except of course for the RCN announcers). Oyeniyi proved to be a solid double-double threat on nearly every night, and should become one of the premiere LVC players next year—ifLiberty can find another player to take some of the post-presence heat off of him (this will not be an easy task).

Also, Tom Stoudt called K J Williams the most athletic player in the league this year, and I cannot disagree with him. He’s one of the premiere players to watch in both football and basketball (seriously, think about how many players we’ve seen as good as Williams in two different sports the last few years!), and I’m looking forward to seeing him racing down the sidelines & making unbelievable catches in the fall.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A FRESHMAN — Allen’s Zay Jennings. No team went through more ups-and-downs this year than the William Allen Boys Basketball team. Through it all (and one of the ‘benefits’ of the off-the-court issues), there were several outstanding contributions by the Canaries underclassmen, who made the most of the earlier-than-expected increase in playing time.Jennings quickly established himself as a premiere perimeter jump shooter and a very heady player—his ninth grade status notwithstanding. Expect Allen to made a bigger splash in the post-season in 2014 and don’t be surprised to see Zay’s name on an All-LVC team or two in the future.

“STONE-COLD LOCK” FOR BASKETBALL IN 2014 –Southern Lehigh’s Girls team will be in the Colonial League Championship. A very smart, versatile and athletic team, with many returning parts from this year’s league title squad will definitely be playing for a chance to defend its title — again. They play a very tough schedule and gave the District Champion Golden Hawks all they could handle in the district championship game, and I have no doubt we will see them again doing great things in the post-season next year.

TEAM THAT COULD SURPRISE YOU IN 2014 — Emmaus Boys team.  They gave us some great moments in 2013 and they are absolutely LOADED with talent in the underclass levels.  The JV team looked impressive the two times I saw them this year against opponents with traditionally strong programs.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Hornets advancing further in the playoffs a year from now.

OK, who did I miss? And what teams and players stick out in YOUR mind as the high school basketball season winds down? Post a comment here and email me at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com. We’ll be wrapping up the winter sports season on our next show, Thursday at 6pm on RCN-TV.

One other note:  in response to a blog follower’s comments in a previous post regarding the Phillies broadcasts and our channel lineup, I wanted to thank you for your opinions and I can assure you that I passed your comments along to my supervisor and alerted the appropriate persons of your views.  Please feel free to email me your concerns and questions and I’ll do my best to give you the best response I can.

 

The SportsTalk Shop – February 19th

BOYS & GIRLS DISTRICT PREVIEWS

Last week we talked about the teams that made or just missed qualifying for the LVC and Colonial League HS Boys’ Basketball Playoffs (see our February 11th entry). Today we look at some of the Boys’ and Girls’ District XI pairing match-ups, and also “update” some of the team’s information based on last week’s events.

Class 4-A Boys

Whitehall is riding a momentum upswing after a last-second come-from-behind win over Allen and has really come together as a team at the perfect time.  I had talked earlier about how the Zephyrs had some very good individual athletes on the team, headlined by Tony Belluccci, but the team has strung together some impressive wins.  Stroudsburg is a challenging opponent and I expect this to be one of the best opening round games of the tournament.  Both of these teams are capable of beating their next round opponent Pocono Mountain West, who has experienced some tough losses to Lehigh Valley teams in the second half of the year, but still is the top ranked 4A team in the district.

The Easton/Allen matchup is the game RCN has selected to broadcast Wednesday, and is also an intriguing match-up.  Allen has the height advantage inside and every time you count them out, they’ve surprised us this year (including winning 4 of its last 6 in beating some of the top teams in the area to make the play-offs).  Easton has excellent guards in DeVante Queen, Xavier Jenkins & Company.  The Allen guards will have their work cut out for them trying to slow them down, but if they can control the tempo and deny the Canaries’ ‘bigs,’ they look to have the advantage.

Parkland looks to bounce back from their LVC Championship loss and would love to cruise past East Stroudsburg-South and Bangor to get some revenge against league champion Liberty.   The Hurricanes looked like the dominant team we were expecting during the league play-offs, with 6 or 7 of their players capable of starting on most other team’s squads.  DeShawn Oyeniyi might have the dubious distinction of being the most pivotal player in the success of any state-bound team, yet not be a member of his all-league team (and there were justified mitigating circumstances).  Freedom was one of our panelist’s “dark horse” teams to watch on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, and will play the winner of the Rovers/Canaries in the second round.  Congratulations again to the Slaters for their first league title in 25 years.  However, it’s going to be hard again for them to win a district play-off game as they will most probably open against the Trojans.

Class 3-A Boys

Gary Laubach made my day by reminding me that there will be three 3-A teams that qualify for the state playoffs this year.  This is great news for Wilson fans, who lost a tough game to Bangor in the Colonial League championship and may have a tough time beating Central Catholic in the semifinal round, as the Vikings looked to re-bound from their league semi-final loss to Liberty.  The Warriors, who have lost just two games this year, had opportunities late against the Slaters, but Jeremy Ringland hit a dramatic shot at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime for Bangor to win.  Salisbury, I think, has a very tough match-up in facing Wilson, who has beaten the Falcons three times in a row.  Matchup-wise, Salisbury needs to run to have success and would have an easier time being bracketed with a team like Tamaqua, Northern Lehigh or Lehighton.
The team to watch could be Bethlehem Catholic, who’s making its first appearance in districts in some time, after having to defeat Easton to qualify.  Matt Husek is a hidden talent and I think they are fully capable of winning their opening round contest versus Blue Mountain.  Plus, the Hawks have an interesting bracket path could lead to state qualification or even the championship game—a HUGE accomplishment for a nice guy in Mike Frew, who took over the program this year.

I haven’t seen Southern Lehigh this year, expect for watching their league-opening win over Wilson on RCN’s video-on-demand, but it’s Bob Shaffer and Kurt Zellner’s last run together.  Knowing those Spartans’ basketball players of the past, I wouldn’t be surprised and hope that they can put a run together for their coaches so we can see Bob & Kurt coach another game on RCN-TV.

Class 2-A & A Boys

I “think” things have worked out well for both Catty & Notre Dame so that they should make it to the championship game and subsequently earn a trip to States.  I have no idea about Williams Valley and North Schuylkill (no yet, anyway), but I talked in an earlier blog about the positives of both the Rough Riders and the Crusaders.  I’d love to see them advance and try to win a PIAA game.  We also talked quite a bit about Pius on the Feb. 14th edition of “SportsTalk” (check it out on VOD) and about their strengths and chances to advance in the postseason.
Class 4-A Girls

Nazareth looked impressive in defeating Parkland for a second time in three tries (they came within a point of sending the game they lost into overtime).  However, they have to get past a gritty Liberty, who is very well-coached.  Speaking of, how about the job Jeff Jacksits is doing once again at Northampton, who started the year off dreadfully, only to come back and make districts?  Don’t know how they’ll fare against Stroudsburg or Pocono Mountain West, but what a huge accomplishment it would be for the K-Kids to get to a semifinal game against defending district champ Bangor, one of a quartet of impressive Colonial League teams again this year.

Class 3-A
I was very impressed with Southern Lehigh again this year!  Madelene McDonald, Mady Campbell and their whole team are fundamentally sound, and I was awed by their basketball smarts and ability to drive and score/draw fouls … and then convert at the line.  Melann Amory is a very underrated player and Brianna Prince has very quick hands and is an excellent “undersized” post presence.
The Spartans will probably have to battle Northwestern for a third time in the 2nd round. The cliché mentions how tough it is to be a quality team three times, and the third battle will be an all-out war.  League MVP Sara Jones and her back court mates were not-too-happy about watching the final minutes of the championship from the sidelines, and they will be looking for revenge big-time.
On the other side of the bracket, you will see (once Bethlehem Catholic trumps Palmerton) another rematch between the Hawks and Central Catholic.  Both were upset in the league semi-finals and there’s still no indication that Janelle Robinson can make a remarkable recovery; however, Bethlehem Catholic still has LVC League MVP Kalista Walters and a very talented group of players that were the top girls team in the Valley during the regular season.  I keep hearing people saying Central is “down” this year (how good is their program in which 4 losses is considered “down” by some), but I think the inevitable meeting between these two teams in districts could be another barn-burner.

Class 2-A

One of my favorite teams from outside the area to cover is Pine Grove — not only do they always have an outstanding team (either the boys or the girls seemed to win a title every year), but they send me NCAA Division One-like information about their program.   Notre Dame Head Coach Josh Kopp is also one of the most prepared coaches in the Valley and his team that just fell sort of a Colonial League championship appearance this year.  This should make for an interesting District XI title game with Pine Grove.

Well … that’s my take on the District XI play-off picture.  Tell me where I made mistakes and where I’m completely off-base via email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com as we’ll be talking about the district basketball play-offs for the next couple weeks (the show airs live on Thursdays at 6pm on RCN-TV).  You can also post your comments here on our blog!  Best of luck to all the teams!