The Sports Talk Shop: Chris’s “ALL-UNDERRATED” Football Edition (Part 1)

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of RCN or any other agency, organization, employer or company.

Last year, I did a blog entry here at “The Shop” reflecting back on the past basketball season that was well-received and seemed to generate some very positive comments.

The idea for that blog was not to single out the best players, teams and individual plays, but to spotlight student-athletes and coaches who did something great but perhaps didn’t get the attention he or she deserved.

As with the “All-Underrated Team” I did last spring, it’s completely arbitrary and was based solely on the games that I witnessed in person—either as a broadcaster or as a spectator. It did NOT include any games or videos I watched through RCN On-Demand, HUDL or any videos I saw on social media.

With that in mind, I wanted to single out some individuals who fit that same criteria during this past District XI high school football season.

The awards go to…

MOST UNDERRATED KICKER

Whitehall’s Alex Khouri.

The Zephyrs had a rare poor season and was one of the few Lehigh Valley teams that did not qualify for the playoffs this year.  However, Khouri was one of the most consistent extra point kickers in the area and had a strong leg on kickoffs in the few times we got an opportunity to see Whitehall this past season.

MOST UNDERRATED DEFENSIVE PLAYER IN A GAME

Southern Lehigh Linebacker LB Asher Smith. In a game I witnessed as a fan, the junior really stood out in a much-needed win over Palmerton after the Spartans were upset against Saucon Valley to open the season. Smith had a team-high nine solo tackles (10 total), five pass breakups and one pick-six….he also played well, was all over the place the previous week in keeping his team in the close game in the Panthers loss and also ended up with several returned kickoffs as one of the “up men.”

MOST UNDERRATED DEFENSIVE PLAYER/SEASON

Bethlehem Catholic’s Tavion Banks and Paul Carreras

Banks was one of the preseason “running backs to watch” in both local papers, however, he impressed me even more with his defense this past fall.  Banks is one of the top cover men in league—I kept reading in the high school football capsules each week that Becahi’s secondary was a weakness and that teams will look to exploit the Hawks’ ability to give up big plays.  However, the Hawks’ passing yardage was right in line with their opponents (153 yards per game vs. 158 at the end of the regular season).  I thought Banks did a great job keying on other teams’ top receivers and Becahi had just as many big players (if not more) than many other LV teams.

Carreras deserves extra mention because he was not only a standout linebacker all year long, but he was impressive offense (and both a running and a blocking back) and even excelled in the thankless role of a punter (averaging over 37 yards per punt during the regular season—one of the top marks in the area) and filled in kicker when Penn State-bound Anthony DeSilva went down with an injury (and did an admirable job in that role, too.)  All he did on defense was lead his team in tackles, tackles for a loss and sacks (77, 22 and 8, respectively, using his final regular season numbers).  Not too bad anchoring a defense that—for the third straight year—many people called the best “Front 6” in the entire Lehigh Valley.

MOST UNDERRATED IMPACT (IN THE LEAST AMOUNT OF TIME)
 
Parkland Running Back Isiah Rico.  Before last season started, I heard great things about Rico’s potential as a quality back in the Lehigh Valley.  When senior starter Joseph Guida went down with a major injury, the sophomore Rico had to step into the spotlight in what may have been the team’s biggest regular season game against Bethlehem Catholic—only to sustain several serious injuries himself in that contest.

But what impressed me the most about Rico’s season was not the numbers he posted during his brief varsity experience this fall, but rather the conversation I had with him the week after suffering the injury.  When I talked with him the before the Liberty game, he was very positive about the team’s ability to overcome losing its two top running backs (at a time when there was still much indecision about the Trojans’ quarterbacks as well).  He also was in great spirits and refused to say anything negative about the situation surrounding the injury (on a controversial hit) and really gave some great responses in what could have been a very tough situation for him.

I am sure he will go on to post great numbers in his junior and senior seasons, but I instantly became a fan of Rico going forward based on the maturity he displayed in an off-the-field conversation.
 
MOST UNDERRATED UPSET

The then-winless Zephyrs. They defeated a Central Catholic team that had won two of its first three games, including an impressive victory over a Nazareth team that was also feeling good about themselves following terrific performances the first few weeks of the season. Whitehall not only pulled the upset but did it by scoring 75 points (and several Vikings fans admitted they probably could have scored more than night if they wanted to).

Both Central Catholic and Nazareth proved to be playoff teams again this year, which further showed what a big win it was for the Zephs.  (Did I mention that I was the only Lehigh Valley football media member who had predicted that Whitehall would win that game in advance?  I won’t mention I also predicted their other upset win over another playoff team in Northampton.)

MOST UNDERRATED COMEBACK STORY

The Northern Lehigh football team. Not only did Head Coach Joe Tout and his coaching staff turned around last year’s dismal season by posting five wins, but would have easily qualified for the playoffs had the powers-that-be not reduced the 3A classification qualifiers from eight to four teams.

A playoff appearance for the always hard-working Bulldogs would have been the perfect cherry to top the dramatic turnaround, but this year’s team certainly laid the groundwork for what will probably be an even more impressive football squad for the 2019 campaign.

MOST UNDERRATED FAN BASE

Palisades. One of District XI’s smallest schools features one of the most passionate and classy fans—from students, players, parents and coaches.

We talked at length about how well this group handled the controversial situation involving the previous year’s state playoff game loss to Conwell Egan.  This year, the team was in the hunt for another Colonial League championship—yet had the dubious distinction of being in the 3A classification (which switched from eight playoff qualifying spots to just four) and faced a nearly impossible road to a potential post-season berth once the team picked up its first loss.

This group remained loyal when the team was struggling to get enough players on the field to play a few years back and have handled being one of the league’s elite teams the past few years with respect towards other schools.  It was very enjoyable to travel outside our coverage area to Kintnersville again this year to see the stadium (how can you go wrong with a pirates ship on the field?), to experience the warm hospitality I experienced and receive the nice comments they passed along to me regarding reading my blog.

More “awards” coming, next week….

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: State Basketball Preview

The PIAA basketball playoffs are almost upon us and RCN-TV is gearing up for outstanding coverage of your local teams!

To get you ready for the state playoffs, here are some storylines to follow as the schools in the RCN coverage area embark on facing teams from across Pennsylvania over the next several weeks.

“And the Winner Is…”
No “La La Land/Moonlight” moments here, there was no doubt who the Cinderella team was in this year’s EPC & District XI playoffs—the East Stroudsburg North boys basketball team.

While many fans in the Valley incorrectly assumed a game against ESN would be a cakewalk, a few local coaches warned me before the regular season ended that opponents should not take ESN lightly.

The Timberwolves are a scrappy team that’s fun to watch in each of their playoff games, which included wins over Emmaus (EPC’s #1 seed), Whitehall (a higher seeded district team) and a Central Catholic team that also was playing really well entering the post-season.  ESN defeated a very good Pottsville team in the district final, and I’m looking forward to seeing what this team can do in the state playoffs.

Expanded Playoffs = (Some) Weaker Competition
It isn’t enough that 2017 has been widely regarded as a “down year” for a number of the District 12 power house boys’ schools, but by allowing more teams into the PIAA playoffs, it will almost certainly guarantee a weaker-than-normal first (and possibly second) round of states.

With the exception of the 6A boys and girls classifications, there have been quite of bit of complaints by local fans (and less than tremendous turnouts) as many of the district playoff games were less than spectacular, with several blowouts (especially in the 4A boys classification) and frequent sloppy play.  That trend probably won’t change much in the opening round of the PIAAs, with many of Pennsylvania’s top programs squaring off against sub-500 squads and teams that barely qualified for states—even with more spots available—especially outside of the biggest school categories.

Watch the Women’s Teams
While they may not get the attention the boys teams do (but still outnumbered a couple of the routing sections than at the boys’ games), there are a plethora of tremendous girls high school teams in Pennsylvania and several of them are from the Lehigh Valley

Archbishop Carroll is one of the “super teams” across Pennsylvania and are certainly heavy favorites to win a state trophy and, unless your team is playing them, are definitely an entertaining squad to watch.

I predicted on last winter’s “SportsTalk” that the 2016-2017 Lehigh Valley girls basketball teams will combine for are one of the best overall years in terms of the number of talent and competitive teams.  The play of the girls’ games over the last few weeks has only strengthened that contention.  Entering the state playoffs, Bethlehem Catholic, Southern Lehigh, Easton and Nazareth all have strong chances at going deep in the PIAAs and I wouldn’t count out Northampton, Central Catholic, Parkland or Notre Dame-Green Pond from pulling an upset in the opening round.

With the possible exception of the Allen and/or the Becahi boys teams, I think the Lehigh Valley’s best chances of seeing state gold lies with one of the areas girls programs.

Keep An Eye On Allen
Speaking of the Canaries of William Allen high school, Doug Snyder’s team had been ranked number one in the state since early January and, until this week, had not fallen from the top spot, even after their one and only regular season loss to Bethlehem Catholic (also ranked statewide).

Allen was certainly disappointed by its District XI semifinal loss to Parkland (more on them below) last Wednesday, but I still believe that—on paper—the Canaries are one of the best and most complete team in Pennsylvania.

Perhaps the lost to the Trojans will refocus the team as it gears up for the state playoffs and enter what is probably the most competitive of the six boys classifications in this year’s PIAAs.

Notable By Their Absence…”
I feel it appropriate to borrow an often-used term by RCN Basketball Announcer and Former Head College Basketball Coach John Leone to talk about a few teams that will NOT be in the state tournament.

When the new classifications were released and Whitehall was placed in a category away from tradition rivals like Allen, Parkland, Emmaus and others, many basketball fans in the Lehigh Valley practically guaranteed a spot in the PIAAs for the Zephyrs.

A number of fans within the township thought this year’s team was one of the best Whitehall teams they had ever seen—a statement that I never agreed with.  They definitely had many talented players on the roster and owned one of the best records of any team in the Valley through the first two months of the season.  However, their up-tempo style of offense overshadowed a suspect defense, and the team struggled anytime an opponent forced them to play a half court style of play—a fact that haunted them as they couldn’t protect a lead in their final game again East Stroudsburg North in the first round of Districts.

The Zephyrs ended the year by losing 5 of its last 6 games, leaving many fans in the Whitehall community stunned and disappointed.

Bangor was a more underrated team all year long, despite the fact that I was touting them before the season even started.  They graduate four of their five starters, who captured three consecutive Colonial League titles. I was surprised to see the Slaters fall to Pottsville in the district semifinals.  With only two state playoff spots available in the 5A classification, I knew it would be interesting to see which of a number of talented teams (including Whitehall, Allentown Central Catholic, East Stroudsburg North, Southern Lehigh, Pottsville and Blue Mountain) would qualify.  But I have to admit I though Bangor would definitely be one of those two teams, and am disappointed I won’t get to see Dylan Benton and company play one more time.

Both Whitehall and Bangor can be very proud of their season’s overall, but it will be strange to open the state playoff race without a Lehigh Valley representative in one of Pennsylvania’s largest playoff classifications.

A Record Setting Appearance
Lastly, the Parkland boys’ basketball team (who’ll open their state playoff run against Archbishop RyanSaturday, 6pm LIVE on RCN-TV) capped off a phenomenal and historic night for high school basketball in the Valley.   In the first of what will probably be many future games at Allentown’s PPL Center Arena, the Trojans win over the state’s previously number-one ranked team Allen (in front of a record setting crowd of over 7,600 attendees) will be something people will be talking about for months, if not years to come.

We’ll talk more about the state playoffs and get in-depth with our previews, insights and predictions involving teams within the RCN-TV viewing area on Thursday’s “SportsTalk” program!  Email your sports opinions and questions to us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and we’ll read and respond on this week’s show.

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!

The SportsTalk Shop: District XI Basketball Playoff Preview

Last week, we discussed a number of teams in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference or Colonial League post-season races—nearly all of them will look to be major players in the District XI tournament, which starts this week.  Today here at “The Shop,” we take a look at a few more teams that begin their district championship quests over the next few days.

“Give Me Liberty…”
Don’t let a first-round loss in the EPC playoffs fool you.  Chad Landis always seems to find a way to get his team playing deep into the district playoffs—and usually well enough to get at least one of the top-3 district seeds, which would give the Hurricanes a trip to states.

Liberty lost to a very talented Allen team last week.  On paper, however, I think Liberty could play with almost anyone in their bracket.  They have a tremendous talent on the inside in Cam Hoffman and exciting guard play with added depth now that Chance Neilly has returned and gotten some game action under his belt. They’ll open up the tournament by facing Nazareth on Wednesday (live, RCN4 at 7pm).

“…or Fly Like An Eagle”
Nazareth Head Coach Joe Arndt has to be on a short list of underrated basketball coaches in the region.  Following his great run in the post-season last year (more on that later), he has done a great job grooming young talents Jahan Dotson and Kevin Wagner to become one of the strongest 1-2 underclassmen punches among EPC teams.  Nick Youngkin has added scoring punch from different spots on the floor and probably deserves more attention that he’s received this season.  The key will be containing the likes of Hoffman, Andrew Hudak and Caleb Martinez on the inside and for Nazareth to get its share of rebounds.  More inside scoring could go along way for Blue Eagles—the loser of this ball game sees their season come to an end.

The 3A Race Should be Fun To Watch
Central Catholic has an incredibly talented team, filled with underclassmen and amazing potential.  But when you have a younger group of players, there’s always an element–however slight—of ambiguity in reading how they will play together in the post-season.  They lost to a very solid Pocono Mountain West team in the first round of the league playoffs and, unlike previous years, I don’t think the Vikings are your ‘stone-cold locks’ to win the district title.  Salisbury, Notre Dame and Saucon Valley are all good, well-balanced teams who can play with Central Catholic.

Bethlehem Catholic also showed a tremendous amount of poise in hanging with the area’s best team, Parkland, in their EPC first-round match-up and have scored some impressive wins during the regular season.  Ray Barbosa has done a great job in his first year with the Golden Hawks and I don’t think a lengthy run in districts should be seen as a shocker.

Also, waiting “in the wings” is a Pottsville team that just completed a perfect 22-0 regular season.  The Tide will face the winner of Tuesday’s match-up between Saucon Valley/Lehighton (live, RCN4 at 7pm).  There will be very few “easy” games in the District XI 3A Classification this time around, and I doubt very many people could clearly predict just how this bracket will shake out this winter.

This Year’s Cinderella?
Last year it was Nazareth’s boys team that surprised people with a lengthy and exciting run through the District XI tournament—winning a few more games than many expected.

Who will be this year’s dark horse squad to last the longest? Stroudsburg is always an underrated team that seems to find a way to advance deep in the playoffs—despite the fact local experts rarely predict a successful post-season run for the Mountaineers.  If they can get by Freedom on Wednesday, they have as good a shot against Pocono Mountain West, then would face the winner of the Bangor vs. Solehi/Whitehall matchup, so another post-season run by the Mounties certainly looks like it has potential.

Also, there’s a number of talented girls basketball individuals and teams to keep an eye on that don’t get the hype they deserve.  Easton is coming off an impressive performance in its EPC Championship victory and are led by standout stars like Gabby Bloshuk, Leanna Deegan, Olivia George and Shelby Stocker.

However, this might be one of the most competitive District XI girls playoff fields we’ve seen in some time.  Parkland features Emily Piston, Rachel Medlar, Nadine Ewald and Sarah Stagaard.  Among the other top EPC talents include Nazareth’s Tessa Brugler, Northampton’s Aja Blount and Victoria Keenan.  Colonial League players to watch include Southern Lehigh’s Amanda Mobley, Olivia Snyder and Ellie Cassel (all underclassmen, by the way), Palisades’ Karlee Krchnavi, Northwestern’s Erika Thomas and Bangor’s Marissa Fernandez-Tierney.  We talked about a number of these teams and players in last week’s “SportsTalk” podcast (listen here: rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk).

Don’t forget, we’ll be discussing many more teams, previewing match-ups and making District XI playoff predictions on Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, live from 7-8pm on RCN-TV with the show’s podcast available on Friday.  Guests include RCN Basketball Analyst Tom Stoudt along with Toomey Anderson and Andre Williams from LVBasketballRankings.com.  Email your high schools opinions and questions to rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and our panel will read and respond to your comments live on the air!

The SportsTalk Shop: State Playoff Recaps

It was another exciting high school playoff season on RCN-TV, filled with outstanding teams and athletes, and a few surprises along the way. Before we transition to the spring sports season, I wanted to highlight some of the top moments during this year’s PIAA state basketball playoffs. Keep in mind, these observations are based on the teams I had a chance to see and didn’t include the teams from the western part of Pennsylvania.

BEST TEAM I SAW—BOYS
Neumann-Goretti was not just an athletic and talented team, they were QUICK! Quick when passing, playing defense, leaping ability…even on the break. Central Catholic played a great game and is loaded with fast players themselves, but I really don’t know if there’s another team in the state that could play with Neumann-Goretti in an up-tempo style game.

Central Catholic also had a great playoff run, and I can shamelessly mention that my early January prediction that the Vikings would make it to the state quarterfinals proved correct. (RCN basketball experts Tom Stoudt and Joe Craig said I was crazy for saying that, but you can see for yourself by checking out “RCN SportsTalk” for free On-Demand). Central posted two solid wins in states before seeing their season come to an end and have a lot of to be proud of what they accomplished in 2014.

BEST TEAM I SAW—GIRLS
North Penn not only had the best overall defensive team I saw all year, but they had multiple players who could score. Against Northampton, they were the only team I saw—boys or girls—that had FOUR players score 11 or more points in a game. They also brought in players off the bench that could play with most teams in the state. They have an excellent Head Coach in Mary DeMarteleire and have a ton of talent coming back next year, so I would expect their dominance in the state playoffs to continue for at least the next several years.

BIGGEST SURPRISE—GIRLS
Bethlehem Catholic’s loss to Scranton Prep in the PIAA’s 2nd round. There’s no question that the “upper bracket” of the 3A girls state playoff tournament had some incredibly good teams playing each other before you even got to the state semifinals. Becahi, Scranton Prep, Villa Maria, Archbishop Wood, Abington Heights, West Perry and Holy Redeemer all had legitimate chances go to deep, if not win, the championship—and all of those teams faced off against each other in the first three rounds. The fact that Scranton Prep completely held one of the top players in the state, Kalista Walters, in check for three-and-a-half quarters before fouling out while holding the high-powered Hawks offense (who came in averaging 59 ppg) to 21 points was a major, if not shocking, accomplishment.

Becahi returns nearly everyone for 2015 and should be one of the top teams again in the state a year from now and had an impressive showing in an earlier round game against Bonner-Predergast.

BIGGEST SURPRISE—BOYS
Delaware Valley Charter is also one of the top teams in the state, but I was impressed by how Notre Dame stayed with this team for almost a full half. The Crusaders had some tough shots bounce out that would have kept it closer, but Del Val is just loaded with talent and kept Notre Dame at arms’ length the entire second half. Dashon Giddings, Shahid Adams and CJ Wolfe are all great ball players who look to continue playing at the next level and they were a fun team to watch.

TEAMS TO WATCH FOR 2015
Two teams on the rise this year that will continue to get better next year are Emmaus and Abington. Both teams battled each other in the opening round and have a number of returning underclassmen, and should be back in states a year from now.

THE “TROJAN TAKEOVER”
Both the Parkland boys’ and girls’ basketball teams won the 4A District XI final and entered the state playoffs as #1 seeds (they’re one of only six schools to accomplish this in the same season since 1985). Both the boys’ and girls’ teams will be guests on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show live at 6pm to talk about their successes in the state playoffs. To tease the appetites of the “Trojan Takeover” fans in the meantime, here’s some of Parkland’s highlights in the PIAAs.

Which teams do you think were the best in the state this season? Which players stuck out in your mind and which teams will be back for the 2015 state tourney? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us this Thursday as we read and respond to your questions and comments on our final “winter sports” show of 2014.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview 2014

The Pennsylvania state basketball playoffs will be commencing this weekend. It’s an exciting time of year—no more safety nets, as it’s a single-elimination tournament and the most talented players in the state might have their season, if not their scholastic careers, come to an end on a given night. We’re going to be broadcasting a number of exciting PIAA playoff games over the next few weeks and it’s going to be fun seeing the top players and teams across the state on RCN-TV.

We’re coming off of a thrilling District XI playoffs season in our RCN viewing area. In preparation for the state games, here are notes and video highlights of some of the teams we’ve had the pleasure of seeing over the last few weeks in postseason action.

PARKLAND (girls and boys teams)
Both teams are playing their best brand of basketball of the season as they head into the PIAAs. The boys team is incredibly deep and have been getting solid performances from all their starters, but what makes them even more dangerous are the players coming off the bench contributing without missing a beat. They pretty much dismantled all their opponents in the district playoffs and made this year’s district championship look easy.

Parkland has momentum and really has not shown any glaring weaknesses, save a slow first-half stretch to Stroudsburg in the semifinal game (the Mountaineers also got a gritty performance from Jacob Battle in the consolation game, which hopefully will propel them to a few wins in states).

The Parkland girls team also has a multitude of talent among both their starters and role players. Olivia Brown led her team in the girls district championship with a great all-around game and a clutch basket down the stretch run.

Erin Bross, Erica Bross, Aubrey Beidelman, Sarash Stagaard and Kristen McCarty are all solid ball handlers who can shoot, and the Trojans have a strong inside presence anchored by Brynne Brouse, Nadine Ewald and Brooke Robertson. They have a very formidable opponent in Central Bucks East, a team known this year for a stifling defense (allowing just 33 ppg) and an offense led by a double-double threat, Courtney Webster.

CENTRAL CATHOLIC (boys and girls)
The Vikettes battled state championship contender Bethlehem Catholic, but lost for a third time to the Hawks in the District XI Final. However, I was very impressed by the efforts of Olivia Roseman, Ashley Bross, Alyssa Mack and Emma Redding in their last two meetings with the Hawks, and they all made big plays again keeping the district title game close. They draw a tough opening round opponent in Abington Heights, a squad RCN SportsTalk guest Dave Troxell labeled a tremendous team on last week’s show. However, they have played—and defeated—a number of teams still alive in the state playoffs. They have solid balance and show great ball handling ability, and I see no reason why they can’t advance at least a couple rounds in states.

The boys team continues to dominate. Everyone knew they were going to be a great team this year, but to have the focus, night-in and night-out and be as solid a team throughout an entire season (they still haven’t lost a game all year) is truly a remarkable accomplishment. In addition to being outstanding athletes, the tandem of Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Jean Lee Baez has guided a steady ship with no noticeable blemishes, on or off the court, this season. We debated on SportsTalk last month (the show is available on RCN On-Demand) about their state title chances, and I’ll stick with my prediction that, at worst, they reach the state quarterfinals.

EMMAUS (Boys)
I finally got a chance to see Emmaus in person last week, and I was tremendously impressed with their win over Liberty. I knew Nate Feirertag was a great all-around player who plays with as much heart as anyone in our coverage area. Fellow senior forward Joe Nicolini stepped up big time with 19 points (17 in the 2nd half) for the Hornets to advance to the district championship.

This team has lots of talent on the way up and should be vying for state playoff spots for the next several seasons. I know Emmaus fans were disappointed by their loss to Parkland in the district final, and face a tough matchup in District I power Abington, a team loaded with size, speed and several players looking to play at the quality college programs. But Emmaus has bounced back from a tough loss on more than one occasion this year and I would expect a hard fought game this weekend.

NORTHAMPTON (Girls)
The K-Kids shook off a tough loss to Parkland in the semifinals to beat a quality Pleasant Valley team and earn a state playoff bid.

Leandra Sterner is quietly having one of the top all-around performances of the entire high school sports year. Coming off an historic performance on the soccer field this fall, she currently leads the team in points per game, assists and steals. Ali Reppert has a smooth-looking jump shot and Aja Blount might become the best center in the area in the very near future. I think they have a favorable matchup facing Wallenpaupack this weekend and see no reason why the Kids can’t advance into the next round.

NOTRE DAME (Boys)
If you like “shoot-out” games, you would have loved the performances of Tannor Reed, Vicent Eze and the Notre Dame boys team in their District XI 2A Boys Championship.

I think the Crusaders will be the first to admit that their defense needs to play better to defeat Delaware Valley Charter this weekend, but their game might be the most entertaining of all the contests on RCN Saturday night. The Crusaders play extremely well as a team, have a balanced attack and come in with plenty of momentum (they’ve won 13 consecutive games). Tuning in just to see Reed shoot should be worth your time and Eze has improved all facets of his game (he’s averaging 14 points, 17 rebounds and 5 blocks per game), including his ability to score when given the ball outside the paint.

BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC (Girls)
The reigning LVC and District XI 3A Champs will be our guests on RCN SportsTalk this Thursday (live at 6pm), so you can tune in for in-depth conversations with their coaches and players. We’ll also showcase some of their awesome highlights so far this season, and get their expectations on the state playoffs. You can also email us comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read and respond to your opinions live on the air!

Be sure to check back for more highlights and notes on the teams playing in this year’s state playoffs. Also, feel free to email us or post your feelings about the schools competing for titles this winter.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Basketball Playoff Thoughts

 

The District XI boys basketball playoffs are heading up…and RCN-TV will have you covered!

This week, we’ll have a full breakdown of all this weekend’s boys and girls high school championship games on our live “RCN SportsTalk” this Thursday at 6pm. Local coaches will be on our show dissecting all the playoff games and giving their insights, keys to victory and strategies for all of the big matchups this weekend. We’ll also have several title games broadcast Friday and Saturday on RCN (keep checking our website for our broadcast schedule).

In the meantime, here are several thoughts and video highlights of some of the teams in our coverage area still alive in the playoffs!

PARKLAND
With the return of Nick Rindock, the Parkland basketball team looks like it is playing its best basketball of the year at just the right time. It has an outstanding point guard in Jimmy Hahn, an exciting freshman who does a ton of things well in Sam Iorio, and looked solid defensively in its last two games (which included a tight ball game with undefeated Central Catholic).

The Trojans are playing like the best team in this classification right now, and, should it continue, could play several rounds into the state tournament.

EMMAUS
The Hornets got a scare Saturday as they had to fight off a scrappy Bangor ball club. However, this year’s group of players has had success at all younger levels and is ready for prime time. They have a ton of talent who have had big games throughout this season, including David Kachelries, Joe Nicolini, Nate Feiertag and Joe Polczynski. I think they might have been looking past the Slaters a bit, but that won’t happen this week and I expect Emmaus to give Liberty a solid game this Wednesday (LIVE on RCN-4 this Wednesday at 6pm).

LIBERTY
Both RCN Basketball analyst Tom Stoudt and I said back on “SportsTalk” in January that if Liberty got into the playoffs, they could be the most dangerous 4A team. Even with some roster subtractions, it looks like our prediction is coming true. They manhandled Whitehall in the first round and upset the number-one seed Pocono Mountain West. They have four players, DeShawn Oyeniyi, Ludwin Gonzalez, Jaevan Dobbins and Trenton Coleman-Bishop, all playing at a high level right now. With the exception of the third quarter versus the Zephyrs, everyone has been playing solid defense. I don’t know how he does it every year, but Head Coach Chad Landis always has his team playing well at just the right time and probably deserves to be the LVC Coach-of-the-Year for what he’s done this season. Even if Liberty loses Wednesday, they could still reach the state playoffs with a win in the consolation round on Saturday, which would be a major accomplishment given all this team has been through this winter.

STROUDSBURG
It’s becoming a tradition for the Mountaineers to play in the final rounds of the district playoffs, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Stroudsburg during the regular season once they merge with the LVC for the next school year. Shawn Thornton is one of the top coaches in the district, and the team has tons of talent once again this season, led by three players (Danny Cuevas, Edwin Lopez, Jacob Battle) all averaging in double figures. They have a tough matchup in Parkland this Wednesday, but if they can pound the ball inside and open up their great perimeter shooters, we should be in for a great contest (LIVE on RCN-4 this Wednesday at 7:30 pm).

CENTRAL CATHOLIC & BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC
We’ve talked quite a bit about both of these teams in an earlier blog post as well as on “SportsTalk” and neither team has done anything recently to derail their outstanding seasons. While the first meeting between these two 3A powers went decisively to the Vikings (highlights below), I would not be surprised if the Hawks challenge them a bit more here in round two (LIVE on RCN-4 this Tuesday at 7:30 pm). Remember, three teams can reach the PIAA playoffs in this classification, so the loser of the semifinal game will still have a chance to play on.

NOTRE DAME
No boys’ basketball team in the Lehigh Valley, with the exception of Central Catholic, comes into the postseason with more consecutive wins. I was promoting Tannor Reed for a Colonial League MVP award when we did their game against Salisbury in January, and he has truly carried this team through their ups-and-downs this year. With the 6’8” Vincent Eze back and doing so many things well at both ends of the floor, this team looks nearly unbeatable against most teams in Eastern Pennsylvania. They also have the momentum following their thrilling buzzer-beating win in the Colonial League championship.

CATASAUQUA
Despite the loss to the Crusaders, Catty has a lot to be proud of with reasons for optimism. They did not play well in the first half of their league championship game, yet went down to the wire and did not let a very talented Notre Dame team run away with the game. The Rough Riders are used to having players battling through tough injuries and this week will not be an exception. However, Catty has already defeated other, larger playoff-bound teams in Bangor (a 4A team) and Salisbury (3A) and could make for another thrilling title game if they dispatch North Schuylkill in the semifinals.

Which teams do you think will win championships this weekend? Which players will step up big and help their squads to victory? Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read your thoughts live on this Thursday’s show at 6pm.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Wrestling Individuals Preview

 

The biggest weekend for high school wrestling fans is nearly upon us and RCN will look to feed its rabid fans’ appetites over the next several days. A full preview of all of the weekend’s weight classes will be on our “RCN SportsTalk” show this Thursday live at 6pm (we’ll also talk a little Penn State football as well). Also, RCN-TV will broadcast the District 3A Championships on February 22. In the meantime, here are a few notes on several of the schools that should do very well in the tournament, along with video highlights of the area’s top wrestlers and teams.

BECAHI
Clearly, the best team in this tournament. The Golden Hawks cruised to their fourth straight 2A district championship and are coming off their fourth straight team state title, beating their four opponents by a whopping 235-18 (they also owned 27 of the first 28 takedowns registered in their dual meets). The program is so much on a roll that Becahi hasn’t lost a dual meet since February 16, 2011 (to Easton). Luke Karam (currently 28-2) and Zeke Moisey (32-0) lead an uber-talented squad that figures to dominate eight or nine of the 14 weight classes. Anything less than seven gold medals this weekend would be a major shock.

LIBERTY
The Hurricanes had a banner season under Jody Karam this year. His team beat Easton for the first time since 1991, they won the competitive Virginia Duals American Division, they finished second at the Penn Manor Tournament and battled Parkland before losing by a close margin in the first ever “Ultimate Qualifier” dual meet. Jake Gunning and Orlando Miller, who never wrestled prior to high school, both own 27 wins a piece heading into the tourney. Noah Klingborg and Andrew Gunning both had exceptional years, and K.J. Fenstermacher proved to be one of the most exciting freshman wrestlers in the area. For more on the Hurricanes, check out their recent appearance on “RCN SportsTalk” on free RCN On Demand (the show entitled “Bethlehem Wrestling”).

NAZARETH
If not for Becahi, Nazareth would be getting a lot more attention. Sage Karam (if he’s not racing in Daytona) is one of the key wrestlers to watch at 145 lbs. Tyrone Klump (who pinned in a big state semifinal bout at 120 lbs.), Brandon Lane (285 lbs.), Travis Smith (113 lbs.), Josh Golden (220 lbs.) and Tyson Klump (106 lbs.) are just a few of the wrestlers with chances to medal this weekend. The Blue Eagles, fresh off their 3A District XI team title and a bronze finish in the PIAAs, are the tournament’s favorites to capture the most gold medals in individuals if all goes right.

EASTON
First of all, congratulations to Head Coach Steve Powell for earning his 500th coaching victory during the team district tournament this year. Don’t know of a classier wrestling coach in the area, nor do I know of anyone in the state that would ever say a bad word about him.

This wasn’t quite the typical Easton year. Although they had a very good squad, they lacked the one or two dominant standout wrestlers, like a Jordan Oliver-type, that you could almost guarantee a gold medal coming out of the district tournament. Nevertheless, they have several solid wrestlers in the middle-to-heavier weight classes who could contend, and two or three gold medals for the Rovers would not be out of the question.

PARKLAND
After beating Easton early in the season, it looked like the Trojans could be the team to beat in 3A. They battled Nazareth in an exciting District Championship Battle Royale before dropping the meet, but came back strong and had an impressive run in the PIAAs. Their list of candidates to contest for gold this weekend is quite long, including Jacob and Ethan Lizak, Josh Ortman, Marques Sturdivant and Omar and Nezar Haddad. There will be some exciting bouts all throughout the tournament, but it would not surprise me if Parkland comes away with the most medals.

Who else do you feel has a chance to medal at this year’s District XI Individual Wrestling Tournament? What do you think of the dominant run of Bethlehem Catholic, the possibility of them jumping up to 3A and all the other issues surrounding their program? Send an email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com with your opinions and thoughts and tune in to RCN-TV this Thursday at 6pm to hear your comments read on-air, plus a full preview of this year’s tourney.