The SportsTalk Shop: HS Winter Sports ’14 Highlights

 

I know high school wrestling and boys basketball get the lion’s share of fans’ attention in the Lehigh Valley area, but there are tremendous accomplishments being made by a number of scholastic sports programs currently in session.

Here’s a video sample of some of our features on different local sports programs produced recently for our “RCN SportsTalk” show (to see more of these features, they are available for free on RCN On-Demand for the next several weeks), and then we have some additional highlights and accomplishments by local teams and athletes deserving mentions this winter.

Some other local sports highlights include:

 • Bethlehem Catholic girls basketball team. Chosen by many to make it to the PIAA championship game again this year, the Golden Hawks have lost just two games so far this season—both to formidable opponents. Kalista Walters could very well repeat as the Lehigh Valley Conference’s MVP again this season, but among several other talented players on the roster include Janelle Robinson. Robinson is a guard by trade, but I continue to be impressed by what a great all-around contribution she makes to the team (she recently led the team in one game with nine rebounds).

 • Becahi is not the only local girls programs that have a shot at going to the PIAAs. In fact, this might be one of the most competitive LVC and Colonial Leagues playoff races in some time. Nazareth, a team that lost four starters to graduation, is back with a group of tall and athletic young ladies that have been drawing impressive results. Central Catholic is back to being one of the top teams in the state—their only loss thus far was their epic 74-72 double-overtime defeat to Becahi. Parkland is also looking very solid and is coming off a terrific summer basketball season. In the Colonial League, Southern Lehigh, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Salisbury and others all have legitimate shots to qualify for the playoffs. With very few exceptions, these teams playing each during the regular season have resulted other so far in down-to-the-wire finishes.

• Parkland has a long line of dominance in the sport of swimming and diving—for both the girls and boys teams. This year, there’s an abundance of outstanding athletes from many different schools, including Emmaus, Easton, Liberty and Freedom. Their district championships are usually held on two of the busiest Saturdays—local-sports-wise–in the Lehigh Valley, when district and state wrestling and boys and girls basketball games are scheduled, but if you have a chance to check out the local diving and swimming title events, you should have a number of great races to watch on February 22nd and March 1st.

• Pius X has very quietly had an impressive wrestling season. They do not belong to either the LVC or the Colonial League, nor do they have enough wrestlers to compete for team title. They DO have several impressive young athletes led by state candidates Dante Albanese, Michael Comunale and Vinny Vonelli. The Royals, under first year Head Coach Peter Stoelzl, jumped out to two impressive wins over Palisades and Central Catholic to start the season. Despite injuries, they’re still racking up wins and will look to make an impact in the District XI Wrestling Individuals Tournament, which will be broadcast on RCN-TV on Saturday, February 22.

Which other local sports athletes deserve more attention? Which teams, besides boys basketball and wrestling, do you think can bring home league, district, or even state championships this winter? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in Thursdays at 6pm as we continue to spotlight local teams and athletes on our show.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Hoops Mid-Term Report

After “thanking” Mother Nature for cancelling so many winter sports activities and wreaking havoc on everyone’s schedule, I want to give my take on the high school basketball teams that I have had a chance to observe so far this season. Despite an erratic schedule (many HS teams are now playing more games per week than the NBA), I have seen some standout performances on the boys side (a look at some of the girls teams coming next week). Here are a few of my comments on the teams that I have seen, along with highlights of teams featured on our RCN game broadcasts.

CENTRAL CATHOLIC
They clearly are the cream of the crop this year in the Lehigh Valley, and are predicted to be one of the top teams in the state. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman continues to improve despite some very intelligent head coaches continuing to try new defenses to slow him down with very little success. The addition of Brendan Wagner at center allows Jean Lee Baez to become as cumbersome a “4-player” as there is to defend, creating matchup problems for just about everyone in the league. Their role players are smart, play solid defense and are capable of stepping up in big moments. I see no reason (and a few of my colleagues outside of the Lehigh Valley agree) that this team can’t play deep in the state playoffs and perhaps win it all.

EASTON
At the midway point, the Rovers are right at the .500 mark this season, which I think is a nice accomplishment for this team. Easton lost several key people to graduation, they had a tremendous athlete in Shane Simpson trying to get back in the mix after a lost-2013 basketball season, and a brand new head coach. Given all the school closing days, which not only creates a backload of games but also cuts into a new team’s practice opportunities, I thought a 7-7 start was a solid opening six weeks for them. I am also very impressed with new Head Coach Ben Childs and believe he can have long-standing success with the Rovers over time. I saw Easton make a tremendous effort against Central Catholic (highlights below) and, if they’d converted a few more opportunities close to the bucket, would have made for a much tighter finish. Assuming Easton qualifies for the district playoffs, they could have scoring potential from both the inside and the perimeter and could advance in the district post-season.

BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC
I met Mike Frew several year ago when he took over the Pen Argyl job and was very impressed by his desire to base his team on defense and really stress its importance to his players. Now, after establishing that philosophy with Becahi, he’s ready to take the program to the next level. The Golden Hawks have some of the most athletic players in the area, headlined by Freddie Simmons Jr. and Jamal Aziz. Becahi, much like its football team, has some incredibly determined upperclassmen looking to make a statement this year. I think Central Catholic is a tough matchup for them, especially if they don’t have everyone healthy. But don’t forget, you don’t have to win the district to advance into the state playoffs, and I think the Hawks have a great chance at winning at least one PIAA game this season.

WHITEHALL
First of all, I have to give props to the Express-Times’ Bruce Buratti for picking the Zephyrs as one of the top ten teams in the area in his preseason poll. Most people—back in early December—what he ranked them too high. However, with talented returning players like Aaron Keglovits, Brett Radocha, Jacob Meyers, Matt Melosky, Chad Rex and Saquon Barkley on the roster, we should have seen Whitehall’s big victories coming this winter. They’ve also lost a couple games I thought they would have a chance to win. I think the Zephyrs’ experience will come up big in the post-season and could make them a team to watch in February.

LIBERTY
One of the great attributes of Liberty Head Coach Chad Landis is that he gets his team to play its best basketball as they enter the postseason. There is no magic formula for this, nor has any coach in my career been able to give me a certified formula to make this happen. The Hurricanes have won more LVC titles than any other team, and, when you add in the talent on this year’s squad, you have to consider them a dangerous playoff team. Last year I identified DeShawn Oyeniyi as my favorite post player in the LVC and he’s done nothing in 2014 to detract from that. I think Darius Jones anchors some solid guard play, and K. J. Williams continues to be one of the best athletes in the area. I don’t think they’ll be too many 4A teams that will WANT to play the Canes in the postseason.

BANGOR
I had a chance to talk with Bangor guard Shane Reider a few months back and was very impressed by him and the “team-first” attitude that permeates through their program. I’ve heard many good reports on how unselfish the players are, with multiple people telling me the Slater kids would probably run through a cement wall if Head Coach Bron Holland ask them to. They have great balance offensively and kids who play smart on defense. I don’t know if this team is as deep nor has the size of their Colonial League championship squad from a year ago. I certainly like the direction the program is going. The players no longer get rattled in key situations, and they seem to excel now when the pressure is on. They will be one of the league favorites come playoff time. It may not be this year, but sometime soon Bangor is going to take the next step—win a district playoff game—despite being one of the smallest 4A schools in the eastern Pennsylvania.

WILSON
Before we talk about the Warriors’ play this winter, a big tip-of-the-cap to Head Coach Bob Frankenfield, his players, the cheerleaders and then entire Wilson community for organizing a fund raiser recently to benefit the American Heart Association and raise over $2100 at an event. They’ll have another charity event coming up soon (please contact Wilson HS for more details). Coach Frankenfield is truly one of the class guys in the area and cares so much about his program and his community.

Now, on-the-court. The Warriors boast one of the top centers in the area in Phil Pierfy, who certainly commands a ton of attention from opposing team’s defenses. However, I think they have some nice players around him in Tyler King, Dakota Bogoly, Jeff Cooper, Jonathon Citron, Jahid Beamon and A.J. Raso. At least two of those players must step-up on any given night to help provide some offense, but I liked their tenacity on defense and seemed to have fun playing when I saw them against Bangor. I think they have to work on cutting down on turnovers and continue to be aggressive in taking the ball to the basket, but Wilson can most definitely be a player in the league playoffs.

Remember, I haven’t seen Parkland, Emmaus, Southern Lehigh, Salisbury and a few other top teams in our viewing area as of yet (although I did give the Falcons a “shout-out” on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show for a very underrated first half). I would appreciate your feedback on the teams that you have seen. Who do you feel are the other top teams in the LVC, MVC and the Colonial League? Which teams have the best chance of winning league and district championships this winter?

Post your opinions below, email us (rcnsportstalk@rcn.com) and tune in to RCN-TV each Thursday from 6-7 pm as we continue to breakdown the local winter sports action and preview the Super Bowl on our show the next two weeks.

The SportsTalk Shop: District XI Football Recaps

 

District XI Football Recaps

It was our pleasure to cover the District XI football playoffs once again this fall on RCN-TV. While some games were one-sided, there were some great contests with many outstanding individual and team triumphs en route to this year’s championships.

CLASS 2A PLAYOFFS
Catasauqua accomplished what it couldn’t do a year ago–when Pen Argyl defeated the Rough Riders in the District title game.

Like many of the great head coaches in our viewing area, Tom Falzone used this experience as a life-lesson. In speaking with his players before the game, he talked about not always having a second chance in life, being appreciative when you do, and making sure you focus on your priorities when given opportunities. Several of the Catty coaches and administrators have talked about what a special, respectful and fun group of players they have had for the last two years, and it was great for their program to finally have the gold metal placed around their necks.

Palisades, Catty’s opponent in the championship, also had a great year…exceeding everyone’s expectations but their own. Head Coach Kevin Ronalds got an extra special gift this fall, as his son, serving oversees in the military, came home to see his family and got to spend a few weeks in the Lehigh Valley before returning to an “undisclosed location.” Ronalds is one of a handful of coaches in the area who have successfully rebuilt their football programs this fall. In my long-range crystal ball, I see an even more competitive 2014 season in the Colonial League. The Pirates, Southern Lehigh, Saucon Valley, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Pen Argyl, Northern Lehigh and perhaps one other team all have legitimate chances to fight for the league crown.

CLASS 3A PLAYOFFS
In the District XI semifinals, Southern Lehigh dominated in its win over Pottsville with a very balanced attack. While Bethlehem Catholic also won by a significant margin, I was impressed by Lehighton and how they battled the Golden Hawks, especially after sustaining an injury to one of their key players.

The championship was one of the most competitive games all season. Perhaps most impressive to me was the Southern Lehigh secondary. Despite giving up between 5 to 9-inches in height to a quicker group of wide receivers, the Spartans held Becahi to 7 passes for 24 yards–one of their lowest outputs of the season. Likewise, Collin Kendricks and company contain the Hawks’ ground game, but Becahi’s defense was also up to the challenge. Guys like Will Ward, Antwon Keenan, Dante Lonardo, Josh Heron, Searn Moroney, Mike McDanniel and others stepped up in key moments, enabling the Hawks to win the title in overtime:

CLASS 4A PLAYOFFS
In the first round, both Parkland and Whitehall looked solid, although Stroudsburg and Pleasant Valley both played valiantly and did not disappear after the Trojans and Zephrys took early leads. The big story for me was the development of Parkland’s DeVante Cross as a passer in this game:

For Whitehall versus Pleasant Valley—two teams that love to run a hurry-up, fast-tempo offense—it was an entertaining game, with lots of highlights on both sides of the football:

In the district semifinal, Parkland’s defense stepped up big time as I thought they would (see my blog entry from the second week of September) and held the vaunted Whitehall offense in check until the Trojans had built a solid cushion:

Easton, playing without some key players, defeated Wyoming Valley West by one point in their first round playoff game. A week later they dominated its matchup against undefeated East Stroudsburg South, setting up the championship faceoff with Parkland.

For the second straight year, it was Parkland avenging a regular season loss to Easton in the championship. Another irony, the District XI season ended almost identical to the way it began–with the Trojans dominating a team on both sides of the ball. The win over the Rovers was vastly more impressive than their week-one blowout over a rebuilding Del Val team. Easton had looked as the most well-rounded team of all the schools I visited during August double-sessions. Parkland’s offense and defense have been improving all season and was just too strong last Friday as the Trojans made the title game win look easy.

Which team do you feel had the most impressive run during the district playoffs? Which highlights do you think were the best? Send us an email with your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us for our next live show on December 5th at 6pm. Among out topics on that program, we’ll be updating the PIAA playoff pictures and also talking Eagles and NFL news with beat writers Nick Fierro and Al Thompson.

Check back to our blog soon as we’ll be looking for your help in nominating the top teams, athletes, games and more for our sports “year-in-review” program.

The SportsTalk Shop: ANTI-Poll Small Schools Regular Season Wrap

 

ANTI-Poll Small Schools Regular Season Wrap

Last week, we broke down the playoff possibilities and reviewed the regular season performances for the larger schools in the Lehigh Valley. This week, we’ll examine the Class A, 2A and 3A teams in the RCN coverage area.

PIUS X – The Royals have once again battled a very challenging independent schedule and find themselves in the fourth and final playoff spot in the Class A District standings. They enter their regular season finale against Colombia-Montour on Saturday. They have gotten great efforts by sophomore quarterback Tre Jordan and senior back Dashon Russell. Jordan is completing nearly 60 percent of his passes and has thrown for over 1,200 yards; while Russell eclipsed the 1,000 yard rushing mark in Pius’ game against Carson Long. Their chief competitors, Williams Valley, Tri-Valley and Schuylkill Haven all have some very strong skilled-position players themselves. The Class A playoffs just might be the most competitive race of any within District XI this fall.

PEN ARGYL – For the second consecutive year, some people started counting out the Green Knights after they picked up their second loss early in the season. That was before they had to battle Catasauqua and Northwestern in consecutive weeks. Pen Argyl also had significant injuries during the first four weeks of the season which resulted in some underclassmen gaining valuable ‘under-fire’ experience. As of today’s standings (not including their traditional rivalry game with Bangor this weekend), Pen Argyl would play Pine Grove in the first round of the playoffs, and then the winner between Catasauqua/Palisades for the title. Here’s the issue: I think Pen Argyl has a great shot at advancing to the championship game, but must beware of a rejuvenated Slater ball club this Friday. Bangor is playing much better than they did in the first half of the season and just missed upsetting the Tigers last weekend. It’s one of the most passionate rivalry games in Eastern Pennsylvania and Pen Argyl still needs to get a win to clinch a playoff spot. That being said, they can’t leave Bangor with any big injuries if they want to extend their season beyond next weekend.

BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC – The Hawks had a major struggle beating Freedom last weekend. The win meant a “Christmas City Championship” and guaranteed spot in the district playoffs. I think this Becahi team has the talent to go deep in the state playoffs – IF they play the way they did in the first half of the season and the way I saw them battle in the first half of their game against Whitehall. The team has already rejuvenated the Hawks fan base with its five wins so far. They have an opportunity to really deliver a message to all detractors if they can remain focused on the team-concept for the next month.

SOUTHERN LEHIGH – The Spartans continued to steamroll their opponents in the Colonial League by defeating a very strong Palisades team last Friday night. Their offensive line, which was a question mark at the beginning of the season, played about as well as any line in the league. It has proved to be protection for Travis Edmond, Jacob Del Priore and company to have excellent seasons. Southern Lehigh has been knocking on the door of a championship for some time. Any letdown by the Golden Hawks should pave the way for the Spartans to capture a long-awaited title.

CATASAUQUA – We have spent a ton of time and blog space this year discussing the Rough Riders, and rightly so. They have easily disposed of every team on their schedule this fall and are coming off another shutout, 40-0, over Northern Lehigh last Friday. Every week we get emails on RCN Sports Talk asking us to analyze this team and give our opinions of whether this team is good enough to win a state title. We received another one last week and we’ll address it on our October 31 RCN Sports Talk show at 6:00 PM. In the meantime, I want to give a shout-out to the Catty offensive linemen for their outstanding efforts so far this season. With exceptionally skilled guys like Burton, Bradley, Marshall, Stopay and others seeing their names in the spotlight (both for their offense and defense), the guys up front have been buying time for their teammates to do what they do best. They are a huge reason why this team will likely come home with at least one, if not more, championships this fall.

Which teams do you feel will bring home district gold medals in two weeks? Which players from our “small schools” in the RCN region deserve some extra mentions? Email your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll respond to your insights on RCN Sports Talk every Thursday at 6:00 PM. During the district playoff season we’ll have special guests break down each of the playoff match-ups.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Anti-Poll Halftime Standings

 

“Anti-Poll Halftime Standings”

Hard to believe, but we’ve already reached the midway point in the high school football regular season. It’s time for our mid-term grades for the RCN Football “Anti-Poll.”

Before I give you my observations, we’ll first take a look back at some of the teams we’ve featured this fall on RCN Sports Talk, and let the coaches and players give you their insights on their respective teams.

Now, here’s my take on the teams in the RCN Eastern Pennsylvania coverage area I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in person, plus some views uncovered from my contacts throughout the region.

Grade: A
Imhotep, Garnet Valley, Penncrest, and Catasauqua
Footballstories Editor/Publisher Al Thompson pointed out on last week’s RCN Sports Talk that, at that time, no AAAA team in our viewing area was in the “Top 100” national polls this year. However, that doesn’t mean we haven’t had our share of dominant football teams. Expect to see all of these teams in the PIAA playoffs. Imhotep fans might be inclined to go ahead and buy tickets to the state title game. In the Lehigh Valley, the Rough Riders continue to roll. Their offense seems to be able to score on anyone, at any time, and in a variety of ways. The word is that their defense must improve if they want to advance to the state finals, which would mean they’d have to find a way to stop the powerful Imhotep offense. I’ll find out for myself when I get my first look at the Rough Riders when I announce their game against Pen Argyl next Friday night, October 11, on RCN TV.

Grade: B+
Bethlehem Catholic, Easton, Emmaus, LaSalle, Parkland, Ridley, Whitehall, and Upper Darby
Emmaus and Parkland have a ton of momentum right now. They are both coming off wins against the Rovers and Zephyrs, respectively. One could argue that the Hornets had the best chance of any of these teams to be undefeated at this point. Both of their losses came late in the game due to strange plays. Parkland’s Kareem Williams might just be the most dynamic running back in the Lehigh Valley, which is saying something because I’m a big Shane Simpson fan. I was impressed how Whitehall was able to run the ball against the Trojans. The passing game looked good late, although by that point, Parkland was mostly in a “prevent” defense. They must have some other offensive weapons develop consistency to make a deep run in the postseason.

Bethlehem Catholic’s only loss was an impressive showing against the Rovers a few weeks ago. They can make a major statement with a win this Friday against Whitehall (watch this game live on RCN TV at 7:00 PM). LaSalle, Upper Darby and Ridley all suffered tough losses to very good teams early. However, they have bounced back and remain very much in the hunt for a district playoff spot.

And Easton? You can find out for yourself how they are doing by watching RCN Sports Talk this Thursday, October 3, live at 6:00 PM on RCN TV. Head Coach Steve Shiffert and his players will be my guests on the show. Feel free to email your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com now and we’ll read and respond to your messages live on the air!

Grade: B
Southern Lehigh, Saucon Valley, Pen Argyl, Notre Dame, Northwestern, and Palisades
These teams have all played well and will most likely continue to do so. It will be difficult for any of these teams to vie for the Colonial League crown if Catty doesn’t get tripped up at some point. However, any of these teams could do damage in the district playoffs, as Pen Argyl proved last year. We’ll be focusing more on these teams on RCN Sports Talk on our October 10 and October 17 shows.

Grade: C
Nazareth, Liberty, Central Catholic, Palmerton, and Pius
Liberty and Nazareth have some major questions that they have to answer in a hurry to make the district playoffs. Don’t forget, at least two teams from up north must qualify for the District 2/4/11 Sub-Regional Playoffs. With both of these teams already having at least two losses, they can’t afford another “L” with half of their schedule yet to play.

Central Catholic is coming off a victory against Northampton. They have some major challenges coming up on their schedule, and are not locks to make Districts this year. Remember that Central refused a bid to play in the Eastern Conference playoffs several years ago. It will be interesting to see if the Vikings play ANY post-season games this year after several seasons of reaching the PIAA semifinals or better.

Palmerton played well but lost an offensive struggle to Palisades last weekend. A good effort against the Tigers this weekend can push them back into the top half of the Colonial League standings. Pius is coming off a solid win over Towanda, and can move back to .500 with a win against Wyalusing Valley Friday.

Special Award
Dieruff
I said after their first win that the Huskies are already the feel-good story of this fall season. Going five years without beating anyone other than their ASD rival, Allen, had not been fun. The entire Lehigh Valley football community was genuinely happy for those kids to get that first “W” after Week Two. The fact that their success on the field has continued has proven that they have exceeded everyone’s expectations — except, perhaps, themselves. Based on what they’ve overcome, I have to give them a weighted ‘A+.’ I’m looking for even more positive news coming out of Dieruff High School going forward.

What are your thoughts and observations on the first half of the high school football season? Which teams will have the best “Second Half?” Post your comments here and tune in to talk high school sports every Thursday at 6:00 PM on RCN SportsTalk, live on RCN TV.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: High School Football “Anti-Poll” #2

 

High School Football “Anti-Poll” #2

Before we take a look at the smaller schools in our RCN viewing area, I wanted to congratulate a few of the bigger schools, in particular Emmaus, Dieruff and Bethlehem Catholic, for their efforts this past weekend. After my pre-season prediction that the Hornets would make the district playoffs, they needed a win over a very tough Central Catholic team on Saturday to get their first win and keep their post-season hopes alive. If they can build on the confidence they earned on their last minute drive and victory over the Vikings, I think they have a legitimate shot at being 2-2 and getting back into the playoff chase.

I’ve remarked for years how mentally tough those Dieruff Huskies are — continuing to battle despite losing talented players to follow other opportunities. Their hard work paid off Saturday with their first victory over a team (other than rival Allen) since 2008.

Although Becahi lost on Saturday night against Easton, I am truly impressed by Head Coach Joe Henrich and his troops for a close loss to Easton — a team I believe is the most talented squad in District XI right now. With a 2-1 start and a realistic chance to beat a few more teams in the coming weeks, look for the Golden Hawks to make a run at districts. This would be a tremendous accomplishment to a team many people thought might only get a win or two this season. It’s also a testament to Henrich and his belief in his program.

Now for the AA and A “Anti-Poll”  for teams in the RCN viewing area:

CATASAUQUA – I don’t know if there’s a team that will be able to slow down this group of Rough Riders until the state playoffs get underway. Any team that wants to win a PIAA title most probably will have to face powerhouse Imhotep. Catty really has too many outstanding players — pretty much everywhere — to start naming them in a single blog post. The opposing coaches I’ve spoken with so far this year say you pretty much have to play a perfect game while hoping that Catty has an off-night just to have a chance at staying with them. Yet even when Catty makes a mistake, they have so much speed that they can usually make up for momentary errors and prevent other teams from big plays. For more on this year’s Catasauqua football team, we’ll have Athletic Director Tom Moll on RCN Sports Talk  this Thursday at 6 PM.

NOTE: Moll will be among the athletic directors, league and district officials that will be on this week’s show. If you have a question or issue about high school sports, this Thursday is the time to tune in and gets your questions answered.

SOUTHERN LEHIGH – I know the Spartans are a 3-A school, but I didn’t get to mention them in last week’s Anti-Poll as I concentrated mostly on the LVC. In RCN SportsTalk’s High School Football Premiere show which aired September 5, I said that I thought Southern Lehigh has a legitimate shot at winning a title this year. The fact that they lost to Catty in Week Two makes it much more difficult to go after the league title. However, Central Catholic is not a shoe-in to make districts this season. If Becahi doesn’t qualify (they still have Parkland, Whitehall, Liberty, Nazareth among the teams yet to play), I think the Spartans enter the AAA postseason as the favorite among the Lehigh Valley squads, although Saucon Valley could have something to say about that.

PEN ARGYL – I would not be surprised if the Green Knights make the playoffs as the #2 team among the Lehigh Valley AA teams. Players like Ryan Lobb, Nick Oyer, Michael DePaolo and Brady Mutton are smart, talented kids who can adapt to coaches’ adjustments with the best of them. Not many coaching staffs in the Colonial League have put together better schemes than the Pen Argyl coaches over the last few years. It may not happen when they play Catty during the regular season, but I would expect a fierce battle once again if Roughies and Knights face each other in the playoffs this November.

NOTRE DAME – Notre Dame is one of several “feel-good” stories in the Colonial League this year, along with fellow 2-1 teams PALISADES, SAUCON VALLEY (a 3A team this fall), PALMERTON and NORTHWESTERN. The Crusaders have a brand new attitude amongst its players – which is sometimes the most important aspect of turning a program around. Head Coach Chuck Mueller has his kids playing inspired football. They’re coming off a tough loss to Pen Argyl, but I think they can certainly make a run at a post-season berth, which would be a major step forward for this team. The booster club has offered me the red carpet treatment if I stop by their practice (although I’m not really a red carpet-type of guy). I’m hoping my schedule allows for an opportunity very soon to talk Notre Dame football. It should make for a very interesting next few weeks with many of these one-loss teams yet to play each other.

PIUS – The Royals lost a one-touchdown game to a tough Steel-High team last weekend. Pius has a solid line anchored by senior Kyle Kokawski, and most of last year’s team is back. But the Royals might have another challenge on their hands as they face Dieruff, who has to feel good following their first win of the season. It’ll be a big lift for whichever team wins that matchup on Friday night.

We’ll check back with our local high school football teams in a few weeks for our mid-regular season “Anti-Poll”. Which teams would you like me to discuss for our next poll? As always, we welcome your comments on the above teams. Feel free to email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us LIVE, Thursdays at 6 PM on RCN TV as we talk high school football this fall.

 

The Real March Madness – Behind the Mic – March 18th

The brackets are out!! Everyone starts the week with high expectations to be the best in their various investments into the various pools (for amusement only, of course). I have been invited to participate in nine and the list could still grow. After all, it’s only Monday. So I have started my research and I have come to the conclusion that research will most likely do me absolutely no good.

This was probably the most unpredictable college basketball season in recent history. First of all, a tell-tale sign that this is the “Year of the Whaaatt?” is that the defending national champions, the Kentucky Wildcats, are not even invited. Add to that, there were six teams that were #1 at some point during the season. So if you think you are knowledgeable about college hoops this year, you are probably going to be a loser. This will be the year of the upsets. If there was ever a time to actually get your wife, girlfriend, nerdy husband, or boyfriend involved in your selections, this is the year. If you happen to go that route, prepare yourself for the “I like their colors”, “Their nickname is cute”, “What state are they from?”, “I like teams that begin with B”, etc. I know for those of us who are purists, this kind of babble can make one wretch. But, mark my words; this year might be that year! You can wretch now while making your picks or wretch later when you are tearing up the sheets with your picks on them.

The #1’s are Louisville, Kansas, Indiana, and Gonzaga. My basketball brain tells me to go with Louisville. They are the hottest team right now, just won the Big East tournament, and seem to be in a very favorable bracket. So, should you pick them to win it all? Don’t do it!! Too obvious. This should not be the year to pick the favorite.

Of the #1’s, I kind of like Gonzaga. Their schedule made them a mystery team, but I find it fun to root for them in the post-season. The #2’s look strong – Duke, Miami, Ohio State, and Georgetown. But, can one of them go all the way? Flip a coin, throw a dart!

So, who do I like?

Midwest – Memphis as a sleeper, but I pick Louisville.

West – Still like Gonzaga; don’t like Ohio State; New Mexico has a shot.

South – Michigan led by Trey Burke; Georgetown, maybe.

East – Bucknell!! (Just seeing if you are still with me). It should be Indiana, but don’t count out Miami.

Do I have to pick a national champion? Wait until I call my wife.


 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. I am beginning to get the sense that teams that know they are in the tournament don’t care much anymore about their conference championships. Plenty of #1 seeds did not make the tournament finals.
  2. I mentioned Bucknell, the Patriot League champion, up top, but how do I think they will really do? Mike Muscala is the best offensive and defensive player in the League. If he gets backcourt help, they can shock Butler. However, Butler already has beaten Indiana and Gonzaga. This is a very tough draw for the Bison.
  3. 40 years ago, Allentown Central Catholic became the first parochial state champions in the PIAA. They beat four undefeated teams in their last five games. It is really strange this year not seeing them in the state playoffs.
  4. As I write this, the Bethlehem Catholic Golden Hawks are the last Lehigh Valley team alive in the state playoffs. To me, they look like a state champion. They have size, speed, intensity, and, most importantly, talent. Go Hawks!!

PS – Don’t bother me until after April 6. I will be checking my NCAA pool! I want to see how my wife did.

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!