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.

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.

Behind the Mic: March 1 Madness

Any true basketball fan is well aware of March Madness – the term that indicates basketball season is coming to an end, but not before the colleges and high schools battle for conference, district, state and national championships.  It normally builds each week until the final games are played.

For Lehigh Valley fans, March Madness began a bit early – on March 1!  That is the night that District XI decided to take their AAAAAA boys’ semifinals to the PPL Center in center city Allentown.  PPL had hosted two college basketball games in the past and a professional exhibition game, but it had NEVER hosted a high school game.  No one was quite sure what to expect.

District XI officials worried that they may have taken on more than they should have in terms of rental costs and expectations.  After all, the place held 8,000 people, but up until game night “only” 3200 tickets had been sold.  PPL cooperated to make the fees more palatable, but the numbers were still risky, for sure.  What both had going for them were the teams themselves and the individual talent.

You see, this was a basketball “perfect storm”.  There were four great teams (17 total losses – eight losses by one team) and many of those losses coming when they played one another.  There was a plethora of great talent (seven 1,000 point scorers) who, by themselves, were well worth the price of admission all year long.  Three of the four teams had their school’s all-time leading scorer and one school had two players who went back and forth for that honor each time they took the floor.  And there was Allen High School; a team that had grabbed a hold of their fan base in December and watched it grow to immense numbers by the end of the season.  These were four teams who were so talented and so successful that no Lehigh Valley gymnasium could hold the crowd.

Fans poured in when the doors were unlocked.  The upper deck seating, originally thought to be unnecessary, started to be occupied by halftime of the first game.  The fans just kept coming.  By the time the first quarter of game two rolled around a “Sold-Out” sign had to be posted at the ticket windows.  The final count was a paid attendance of 7,661 and an estimated final tally of over 8,000 people, the largest crowd to watch a high school game ever in the Lehigh Valley.  It really didn’t matter so much who won the games, because everyone – coaches, players, and fans, won that night.

Congratulations to all who put this together, who had the foresight to give it a chance.  It is hard to imagine that teams this good, with players this talented, and fan interest this high will happen for a long while, but, on this night, in this arena, with these four teams, it was awesome.

PPL Center

 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. If you were wondering where District XI big basketball games were played in the past, when there were NO really big gyms, I can tell you that it was NOT in District XI. Way back when I was playing at Wilson High School, we played Bethlehem High School in the District semifinal at the Harrisburg State Farm Show Arena.  We won and returned to Harrisburg for the championship against Larry Miller’s Catasauqua team.  There were @ 8,000 people for each of those games.  Only one classification existed back then.  Catty beat us, if you care.
  2. The Lafayette women’s basketball team beat Holy Cross on Saturday. With the win, they became the first Patriot League #10 seed to win a tournament game.  They were getting better as the year progressed and their hard work paid off.
  3. The Northeast Regional Wrestling championships were an absolute showcase for Lehigh Valley wrestlers. Nazareth had six champions; Bethlehem Catholic had four; Northampton two; and Freedom one.  That’s thirteen out of fourteen – amazing results.  And talk about fans – perhaps, this is the next high school event at PPL.
  4. The Bucknell men will face Lehigh on Sunday, March 12, for the Patriot League basketball championship.
  5. Congratulations to Brad Pensyl, the coach of Pocono Mountain West for winning the District XI AAAAAA basketball championship. It was his second and it will be his last.  After 28 years (making the Districts in every one of those years), he has decided to retire.  He will move into administration at Pocono Mountain.  Brad will be very hard to replace and I will miss him on the sidelines.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Basketball – Round 2

We are right in the middle of some great District XI playoff basketball action that we hope you are enjoying on RCN-TV.

First of all, I wanted to take a moment to salute our local girls and boys basketball players who were recently named to this year’s Colonial League All-Star team.

2016-17 Colonial League Boys Basketball All-League Team
2016-17 Colonial League Girls Basketball All-League Team

I think it was a great year in both the girls and boys classifications in terms of outstanding individual play (and as I’ve said for some time on our “SportsTalk” programs, this year has featured some of the deepest teams in terms of number of outstanding players on a given squad in quite some time).

Secondly, because of the expanded post-season format (and games being played this Thursday night), “SportsTalk” will be off until next week.  In the meantime, we invite you to share your playoff comments/questions/opinions with us via email (rcnsportstalk@rcn.com) at any time, and join us on March 9th as we read and respond to your emails.  Also, tune in for a full recap of all the district playoff games, and previews of the state playoff tournament, which will commence the following day.

Also, be sure to check out our broadcast schedule here on the RCN-TV website for the full rundown of which teams’ games we’ll broadcast, along with airtimes.  Remember, RCN video customers can watch all of our sports productions for free at any time through RCN On-Demand.

Here are just a sample of video highlights from our recent playoff basketball games and wrestling matches, along with interviews featuring one of our local teams in the post-season:

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Basketball “Mini” Primer

With the expanded playoff formats for both girls and boys basketball teams this year, it is nearly impossible to break down every single team in our coverage area along with insights for every game in a single blog posting—especially since there are more “sub-regionals” featuring many teams that are outside of the RCN viewing area that we haven’t had a chance to see.

Instead, I wanted to focus on four teams inside our coverage area with interesting storylines that you can follow as you watch this winter’s playoff coverage on RCN-TV (and be sure to check out our broadcast schedule each day this week for details on which teams we’ll be announcing, along with our airtimes).

ALLEN BOYS BASKETBALL
Yes, they did drop the regular season finale to a Class 4-A team…but when you look at the team that Doug Snyder can roll out there—and the depth to this year’s team, I don’t think you can realistically argue there is a better team in District XI.

The way Tyrese Martin is playing—he has to be the area’s “MVP” in a very crowded field of talented players (among them David Kachelries, Jalen Vaughns, Jeremy Johnson, Nick King and others).  Martin can play (and score) from any position on the floor.

The Canaries have a host of great ball handlers (Bless Jones, Malik Gordan, Jvon Winslow, Carlos Gutierrez, Diyel Steward) and an imposing front court (Rahmel Johnson, Brandon Moya, Tyrese Stewart, Orion Obade, A’quele Adderlay) that are very underrated in terms of their rebounding and defensive abilities.

Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention the popular preseason MVP choice, Talek Williams, too.

I heard a rumor that some people in Allentown were hoping the Canaries would lose a game during the regular season—so that they wouldn’t go into the playoffs with an undefeated record, and maybe help them refocus while not being too overconfident for the post-season—thereby firing them up for what they hope will be a long run through the state tournament.

Well, if that rumor was true (and it was), they got their wish.

EASTON GIRLS BASKETBALL
The Red Rovers did lose the EPC Championship to an incredibly talented Bethlehem Catholic squad—beating Easton in all three meetings between these two schools.  The Rovers are also not the favorite in the 6A playoff classification, as both Nazareth and Parkland finished with more “power points,” pushing Easton to the #3 seed.

However, the Rovers will not have to face the Golden Hawks again since they are in a different classification bracket, and I think Easton will thrive in the District XI and PIAA playoffs.  They continue to be loaded with talent led by Gabby Bloshuk (team high 13 points vs. Becahi in the EPC title game), Shelby Stocker (8 points) and are a very deep team (Mackenzie Miers, contrary to reports did play last Friday, as I had predicted on last week’s “SportsTalk” show).

Allen has made great strides and has had a fine season, but I don’t see any way the Rovers get tripped up in their opener versus the Canaries this Wednesday, which will fuel them through districts and into the state playoffs.  They’ll most probably have to face another scrappy Parkland team in the semifinals, and then, yet another showdown with Nazareth for the championship.

SALISBURY BOYS BASKETBALL
I have to admit, I am fast becoming a big-time Falcons fan—again–this winter, and for several reasons.

While Head Coach Jason Weaver has always had post-season success, he usually features an up-tempo team that loves to push the ball up-and-down the floor regardless of other team’s approach.

This year, for the first time in Jason’s tenure with Salisbury, he features a more half court oriented team, yet they are still fun to watch.

Big men Jaxon Costello and Ryan Slutsky have had numerous big-time games over the last month—both can bring the ball up effectively, shoot from the perimeter and have great hands.  Salisbury’s front court will create a tough matchup for their opponent—Octorara, a team with just two players over 6’1 and none taller than 6’3”—in their opening round playoff game (which will be seen on RCN-TV live, Friday at 6pm).

Jack Reichenbach and Blake Jones are lethal guards who are also very good ball-handlers.  Reichenbach in particular is extremely flashy and effective in scoring both from the outside and from penetration off his own dribble.

But perhaps the most underrated guard in the Colonial League this year was sophomore Sean Snyder, who’s been receiving praise with two great efforts in recent weeks.

In Salisbury’s regular season finale against Southern Lehigh, Snyder was quiet in terms of his point production, but impressed me with his savvy and maturity out in the court during some key moments in the second half to secure the Falcons’ win.

In Salisbury’s Colonial League playoff game last week, Snyder stepped up when teams were keying on other guys and came up big offensively to keep his team at arm’s length and continued to show poise during heated exchanges with the Spartans.  A number of other Colonial League coaches remarked to me after that game what a talent Snyder is—and will continue to be for the next two seasons.

I feel comfortable in putting both Reichenbach and Snyder on a short list of the top guards for next winter and both will be prominently featured in next season’s “player to watch” when we get to December to preview the 2017-18 basketball campaign.

NOTRE DAME GIRLS BASKETBALL
On paper, they were severely overmatched with Southern Lehigh in last Friday’s Colonial League championship, but I was thoroughly impressed by the way the Crusaders hung with one of the most dominant teams in the region throughout its most recent contest.

Leading their hard-fought, never-say-die approach last week were seniors Tori Esposito, Cailee Murphy, Cassie Kelly, Amy Small and Kelsey Gorman.  They played tenacious defense against Solehi and contested every possession. Also, keep an eye on Murphy as she will be playing college ball locally next year for a great collegiate program and will probably be returning to post-season play often at the next level.

As far as the road ahead for Notre Dame, they have a very tough match-up in facing North Schuylkill this Friday in their sub-regional opener.  Even though they are the #6 seed, “North” is a very athletic team that knocked the Crusaders out of District XI play a year ago and will be tough to beat.  But if the ladies from Notre Dame play with the same passion (and can get a few more shots to fall than they did against Solehi), I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if the Crusaders advance into the next round to face the winner of the Jim Thorpe/New Hope-Solebury faceoff.

By the way, Notre Dame fans won’t have to worry about attending that next game at New Hope’s gym.  While the school is beautiful and I love the area, the New Hope-Solebury gymnasium is by far the smallest gym for high school basketball I have ever seen and would clearly not be large enough to hold Notre Dame’s loyal fan base.  Instead, that game will be played at a neutral—and definitely larger—facility.

One more playoff note:  Southern Lehigh needs to make sure it provides a luxury limo for LehighValleyLive.com’s Kyle Craig for their playoff games.  While they (and Becahi) clearly have the most talented girls basketball team in the region, its key player (and daughter of a local officiating great) Avery Bennett always has her best games when Kyle is in the house.  The Spartans could have a long run in the PIAA playoffs but I don’t think it should take any chances and so make sure that Mr. Craig is properly cared for during Solehi’s post-season.

Enjoy your high school playoff basketball action this week!

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: HS Hoops – Playoff Video Recaps

After a busy and exciting week of calling District XI high school championship playoff action on RCN-TV, I am taking a few days off as we prepare for RCN’s coverage of PIAA State Playoff action.

So at the “SportsTalk Shop,” here is a highlights package of the playoff action over the past few weeks featuring teams in the RCN coverage area.  I’ll be back next week with more sports insights here at “The Shop” as well as on “RCN SportsTalk” next Thursday, live at 7pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t forget to check out RCN’s sports coverage of District XI teams in the state playoffs starting this Friday and best of luck to all the teams participating in the tournament!

The RCN SportsTalk Shop: More District XI Playoff Coverage


There are some great high school match-ups over the next few days that I’m very excited about–especially on the girls basketball side.  Here are some observations and notes about District XI teams in the RCN coverage area to get you ready for this week’s playoff coverage on RCN-TV.

The 4A Girls Bracket
It was a coming-out party for Northampton freshman Victoria Keenan, who made her RCN debut last Friday with a spectacular performance en route to a big win over the second-seeded Parkland Trojans.  Despite her (and her frontcourt mates) getting in some early foul trouble, Keenan showcased her ball-handling and shooting abilities from different spots on the floor all game long.  I immediately noticed her poise and confidence in the pre-game warm-ups and she did not seemed fazed in the least about the win-or-go-home contest in front of her.

She finished with a game-high 23 points (no one else on either side finished in double figures) and set up her team to face their area rivals, Nazareth, in the semifinal matchup (7:30pm LIVE, Tuesday, RCN-TV).

I don’t often make predictions about players, and even more rarely do I single out a freshman, but after seeing Keenan play last week I feel confident in saying she’ll become one of the top girls basketball players in the area, if she’s not almost there already.

Not to be left out was Aja Blount, who came into the quarterfinal match-up averaging 20 points per game.  The Trojans played stifling defense on her and did not allow Blount her usual amount of touches, but Aja returned the favor by playing her own brand of ‘shut-all-windows-and-doors” defense against a talented Parkland frontcourt in the victory. Devon Saul, Lauren Sterner, Jenna Rogers, Brielle Ringo and (despite some quick fouls called on her) Sophia Eckroth all played well and I’m looking forward to seeing their next game on Tuesday.

I have not seen the Blue Eagles in person this year, but I’m well aware of the high level of play from returning players Tessa Brugler and Jessica Durnin, and the strong defense Head Coach Rick Bickert always cultivates.  This semifinal game should go right down to the wire.

I was very impressed by my first look at this year’s Easton game–a squad I saw last year and knew they would surpass those levels from a year ago.  We’ve spoken quite a bit about the Red Rovers on recent “SportsTalk” shows and podcasts (which you can hear here).  Pottsville has been led by two outstanding scoring threats, Kyra Schenk and Sadie Cresswell (the latter really shoots well from three-point land and will play college ball at East Stroudsburg University).  The Tide have some size and could create some interesting match-up issues for Easton (Tuesday, 6pm Live, RCN-TV).

Was Parkland vs. Allen the best HS game in decades?
I had a number of people answer in the affirmative about the above question between the boys teams from Allen and Parkland.   Emmaus’ Saturday victory over the Canaries will keep area fans from seeing a rematch of this contest (Parkland and Allen did not play each other during the regular season).  While I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was the greatest local game in over ten years, I will say unequivocally that on any given night, the Allen boys team can be as entertaining to watch as any team in the RCN viewing area.

Remember, nearly all of Allen’s key players were juniors or younger this winter and should return in 2017.  With Parkland graduating a number of the area’s top performers, I think you could certainly put the Canaries as one of the two or three best teams heading into the next high school basketball season, and should be a fun team to watch during the summer leagues.

With the Hornets win, we’ll see another great Parkland vs. Emmaus battle on Wednesday night (live, 7:30pm, RCN-TV).

We’ve talked about both teams quite a bit this season, and on paper, it still seems that the Trojans are heavy favorites.  The Hornets have battled through some tough games this season and we’ll see if Emmaus can come up with a new wrinkle or two to try to frustrate top-seeded Parkland.

SHOUT-OUTS
* Pocono Mountain West’s Lance Singh (a junior) had one of the best individual men’s performances I’ve seen in quite some time.  He scored 35 against Allen in the EPC semifinal and owned the first and last quarters, with the ability to score despite sometimes being triple-teamed, but also set up his teammates well down the stretch run.  Jalen Vaughns (also an 11th grader) is also a difficult match-up—a guy who can score from different spots on the floor and is also a beast on the boards, and Isaiah Wiggins (another junior, by the way) also has a very similar skill set.  I think it’s safe to say PMW is clearly the single most talented scoring machine that Bangor has faced all season, and the Slaters will have their hands full in their semifinal match-up.

* Speaking of Bangor, props to last week’s “SportsTalk” panelist Toomey Anderson (from “LV Basketball Rankings”) for stating on the show that the Slaters will have a breakout performance and post a statement-declaring win over Whitehall in Saturday’s quarterfinal game.  We have been touting the great teams in the Colonial League since early December here at the “SportsTalk Shop” (feel free to go back through our past blog entries to see for yourself) and it is no surprise to me that there are two Colonial League teams still alive as we advance to the semifinal round of the District XI playoffs.

* Another correct “lock” prediction made on last week’s program was Andre Williams declaring that Bethlehem Catholic would beat Allentown Central Catholic in the so-called “Lehigh Valley Holy War.”   First-year Head Coach Ray Barbosa has done a remarkable job since taking over the program, even before his big win over the Vikings last Friday.  He has his team playing its best basketball of the season at just the right time.  They face undefeated Pottsville on Tuesday night (9:30pm, tape-delayed, RCN-TV).  The Tide have played some quality opponents and are an athletic team.  If Becahi can play like they did against Parkland in the EPC Quarterfinals, they’ll have a shot.  Regardless of this game’s outcome, the Golden Hawks already have had a tremendous season after winning just three games a year ago.

Send us your high school basketball comments and opinions via email (RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com) and enjoy all the playoff basketball action coming your way on RCN-TV over the next week!

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: HS Basketball Playoffs (Part 2)

Recently here at the “SportsTalk Shop,” we brought you highlights and insights on the larger Lehigh Valley basketball teams in this winter’s playoffs.  This week we look at some of the smaller schools, and a few of the girls teams that I had a chance to catch-up with over the last few weeks.

Like most basketball seasons, Allentown Central Catholic boys team is a favorite to compete for a District XI 3A title.  The Vikings are in search of their fifth straight championship, and may present the best chance of any team in the RCN area to win it.  The #1 seed is Pottsville–a team that also appears quite regularly in the playoffs.  Some winters, the Crimson Tide come into the playoffs with overwhelmingly impressive records…but that doesn’t always translate to postseason success.  Some years their quality of competition is not nearly what teams in the Lehigh Valley face, and the result is a quick exit from districts.  This is NOT one of those years, as Pottsville not only has played some very good teams, but also boasts some outstanding, multi-talented players.  These players also are great all-around athletes who excel at other sports.  Tamaqua is also having an outstanding year, but is in the “upper bracket,” meaning they’ll have to face the Tide in the district semifinal.  A loss to Pottsville means they would have to fight for the remaining playoff berth in the consolation game (FYI: District XI 3A has three teams that can qualify for the state playoff).

Speaking of “brackets,” it’s a shame that so many quality teams from the Lehigh Valley were all grouped together in the same (lower) 3A bracket, which limits the number of teams in the RCN viewing area teams to advance.  Central Catholic will face Salisbury in this Tuesday’s semifinal matchup.  The loser of that ball game will have to win the consolation game Friday in order to qualify for the PIAAs.

In the girls Colonial League championship, Notre Dame really impressed me with it’s lights-out defense and smart play.

The Crusaders held a very talented Northwestern offense to 15 first half points, while having five different players scoring eight or more points themselves.  Notre Dame featured outstanding balance on this year’s team.  Seniors Gabby Altmire, Sam Cabone and Julie Romich are outstanding leaders on and off the court.  Despite having a very young team (six of their nine regulation rotation players are underclassmen), they have many battle-tested players who’ve played in a number of close games against great competition throughout the past year.

Northwestern is also a very fun team to watch and showed lots of determination in the title game by coming back and not quitting, despite facing a 15-point deficit midway through the third quarter.  Seniors Sabrina Mertz and Sarah Segan are both capable of big scoring nights and leading a team that can also play great defense.  They are part of a 3A group loaded with talent. The Tigers figure to be viewed as underdogs heading into their semifinal game.

This brings us to the two best girls teams in the RCN viewing area–Bethlehem Catholic and Central Catholic–that met in the EPC championship this past Friday.

The Golden Hawks earned a hard-fought title, led by perhaps the best player in the state, Kalista Walters, who has scored 2,202 career points heading into the district playoffs.  Very few teams have been able to contain her in her scholastic career, and when they do she’s been amazing at finding the open teammate on the floor and dishing out assists.  Central Catholic might actually have more high-quality players and feature one of the premiere all-around athletes in the area (Darcy Wolf).  Becahi Head Coach Jose Medina has done a great job keeping the rhythm going after taking over the program very late in the process and Central Head Coach Mike Kopp is as good as it gets.  I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if these teams square-off against each other in districts, and make for another great battle.

You can watch the Becahi/Central championship and all of the local leagues’ girls and boys title games on RCN OnDemand.

Be sure to bookmark our RCN-TV website and check back often for updates on our playoff broadcast schedule as we cover the teams in the RCN viewing area over the next several weeks.  Also, we’d love to hear your comments on our local teams and athletes and want to spotlight great on-the-court performances on our “RCN SportsTalk: District Championship Preview Show” with guests Megan Dellegrotti and Joe Stellato, coming up this Thursday, February 26, from 6-7 pm.  Email your thoughts to rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and we may read and respond to your emails on this program.