The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SportsTalk Shop: 4A Playoff Primer

The high school football playoff season is upon us with interesting matchups in the PIAA District 2/4/11 sub-regionals.

First, a quick plug.  For the next two weeks, we’ll be spending most of our “RCN SportsTalk” programs (Thursdays, live, 7-8pm), breaking down ALL of the football sub-regional playoff games, along with thoughts on the Eastern Conference post-season as well.  Feel free to contact us before/during the show to weigh in with your thoughts and questions about the playoffs.

Now, some observations and details on the 4A contests involving District XI teams (we’ll look at the 2A/3A playoff teams in our next blog entry).

Easton/Freedom
If this was almost any other year, I would say the Red Rovers have the advantage—if for no other reason than Freedom already defeated Easton once this year…and Easton RARELY loses to the same team twice in one season.  In fact, even though I thought Freedom was the favorite heading into the first game between these two schools, I might have given the Rovers the nod.  But that was before last weekend.

(BTW:  Freedom was our pre-season #2 team in our “SportsTalk” poll, ranked just ahead of Easton).

I was very impressed with the way Freedom played last Saturday against their traditional rivals, the Liberty Hurricanes.  Andres Santos, who came into the season as the number-two back, finished the regular season with 136 carries, 625 rushing yards, 12-touchdowns and a 5-yards per carry average.  He took on a Liberty defense that was determined to try to stop him, and responded with a 200-yard rushing day (a personal best—his previous high was 117) and two scores.

Furthermore, the senior leaders—Brennan Reinert, Cordell Cotto, Alkiohn Dunkins, Joeshua Ortiz—to name just a few, have been outstanding and have made key contributions on both sides of the ball.  Teamed with junior Brady Hornbaker and sophomore Alec Huertas, I really believe this team is special.  The Patriots have already won a share of their first league/division title, but I believe they have the potential for even greater heights this post-season.

Nasir Minney-Gratz had another awesome performance last week against Nazareth, and before that game I thought that Easton might have had the best, all-around defense in the EPC-South.  I’m no longer sure of that opinion, but I do feel it will be a great game (Friday, live, 7pm on RCN-TV).

Del Val/Parkland
When District XI puts the schedule together before the season starts, they should probably just schedule these two teams to play each other, as these schools have run into each other—at least once—for several years in a row.

Del Val boasts senior running back Austin Cernek (156 carries, 920 yards, 9-TDs) and sophomore wide receiver Dylan Kelly (13 catches, 271, 4-TDs).  Junior QB Matt Cavallero 68-128 passing, 975 yards, 8-TDs, 12-INTs) does a good job orchestrating the offense.  However, I don’t think the Warriors are as strong as some of the previous years’ DV-teams that Parkland has faced.

The Trojans themselves are an interesting team.  The one time I’ve seen them in person (against Freedom), they looked flat-out phenomenal.   They have, in my opinion, the best athlete in the area (QB Devante Cross) and are loaded with depth at nearly every position, along with players (Kenny Yeboah, Eric Digirolamo and others) who have appeared quite a bit on the “SportsTalk” highlight reels this fall.

I’ve talked to some of my colleagues who’ve seen them more often and they opined that the team sometimes plays to the level of their competition and/or lacks emotion.  I feel that will not be the case now that the post-season is here, and I’d say that Parkland heads into the playoffs as the favorite in this game…if not the entire sub-regional tournament.

The Parkland/Del Val game will be broadcast on RCN-TV, tape-delayed, Friday at 9:30 pm.

Stroudsburg/Liberty
The Hurricanes may have the best quarterback (Doug Erney) in the area.  They have, in my opinion, one of the best junior running backs (Gunner Anglovich) in the region.  They have an outstanding offensive live and a great collection of receivers.  On paper, they have the advantage in every offensive aspect of the game.

However…

Over the last two weeks, the Liberty defense has surrendered a whopping 89 points.  They’ve had issues with tackling and have committed untimely penalties at times throughout the season.  They feature some great individual performers, but the team overall has lacked consistency.  If Liberty plays to its potential on Saturday night (live, 7pm, RCN-TV), the game could be a blow-out.  But I don’t see the Mountaineers going away quietly.  If the Canes take Stroudsburg lightly, look ahead to a possible second-round contest against Parkland, or if they lack consistency and focus for an extended period, this game could be much tighter than people are expecting.

Wyoming Valley West/Nazareth
There are some really great athletes at Nazareth right now…perhaps, a few of their future “all-time greats.”  The Blue Eagles have to be cautious heading into their first round match-up.  It’s not uncommon for District XI teams to face a team with a great regular season record, only to mercy-rule them before halftime.  It’s doubtful this will be the case.  The Spartans have played some good teams this year, and have a number of playmakers who will have to be contained.  Junior QB Aaron Austin has passed for nearly 1,500 yards, and running back Sean Judge has rushed for over 1,100 yards.

Nazareth can build on a strong showing last week against Easton, and, regardless of this Friday’s outcome, has exceeded expectations this fall—with many of these players returning next year.  However, I believe this will be a close ball game with lots of scoring, and an all-out shootout could translate to the Eagles coming home with a round-one victory.

Feel free to email your comments on our District XI 4-A football teams to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in to this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” for your comments, along with more insights, predictions, players to watch and keys to victory on this weekend’s contests.  If you miss our live show, don’t forget to check out the program’s podcast available on Friday afternoon.

Behind the Mic: Mind-Blowing Numbers!

Nysir Minney-Gratz of Easton High School is a running back.   He wears #7 and is listed at 5’ 7” and weighs 155 pounds.   On Friday night, he rushed for 469 yards against the Nazareth Blue Eagles.  He also scored six touchdowns.  469 yards!!  That is a new Easton High school rushing record at a school where rushing the football is equivalent to Saturday following Friday.  It happens every single week of every single game during the football season.  The forward pass is an afterthought.

So, suffice it to say that Easton has had, year in and year out, exceptional running backs.  But no one has ever rushed for more than 400 yards in one game for the Rovers.  The previous record was set by Juan Gaddy in 1991 when he ran for, what now seems like a paltry 314 yards.  Minney-Gratz ran for more than that in the second half alone – 20 carries for 325 yards.  By the way, he caught one pass for 23 yards.

If you like football numbers, you know that one of the personal goals of any running back is to attain 1,000 yards rushing in a season.  Minney-Gratz ran for 875 yards the last three weeks alone – 1715 yards for the season. And to think that in the two years prior to this season, he ran for a total of 289 yards.  But, as I mentioned, there have been many, many great running backs at Easton and Minney-Gratz sat behind another Easton legend, Shane Simpson, for the past two years.

There have been seven running backs this year who have rushed for over 300 yards in a game, five who have set school records.  Emmaus’ Kyle Boney will rush for over 2000 yards before he puts away his jersey.  His high this year is 377 yards in one game.  Liberty’s Gunner Anglovitch rushed for 391 yards just two Saturdays ago.  Saucon Valley’s Evan Culver needs just 52 yards to go over 2,000 yards for this season.

This certainly begs the question – Are these athletes so outstanding or are defenses non-existent?  I made a quick count of EPC and Colonial games and there were 24 games where a team scored 50+ points in a game and 11 more where a team scored 49 points.  In one game, a team scored 54 points and lost by 21. 75-54!!  Where are the defenses?

Many coaches attribute the high scores to outstanding offensive talent, but also to poor defensive skills.  They say there is much less time spent on contact drills in practice due to the fear of injury and this has limited the repetition necessary for an individual to become a good run stuffer and a good tackler.  Everywhere I go now I hear the phrase, “Nobody can tackle any more”.

In case you are wondering, the Pennsylvania single-game record is 722 yards set this year in a 107-90 game.  107-90?

Maybe, by comparison, our defense isn’t so bad in the Lehigh Valley!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. The Eagles’ victory on Sunday night in overtime was refreshing for a couple of reasons – Sam Bradford threw a perfect pass to win the game and it was caught, not dropped. And, it took some of the spotlight off of Greg Hardy, who should not be playing for the Cowboys at all, except he settled a financial civil suit with his girlfriend so she would not testify in his jury trial.  No matter how you spin it, he should not be playing football – another reason for fans to hate the Cowboys.
  2. As I write this, the Flyers are 5-9, losing six of their last seven, and the 76ers are 0-6, so the Eagles are the last vestige of hope for the Philadelphia fans through the winter.
  3. In the Football Bowl Subdivision, there are only six undefeated teams – Clemson, Baylor, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Iowa, and Houston. Baylor and Oklahoma State play of November 21 and Ohio State will probably play Iowa for the Big Ten Championship.  That will leave four and that’s what the NCAA likes for their playoff system.  Houston may end up playing Temple for the American Athletic Conference title.
  4. The Allentown public schools can be proud of the weekend dedication of the Andre Reed Field and the spirited play of their two football teams. Both Allen and Dieruff did themselves proud and I’m sure Andre was happy to see the Huskies come away victorious.
  5. You can find all of the brackets for the District XI football games which begin this weekend at the following site:  http://www.districtxi.com/fall/football

Gary's Picks

NFL PICKS LAST WEEK – 5-8; OVERALL 81-51 (61%)
NFL PICKS (WEEK NINE)

JETS
GREEN BAY
DALLAS
CAROLINA
ST LOUIS
NEW ORLEANS
PHILADELPHIA
PITTSBURGH
BALTIMORE
MINNESOTA
DENVER
NEW ENGLAND
SEATTLE
CINCINNATI

The SportsTalk Shop: Four Teams to Watch: EPC

The high school football season is nearly upon us! Before it kicks into high gear (our first two RCN broadcasts will be this Friday and Saturday nights), I wanted to take a look at four East Penn Conference teams that have some interesting storylines for the upcoming season. Please note, these are NOT the teams that I think will necessarily be the top four teams in the league but rather schools that may not be on your radar and/or squads that have some unique issues. We’ll also take a look at key Colonial League teams to keep an eye on in the very near future.

EASTON
Local football fans may not have noticed (and critics probably don’t want to), but Easton football has changed over the last several seasons, with Head Coach Steve Shiffert opening up the playbook and including more passing plays than previous years. They look to continue that more open style in 2014, but will have some incredibly tough graduated pieces to fill, especially on the offensive line—a strength from a season ago. They will, however, feature arguably the best offensive weapon in the area in Shane Simpson and have a number of strong defenders returning. They are one of the few schools in the area that have two quality quarterback candidates (E.J. Roeder and Trey Durrah). The Rovers will again incorporate a number of two-way players, something that may work against them playing a team like Parkland. Seeing the “new guys” adjusting to their role and keeping an eye on the Rovers’ depth will be two more things to watch as the season unfolds, and could tell how much success the team will have in the playoffs.

WHITEHALL
I have not seen them during the double sessions this month (I try to get to as many different schools as I can at this time of year, but since I’ve seen them the last two “Augusts” and in trying to be fair to other schools…).

I did, however, see a couple of their football players at this summer’s basketball league games, and also several of their linemen…and they are MUCH bigger than they were a year ago. Mind you, their offensive and defensive lines were fantastic last season. In fact, quite a number of coaches and football experts all marveled at how fundamentally-sound the Zephyrs’ linemen were. If the Zephyrs bring that same mentality with the added size, they have the offensive capabilities led once again by running back Sa’quon (don’t call me “Say Say”) Barkley and this year at quarterback by Gianni Sinatore—a very talented multi-sport athlete. That combined with several solid defenders returning will allow Whitehall to challenge Parkland and Easton through a district playoff run.

EMMAUS
The Hornets are a team I may have “snake-bit” a year ago, in anointing them as my “surprise” team of 2013. Emmaus got off to a slow start, which precluded them from making a run at the top teams in the district. However, I was extremely impressed with Randy Cuthbert, who was hired very late in the offseason a year ago, and his team when I saw them later in the season, and they have a number of quality players returning (among them QB Logan Kober, RB Wyl Miller, LB Kyle Boney and DL Eric Miller). They’ll need to make some adjustments defensively (former defensive coordinator Sam Senneca joined his son coaching at Wilson), but I think they have a favorable early season schedule—save the week two matchup against Easton—which should keep them near the top of the standings. Their other tougher matchups (Parkland, Whitehall) close out their regular season schedule, but if the team can continue to improve the way it did in 2013, those two games against the Trojans and the Zephyrs should be great battles to watch and very meaningful games in terms of the postseason positioning.

DIERUFF
There is no question in my mind that Bethlehem Catholic is the best of the “Mountain” football teams in the new EPC. In fact, a silver lining for the Golden Hawks getting “bumped” to the other division is that they will have no problem whatsoever in making the district playoffs, and should easily qualify for the number-one seed and home-field advantage in districts—something they did not have a year ago. But one of the key teams to watch among the “northern” teams are the Huskies, who are coming off a resurgent 2013 campaign. After some outsiders thought the program should be disbanded, Head Coach Kyle Beller and his squad have done a remarkable job of rebuilding the program. Not only did they win five games one year ago, but had legitimate chances to win at least two more games and qualify for the post-season—a thought no one outside of East Allentown would have thought possible last August. Because of the new league, they will face some much tougher competition (Parkland this Friday, Becahi on 9/26, Freedom on 10/3), and even if they equal the win total this year, one could argue the team is still moving in the right direction. But with two of the most talented (and definitely two of the most underrated) skill-position players in the league in Shakur Lester and Chris Marks, it is entirely possible the Huskies once again exceed fans’ expectations this fall. (FYI: for Husky fans, Dieruff Athletic Director Melvin Riddick will be one of our guests on our Sept. 11th “SportsTalk” show).

For the record, I do believe that Parkland is the best EPC team on paper, and have heavy odds on winning another District XI title this year. Last August, a very knowledgeable football guru told me that if QB DeVante Cross would develop his passing abilities, that the Trojans offense would be deadly. Cross has not only has improved ALL facets of his game, but the team added a quality football mind in Jim Terwilliger as a quarterbacks coach, to its already super-qualified staff. Even their kicking game is far above average, probably closer to the “superior” category, with perhaps the best leg in the area in Jake Bissell. I’m hard pressed to find anyone who can point out glaring weaknesses on this team, and see only two or three Lehigh Valley squads on their regular season schedule that will be able to challenge Parkland this fall. How far can they go this season? Keep watching “RCN SportsTalk” and our local football coverage to find out!

How do you feel about the new East Penn Conference? Which EPC teams do you feel will be the most interesting teams to watch this season, or give us your first impressions ahead of our “Colonial League” blog entry. Send us an email at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com, and join us for our “High School Football Preview Show” broadcasting this Thursday from 6-7pm from the Great Allentown Fair.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Wrestling Individuals Preview

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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: The Shop’s New Wrinkle

 

The Shop’s New Wrinkle

One of the major driving forces behind the RCN SportsTalk show and this blog is highlighting the tremendous accomplishments of athletes, coaches and administrators in the RCN viewing area. Each season we try to spotlight different teams, schools and sports. We’re always looking for ideas and suggestions to better honor the special people who work so hard at their given talents. So with that said, we’d like to unveil a new dimension to our SportsTalk Shop blog.

Periodically, we’re going to post highlights of our sports productions seen on RCN-TV. By doing this, we hope to reach a new audience in showcasing young men and women’s outstanding efforts in the sports community. Some of these highlights are also shown on our live Thursday show, in which we discuss these teams in more detail.

To launch this new addition, we’re presenting highlights from a few of the “rivalry contests” RCN covered the last couple of weeks. We’ll start with highlights from the Parkland/Emmaus game:

Here’s some of the highlights from the “Christmas City” battle between Liberty and Freedom:

Finally, highlights from the big Easton/Whitehall game—a contest featuring two teams who were tied for first place in the Lehigh Valley Conference when they faced each other at Cottingham Stadium.

What do you think of this newest addition to our blog? Which RCN-TV broadcast playoff games would you like us to focus on for our next set of highlights? Post your votes here and check back soon for more blog entries and highlights!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: FB Anti-Poll: Big School/Playoff Picture

 

FB Anti-Poll: Big School/Playoff Picture

We’re closing in on the home stretch of the high school football “first season”. The regular season wraps on November 2nd with the all-important playoffs on the horizon. Here’s a playoff outlook for the 4-A schools in the Lehigh Valley region.

EASTON — The Rovers have two big ball games coming up: this Friday against Whitehall (broadcast live on RCN TV at 7:00 PM) and Nazareth next week. Both of these teams will need a win to enhance their playoff chances. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a number of Easton players this year (including the week after their loss to Emmaus). They seem like a group that does not want to taste defeat anytime soon. They are also smart enough to study film and go the extra mile in the weight room and on the practice field to do what it takes to keep winning. I know they would like another post-season shot at Parkland, the team that ended their 2012 playoff hopes. It’ll be a tough 4-A playoff field. However, it’s very possible we can see a rematch of Week Two between the Rovers and the Trojans in the playoffs.

PARKLAND — The Trojans will also be fueled by revenge and hope to take another crack at Easton in the playoffs. Since their only loss, they are steamrolling the competition and appear to be on track, on both sides of the ball. With all the outstanding backs they have running the football, they should be a very dangerous team in the playoffs if DeVante Cross continues to develop as a passer.

WHITEHALL — To have a long playoff run, the Zephyrs will have to play better offensively than they did against Emmaus last Friday. The question with Whitehall is depth. They hope to have key, two-way player Nick Nejad back in time for the playoffs. If they can avoid any other major injuries, they can contend for a district title. A win over Easton Friday would give them a shot at home-field advantage for the first round of the post-season.

EMMAUS — The Hornets must recover quickly to fight for a district playoff berth. I was impressed by their game-winning/last possession drive against Central Catholic in Week Three, which seemed to propel their five-game winning streak. That said, I was surprised they couldn’t muster more offense against Whitehall, even without their top running back Wyl Miller. Their regular season finale against Parkland looks like a must-win game right now if they want to reach Districts. I still think the future is bright for this team and they could be the team to beat if they have to settle for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

NAZARETH — Two solid wins over Bethlehem Catholic and Central Catholic have the Blue Eagles back in the district conversation. Their offense has found its stride and still boosts a ton of scoring weapons, including Matt Tuerk, Jordan Gray and Max Wasilewski. Right now, they need some of the teams in front of them to lose and would still have to upset Easton to qualify. The Nazareth offense is fun to watch and could also be a dangerous unit in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Entering Week Nine, East Stroudsburg South and Wyoming Valley West own the top two playoff positions, with Stroudsburg, Scranton and Pleasant Valley also capturing spots. It seems unlikely E.S. South will lose a game during the regular season. If they capture home-field advantage through Districts, it means the road to the championship, depending on how the teams match up, could run through the Poconos this fall.

Stop by next week for my insight on more schools in my next blog entry. In the meantime, I want to hear from you! Which 4-A teams do you think will make the playoffs, and which team will win the title? We’ll continue to break down the high school football playoff picture on RCN Sports Talk the next few Thursdays at 6:00 PM. Send your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com. We’ll read and respond live on our next program.

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.