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.

 

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

 

High School Football “Anti-Poll” #2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Anti-Poll #1: The “Bigger Schools” (AAAA & AAA)

 

Anti-Poll #1: The “Bigger Schools” (AAAA & AAA)

It’s the debut of the RCN Sports Talk Anti-Poll! This poll is RCN TV’s response for satisfying your desire to rank high school football teams without all the stress and anxiety created by a rigid numerical ranking list.

This week, we will look at the bigger schools in the RCN viewing area (the AAAA- and AAA-classed schools) and provide insights on the teams I’ve been able to gather information on. As always, your feedback, opinions and criticisms are most welcome.

Here are the first week’s listings, in quasi-order:

HEAD OF THE CLASS

EASTON – I was not surprised that EASTON defeated Parkland in the Lehigh Valley Conference opener, but I was absolutely shocked at the score! I had attended both teams’ practices and noted a ton of similarities, including depth at the skilled positions, lots of size, athletic linemen, upbeat yet intense practice sessions, etc. The one thing that appeared to distinguish the teams was that the Rover players I spoke with clearly identified their specific weaknesses from last year that they needed to improve upon. They were also focused on working on those areas for this season. I would have predicted an Easton 10-7 or 14-13 score with the defense playing a huge role; however, I never envisioned a 17-0 start and a 24-0 whitewash. I’ve asked quite a few people to point out to me the weaknesses with this year’s Easton team and very little has been uncovered. Quarterback Brad Wilkins seems very poised with outstanding abilities to lead his team to greater heights. Guys like senior linebacker Justin Best are underrated and quietly do an outstanding job—qualities shared by many Rovers this season. If they can keep any off-the-field issues at bay, I think it’s clear that the Rovers are the favorites to contend for league and district title honors.

WHITEHALL – WHITEHALL also surprised me in that they seemed to have a number of weapons but didn’t employ many of them against Liberty … but when you have Saquon Barkley running for touchdowns of 33, 41, 47 and 50 years, I guess there was no reason to.  I think they’ll be quite a bit of different Zephyr heroes this fall.  Whitehall’s offensive and defensive lines, presumably a weakness at the season’s outset because of their youth, look to be in mid-season form.  I think any battle between Whitehall against Easton or Parkland could have major playoff implications this season.  Don’t be surprised if things don’t stay vanilla and we see some “wildcat” formations, lots of fake punts and the like.

PARKLAND – I would also keep PARKLAND in this category. For the second straight year, they started off the LVC season facing the pre-season favorites of the RCN Sports Talk team. They quite possibly could go on another run culminating with a district championship and state playoff appearance. One could argue that this year’s Trojans are actually better than last year’s team, with a tandem quarterback combination and an extra year of experience for their returning players. Eli Redmond and Kareem Williams have returned in the backfield, with Najee Redmond replacing Jarel Elder’s spot. Many of the standout defensive stalwarts like Nezar & Omar Haddad, and David Barber and company are back. I believe in Legend Boyesen’s confidence and think he will be a major playmaker by the end of this season. The only thing the Trojans might need now is that extra fire I saw last season (or, if you’re a fan of the “Rocky” movies—the “Eye of the Tiger”). I saw a crazy swagger among last year’s team. It wasn’t cockiness, but confidence. Players like Xavier Roden, Paul Tajiri, and Shawn Heist walked around that field on defense like they owned it. Zach Gurinowich would pose for the RCN camera after every sack, and things like that. As a unit, they delighted in taking people’s heads off. However, they always kept their emotions from getting out-of-control and focused on the field. Once that returns, look for a more even contest should they face Easton in the postseason.

Before we continue, here are more insights and other views on our top teams:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pOs6qgbD8cs&feature=youtu.be

A WIN THIS WEEK WOULD HELP…

LIBERTY – This team looked solid at times against a very good Whitehall team. However, they had three MAJOR issues last week: 1) special teams, 2) penalties and, 3) they couldn’t stop the run. While they don’t have to face Barkley again, they do have Jordan Grey and Shabbar Bokhari to deal with this Friday. First year Head Coach John Truby has to work quickly to create a scheme to at least slow down the Blue Eagles’ running attack. Against State College, the ‘Canes tried to bunch the middle, but couldn’t duplicate that against the Zephs. Even with all of Liberty’s speed, the spread offense of Nazareth creates matchup issues. This could result in even more havoc for them as they try to avoid dropping to 0-2 in the league. Not sure why issues #1 and #2 kept reoccurring last Friday. I actually thought the younger players looked more hesitant with KJ Williams returning than they did in their season opener. While I believe Doug Erney did a nice job balancing the football between all of Liberty’s speedy wideouts, I expect them to try to get Williams (5 catches for 44 yards, with several catches nullified by penalties) in more one-on-one situations to make plays and utilize his athleticism.

NAZARETH – I stopped by Nazareth’s practice this week in anticipation of their game against Liberty this Friday (airing on RCN TV at 10:00 PM).  The rumor I heard was that this year’s Nazareth team has the best offensive line under Coach Rob Melosky’s entire tenure – perhaps one of the school’s top lines of all time. I asked him directly about the truth to this rumor while I was at the practice. After hiding a big smile and stating that he doesn’t like to compare one team to another, he did admit that he is VERY happy with his offensive line and the way they have performed thus far. He has two great running backs and an underrated (if not skilled) quarterback in Spencer King. Nazareth SHOULD score a lot of points. The obstacles this week will be in trying to catch Liberty’s speedy wideouts and controlling the tempo to limit the Hurricanes’ possessions. However, the fact that the Eagles like to spread things out (unlike Liberty in their defeat against State College) could give them the advantage.

FREEDOM – The Patriots have had some ups-and-downs recently and are looking to develop consistency. Unfortunately for Freedom they have a very tough opponent in Whitehall this Friday night (airing on RCN TV, live at 7:00 PM).  Last week, their defense saved the day against the Vikings when senior safety Jared O’Donnell’s interception returned for a touchdown was the game-winner. Unlike the rest of the league that seems to be utilizing their speed to kick start a dynamic offense, the Patriots are using their size and experience on defense to make a postseason push. Those same senior defensive players tell me they have some very young playmakers that have outstanding potential. If the underclassmen continue to develop (or in the case of sophomore Roberto Diez, gets healthy) in a hurry, they could have a bright future sooner rather than later. While everyone’s attention, and rightly so, is on Whitehall’s Barkley, Ryan Bonshak, and Nick Nejad, Head Coach Jason Roeder liked what he saw from Quarterback Jeff Charles against Liberty last week and think they have to keep an eye on him as well to have success Friday.

*Note: Both Nazareth and Freedom’s coaches and players will be interviewed on this Thursday’s RCN Sports Talk show.

DESPARATELY SEEKING A WIN

RIDLEY – I think I might have snake-bit Ridley by targeting them for my first-ever Shout-Out feature on last week’s RCN Sports Talk show. After an impressive season opener, they lost to Conestoga by one point for the second straight season. They have a game with a very tough Garnet Valley coming up this week. A win would put them right back in the running for a league title. According to their fan Twitter account, @PhilMarionField, they are 41-14 in games following a league-opening loss. However, the Green Raiders have never beaten the GV Jags in consecutive seasons. They need to pull off a win to avoid a much more difficult trek to a district playoff spot.

CENTRAL CATHOLIC – The post-McDermott era is on and the team is still trying to find its offensive stride. The Vikings extremely underrated defense from a year ago is back and should keep them in contention for qualifying for a AAA playoff berth. With Bethlehem Catholic off to a 2-0 start, Central Catholic will have to start putting up some W’s very soon if they want to continue their “just get-in & win” pattern. In the last few years, they’ve had to fight just to make the district playoffs and then dominated once they qualified.

EMMAUS – I was very impressed with new Head Coach Randy Cuthbert when we had him in our studio a few weeks ago. I am also VERY surprised that this team is currently 0-2. With all the speed and athletes they had returning and a ‘not-the-toughest opponents’ schedule to start the season, I really thought they would be AT LEAST 2-1 after this week. I will be seeing the Hornets this Saturday to learn more about them (airing on RCN TV at 9:30 PM), but with Easton, Parkland, Liberty, Nazareth and Whitehall still to come, this could be a very long season if they don’t post a win this weekend.

That’s all the space I have for this week’s edition. I hope to focus on more teams coming up. Again, your feedback, comments, or complaints are welcome to be posted below. Feel free to email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us live, Thursdays at 6:00 PM on RCN TV as we talk high school football this fall.

Next week: “Smaller Schools” in the RCN “Anti-Poll.”

 

Behind the Mic: Valedictorian, Salutatorian, and MVP’s

Valedictorian, Salutatorian, and MVP’s

Academics
This past week, I read that the Parkland School District decided to no longer award the distinction of class valedictorian or salutatorian. The rule was instituted in 2009 for the class of 2013. They are not the only local schools to do this. Moravian Academy and Emmaus High School also do not list the top two students. Instead, they would list all of the students who had achieved honors as a whole. This is easy to do, since the honorees are based on grade point averages, and perhaps, other criteria. It is not subjective. I am sure a computer just simply spits out the names. In other words, the schools (computers) choose their All-Stars, but not their MVP’s.

Athletics
This academic direction is an interesting path for those of us who are, often, a part of choosing athletic all-star teams and most valuable players. And our choices are much more difficult – we do not have grade point averages or computers to make the decisions for us. We have statistics, but we all know they can lie. I have usually been able to take a list of athletes and choose an all-star team from that list. Sure, if you need to select 10, the difference between #9, #10, and #11 (who would be left out) is not always extremely clear. Then, to select an MVP from the 10 may be even more difficult, more subjective, and simply unfair. A local paper is currently attempting to select an Athlete of the Year (one male and one female) and offered up their first two nominees this week – a football player and wrestler (male); a field hockey and softball player (female). The paper will offer 5 choices for each gender and voters will choose the winners. This would seem to diametrically oppose the academic philosophy of the schools mentioned above.

The Question
So the question I pose to you – who is right? Should we honor the absolute best in academics and in athletics or is it good enough for each school just to name their All-Stars and eliminate their MVP’s? Should we get away from Top Ten lists (unless you’re a David Letterman fan) and let high schools, colleges, and employers decide, based on their criteria, who they want?

Let me know your thoughts before the fall – I have an All-Star football ballot to fill out and the last line asks me to list my choice for an MVP!

The SportsTalk Shop: Back To Basics

After tackling the hot and sometimes laborious issues of local league realignments, super conference invitations, and sports politics the last several weeks (and something we’ll have to address again very soon with a May 31st deadline on the horizon for the proposed MVC/LVC merger), I’d like to focus on one of the more refreshing aspects of this current high school sports spring season by discussing something that has become passé with many of today’s athletes: fundamentals.

What’s that? Some may say . . . especially those great athletes that play above the rim or score multiple touchdowns every week without much effort. It’s something that older coaches will frequently preach, and even older, now retired sports veterans will say is severely lacking among today’s sports stars. However, I think it’s refreshing to see as I make my way around different schools and sports over the last several weeks, that I have not only seen younger coaches and managers stressing fundamentals to their kids, but the athletes themselves seem very proud of themselves for their repetitive work on basic skills. It’s no surprise then that the teams that have worked hard on that aspect of their respective sport, find themselves among their league standings with just a few days remaining in the regular season.

Take Whitehall, for example.

The Zephyrs, under third-year Manager Shaun O’Boyle, have bounced back from an average season a year ago to becoming one of the top teams in the area (if not the state) at this point. The first thing they worked on was getting a good lead off of first base. The second, taking the proper route on rounding third base. After another base running drill, they worked on their defense . . . and then they worked on their defense some more. Through most of their practice on this day, they did not have batting practice, but instead, worked on the mundane things that championship teams need to have. Upon speaking with the players, they all seemed to understand the importance of those skills and the need to continue to work on them to keep their season – one of the best in Whitehall history — going.

One of their top pitchers, Elliot Mortimer, threw just 53 pitches in 7-innings, which is impressive enough. Then you hear the mind-blowing stat that all but 8 pitches were STRIKES! He said he let his defense do their job, and it resulted in the team’s 14th victory in 15 tries (against one of the better teams in the region) by a 14-1 score. Simple strategy, but effective.

The Zephs are not the only team spending more time on fundamentals, and they’re not the only squad turning their fortunes around. The Wilson softball team (under Head Coach Sara Ulrich) reached their second playoffs—ever—in school history last year, and are looking to do the same again this spring. Teams such as the Warriors, Emmaus, Parkland, and Liberty baseball, Northampton softball, Parkland lacrosse and other organizations are being led by great young coaches who know the importance of fundamentals. Nearly every team I’ve seen while doing our “RCN SportsTalk: Time Out” features on local athletes and teams have been talking about the basics for their sport, and one of the first things they work on in their practices? Defensive drills.

What are your thoughts on this current spring sports season? Do you like the way teams are playing? And do you like the “defense wins championships” mantra that I’ve heard quite frequently mentioned by coaches and players alike this spring? Post a comment below and tune in for more features on our local teams and athletes on our “SportsTalk” show, every Thursday at 6pm (and available for free on RCN’s video-on-demand).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop – February 11th

SportsTalk Shop: Basketball Playoff

High school basketball playoff time is here!

After a very long, cold and dreary winter weather season (it wasn’t really that bad this year, was it?), it’s time to turn our attention to the 2013 winter sports playoff season. With the boys’ basketball players getting underway, here’s a look at some of the top teams in both the Colonial League and Lehigh Valley League who either clinched a spot in their respective conference playoffs, or teams that came close and could still be very formidable come district postseason time. In no particular order:

Central Catholic – Probably the best team in the area right now, and why not? A dynamic player in Muhammad Ali-Abdul Rahkman who can score from anywhere on the court, along with several other talented guards up front, an inside force in Jean Lee Baez, and underrated players in David Stevens and Jimmy Vaughn. The Vikings seem to be the most balanced and deepest all-around team in the LVC, and could do some major damage in states—assuming they don’t get tripped up en route to the 3A title game.

Wilson – Maybe the biggest surprise of the “elite” teams this year. It’s no wonder they’re good, but I don’t know how many people outside of Wilson thought this team might just end up as the greatest Warriors team ever. After a league opening loss to Southern Lehigh, Wilson has basically had a ‘take-no-prisoners’ approach in nearly every game played, including a win over rival Easton, winning most of their games by double digits. With exciting players like Gerald Terry and Daye-Shawn Bailey slicing & dicing to the hoop, the soon-to-be-top center in the Colonial League Phil Pierfy in the middle, and great depth throughout, this might be the year in which Wilson tops CCHS for the 3A crown.

Parkland – Might have the best overall backcourt in the league (I’m still hoping Jimmy Hahn gets into broadcasting some day). They have a very versatile combination of guards who can do a ton of things well, and are an unselfish group with different players capable of stepping up on any given night. Very tough to defend. However, for the LVC playoffs, I think Central Catholic is a tough matchup for the Trojans, and the team I think you have to get through to win the league championship.

Freedom – Maybe the most talented single player in the league is Nyreef Jackson (he nearly scored 16 points in a row a few weeks back at Sewards Gym), and some very good Patriot players right behind them. (Maceo Connor is VERY underrated in my book). They don’t seem to have as much “fire” or at least the “gusto” as last year’s team, which might account for some of their inconsistencies this year. On any given day they could beat anyone, but will it be on a playoff championship night?

Easton – They’ve had an adventure trying to find their third-scorer, normally a necessity for a team to have post season success. I only saw DeVante Queen once this year, but he REALLY impressed me with his ability to score, his court vision, and his unselfishness in giving up the ball to a hot teammate (see Ezra Gaines in the Allen game). Also, Xavier Jenkins, who just announced he’ll be headed to Central Connecticut State, is a very steady player at both ends of the floor. They have some tough matches against LVC opponents, but if they play their usual top-notch defense and develop some consistency offensively as they did last season in the playoffs…? Remember, the Red Rovers were the last Lehigh Valley team standing last year.

Liberty – A team so good, I haven’t been able to see them (Gary Laubach always gives himself the top team each year =), but a team nearly as inconsistent as any in the LVC. Great guards, great post presence, poised players with experience in big games (and the fortitude to win some close games this year), this SHOULD be the team to beat. They have also had some issues that have really kept them from getting in a solid, sustained rhythm without everyone in the lineup. I’m looking forward to seeing them in the playoffs, especially if they play the way they did against Easton on Tuesday.

Emmaus – Another “enigma” team that looks fabulous one minute, then loses a game you would think they would win. Three solid players in Derek Tannous, Nate Feiretag and Joe Nicolini, as well as a nice supporting cast make the Hornets a team to watch. However, they may still be a year away from being contenders for a championship. Their JV and Freshmen teams, at last check, were raking in the wins. They could be laying the groundwork for a potential mini-dynasty if they can win some tough games this postseason.

Bangor – Includes my vote (as of now) for league MVP in Alex Colton, based largely on what he did without four key players in guiding his team in a close loss to Wilson—probably the grittiest game I’ve seen all year. They have the depth to win the Colonial League, but as Bron Holland correctly stated on a recent “SportsTalk” show, until they win the big one, they’ll be questions about them.

Notre Dame – Vincent Eze had some ups-and-downs early this year, but seems to be back and gives the Crusaders another well-rounded team. Behind Whitehall’s win over the Canaries, Notre Dame had the comeback win of the year over Salisbury in their first meeting, and is deep enough to be able to run and gun with the other teams in the Colonial League. Don’t know if they have enough firepower to beat Wilson, but counting out Notre Dame is always a very dangerous thing to do, especially come playoff time.

Salisbury – Their win over Northern Lehigh was the single most dominating performance that I saw in-person all year long. Perhaps the most underrated head coach in the valley (Jason Weaver keeps his own team’s stats), his team has some outstanding guards that love to push the tempo, and are eager to avenge a district-opening loss that ended their season a year ago. Don’t know how well they will fare in the 3A level this year, but if their “bigs” can stay out of foul trouble, they could very well contend for the league crown.

Catty – I always thought they would be in the mix for the Colonial League playoffs and they’re making a great run at just the right time of year. I think the winning atmosphere from the football season is carrying over, mixed with one of the top coaches in the area in Eric Snyder and some very good athletes. This makes the Roughies a fun team to watch this post-season. Hope they don’t suffer from the long layoff for the 2A district playoffs.

What do you think of my assessments of the top teams this year? Which teams are underrated? Which teams will win titles? Post your opinions here and/or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read and respond to your comments on our upcoming shows on Thursdays at 6pm, in which we’ll be recapping & previewing the next wave of playoff matchups.

Because of space, I’m hoping to be able to talk about more teams in a future blog post (including Whitehall, Bethlehem Catholic and Northern Lehigh) … so keep winning guys! I hope to have the chance to watch (and type) more about you in the coming weeks!

The SportsTalk Shop – December 18th

With the holidays approaching, it’s only natural to take a look back at the past twelve months and do some reflecting, and for the 3rd straight year we’re going to be doing just that on December 20th’s “RCN SportsTalk” with our ‘year-in-review’ program.

The show is live and you’re welcome to participate with your memories of the 2012 sports calender year.  Our panelist on the program will reveal their top moments, players, teams, games and quite a few other topics and favorite moments from the year gone by.  Even though the Lehigh Valley had slightly less success in terms of state team metals, there was still plenty of great memories from the team, players and coaches in the area.  A few of mine include: 

 – Easton’s boys basketball amazing come-from-behind win over Emmaus to clinch the last playoff berth, and then to put a state playoff run together and be the ‘last team standing’ from the Lehigh Valley

 – Another amazingly competitive baseball & softball season and some very highly attended games.  The spring sports teams don’t even get close to the attention the fall and winter sports receive, but the games I saw had great turnouts (my favorite scene with Pen Argyl’s athletic director directing traffic because of so many people driving up ‘the hill’ to see the Salisbury/Pen Argyl baseball game

 – The championship season of the Blue Mountain League’s Hellertown Royals under the direction of long-time Skipper Bob Zerfass.  The team didn’t seem as dominating as in their previous championship seasons but always found a way to win, including an incredibly exciting championship series come-from-behind win after being down 2 games to none in a best of five series

 – The Central Catholic football team (who we’ll honor on “SportsTalk” on January 3rd) once again being the last football team standing this fall.  No one had them in their ‘top 5’ in the preseason predictions, but one of the smallest schools in the LVC once again dominated in districts and in the first two rounds of the PIAA and turned in a remarkable season by 5’11 running back Colin McDermott and assisted by an amazing effort by the blockers in front of him.

We’ll be recapping even more great moments on our December 20th show.  You’re welcome to give your opinions and thoughts on the 2012 sports-year by emailing us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com & we’ll try to read your comment on the air.  Happy Holidays!