The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Mic: March 1 Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

PPL Center

 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Basketball “Mini” Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy your high school playoff basketball action this week!

The SportsTalk Shop: Basketball “Halftime” Report

 

Traditionally, the first half of the college and high school basketball seasons is…. a little peculiar.

Initially, the preseason schedule begins in the shadow of high school football playoff time—and some of the top basketball players aren’t even part of their basketball team for several weeks of the season due to their commitments on the gridiron.  College football rivalry games are in full swing, and many college basketball teams open their season with “Midnight Madness” (or extremely early morning) games or other events conducted while many of us are sleeping and/or are occupied with many other things going on during the latter half of November.

Then, when the football playoffs finally reach the championship, you’re bumping up against Christmas/holiday season.  Then, around the holidays, teams frequently travel to–or host–tournaments involving teams outside their regular area (and, if possible, get a few days to relax with their families).

After New Year’s there are inevitably a few games postponed due to the bad weather (or heavy concerns about a storm’s potential anyway).  Despite no heavy precipitation, both high school and college games in our coverage area have been affected on a couple of occasions already since we flipped the calendar.

Next thing you know, you’re at the halfway point of the high school and college basketball seasons, and it’s time to take stock about what’s gone on so far—and what lies ahead as teams start to jockey for the best playoff positions.

Which brings us to this week’s “SportsTalk” show…

Morning Call Sports Writers Keith Groller and Lynn Worthy will be on the program to break down the first half of both the local college and scholastic hoops season, and also talk NFL playoffs and other issues being debated in the world of sports this week.

And…we’ll also discuss our high school basketball poll in more detail on this week’s program, along with allowing you, our viewers, to chime in and make your opinions be known.

A bit of background on our HS basketball polls, which are a little unique from any other ranking system out there…

Our pollsters are comprised of a combination of local media members (Morning Call’s Keith Groller, RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach, RCN basketball Announcers Tom Stoudt and Dennis Laub and LehighValleyBasketballRankings.com’s Toomey Anderson).  We also have three distinguished head basketball coaches giving their insights on the top teams in the Lehigh Valley area.  We won’t reveal the names of the head coaches to avoid any “bulletin board” material or repercussions towards them—and allow them to be honest about their picks.

All District XI schools are eligible for the poll and will be divided into either our “big schools” (5A & 6A classifications) or “small schools” (4A & below) polls within the RCN footprint.

The “small schools” consist of Wilson, Saucon Valley, Bethlehem Catholic, Northwestern, Wilson, Palisades, Palmerton, Salisbury, Notre Dame-GP, Palmerton, Pen Argyl, Northern Lehigh and Catasauqua.

The “big schools” are Bangor, Central, Southern Lehigh, Whitehall, Allen, Dieruff, Easton, Emmaus, Freedom, Liberty, Nazareth, E. Stroudsburg North & South, Pocono Mountain East, Pocono Mountain West, Stroudsburg, Northampton, Parkland, and Pleasant Valley.

So tune in to the show this Thursday at 7pm or catch the podcast at rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk and let us know your basketball thoughts at the midway point of the season.

And a special note to our diehard wrestling fans: we’ll be taking a look at the action on the mats and previewing the upcoming post-season action on next week’s “SportsTalk” show (January 26 ).  If there’s a team, athlete or wrestling issue you’d like us to address on that show, be sure to email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and tune-in for our panelists’ responses!

The SportsTalk Shop: 2016 HS Winter Sports Wrap II

Before we turn our attention to the spring sports season, we continue our final look back at the high school winter sports season in the Lehigh Valley region with video and recognition of some amazing performances.

“Dynasty-Making”
I’ve seen some great District XI Class 3A girls basketball teams over the years and, quite frankly, have watched  some rather boring district playoff games (due to one team being SO good).  However, the Southern Lehigh girls’ basketball team turned in one of the most dominant performances ever this winter.  In addition to a phenomenal regular season (they lost just their season opening game to Dunbar), the Spartans won every other game the rest of the way until they lost to Berks Catholic (with a chance to win at the buzzer) in the second round of the state playoffs.

The Spartans lost two very key seniors.  However, the team’s core–four of their five starters—is back next year.  Solehi should have no trouble building on this winter’s legacy with dominant playoff runs in the league, district and state playoffs for years to come.  Their players are a multi-dimensionally talented team AND fundamentally sound (a GREAT combination), and should have no trouble putting together successful campaigns in 2017 and beyond.

We talked quite a bit about the overall competitiveness and great amount of depth in girls’ basketball a few weeks back here at “The Shop.” Like many of the other programs we’ve seen or talked about this winter, there was a ton of talent on display, with many teams returning most of their key players. As I stated on last week’s “SportsTalk” show and podcast, I’m looking at Easton (who returns virtually everyone) to be the team-to-beat on the Eastern Pennsylvania Girls Conference side.  With many other underclassmen back in 2017, expect Nazareth, Northampton and many of other teams involved in this winter’s playoffs to be right back in the post-season again next year.

“A Return to Glory”
In addition to a tremendous season (and another state championship) for the Bethlehem Catholic wrestling team this season, there were many individual stars here in the Valley.  As usual (but following a minor dip last year), District XI was well-represented in the state tournament in Hershey, with eight gold medalists and 20 overall metal winners.  Special props go to Liberty’s Andrew Gunning who captured the school’s first PIAA individual wrestling title in over 30 years.

We invite you to go back to hear many of the teams and individual wrestlers discussed on our “SportsTalk” podcasts  from this winter.

Here’s a look at highlights from RCN-TV’s wrestling coverage during the second half of the wrestling season.

There were also outstanding accomplishments this winter by local swimmers, with their season culminating last week with the PIAA meets.  Congrats to Salisbury’s Mahlon Reihman for being named swimmer of the state meet, who beat out fellow District XI competitor Gabe Castano (Allentown Central Catholic) for the Class AA gold in the 100-meter freestyle.  Like wrestling, there were numerous Lehigh Valley athletes in the water who also posted solid performances at last weekend’s final events.

Let us know what were your top moments, teams and athletes from this past winter.  Email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in Thursdays, 7-8 pm, to hear us talk about your local teams on our “RCN SportsTalk” program.  This Thursday will be our final “winter show” and your last opportunity to talk about this recently completed scholastic season in the RCN viewing area.

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Winter Sports Wrap (Part 1)

Over the next two weeks we’ll take a look back at what has been an extraordinary year for District XI winter high school sports.

“Eight is Enough”
Eight is the maximum number of gold medals one could accumulate while playing two sports—and that feat was accomplished by Parkland’s DeVante Cross.  He and his Trojans completed another dominating performance in District XI, not losing a game in the Lehigh Valley once he and his football teammates were finished with another district title (and playing for a state championship) on the gridiron.

Cross will be taking his talents to the Boston College football team where he will look to follow in the recent footsteps of other Lehigh Valley athletes who’ve had collegiate football success and then moved on to play at the professional level.  In my opinion, I believe him to be one of the top point guards we’ve had in District XI in some time, and my only regret is that we won’t see him on the basketball court again, but I know we’ll be seeing plenty of highlights once the collegiate football season gets underway.

We’ll be talking with Parkland Head Coach Andy Stephens and members of his boys basketball team on the Thursday, March 24th edition of “RCN SportsTalk” at 7pm.

I don’t think Parkland will drop off too much, despite the graduation of some key seniors.  However, the 2017 boys basketball season will be wide open with so many returning star performers back on the hardwood again, and many will benefit from the extra year of varsity experience.  The same is true for a few key women’s basketball teams—we’ll have more on them next week.

“Save Your Programs”
On both “SportsTalk” and during our high school basketball broadcasts, we’ve talked at length this winter about all the amazing underclassmen talent around the region.  Heck, Allen, Central Catholic and Pocono Mountain West boys’ teams (among others) have virtually their entire teams returning next year.

While Emmaus will lose several quality people to graduation as well, they return arguably the area’s best player, David Kachelries, along with his twin brother Matt.  The Hornets also have some MAJOR size coming up through their system and will return to make the competition for league and district championships in 2017 even more challenging than it was this winter.

One underclassman who won’t be returning is Nazareth’s Jahan Dotson, who will be moving to play at a prominent high school football program this fall.  Dotson was a great athlete to watch and I enjoyed watching him on the hardwood—both being a dynamic scorer and delivering some great passes setting up his teammates.  We wish him the best on what could be a lengthy athletic career.

“Colonial League vs. EPC”
While some people like to put down the Colonial League in favor of the bigger schools that comprise the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, I always enjoy the opportunity to see and meet the members of the “smaller school” league in District XI.  We’ve often highlighted their accomplishments (including having both Bangor and Salisbury as in-studio “SportsTalk” guests).  The Slaters and the Falcons posted some tremendous wins this year, with both teams reaching the state tournament after having to battle each other for the Colonial League Championship.

“Rifling”
We also did our first ever feature on rifling this winter.  Many people don’t realize it is a PIAA-sanctioned sport—and has been for some time.  Our chat with members of the Freedom Rifle Team on “SportsTalk” was very informative and certainly brought to light many unique aspects of the sport.

Look for more high school winter sports notes and videos coming your way in the next “SportsTalk Shop” entry.  Also, be sure to tune in for this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” (and then on our podcast here on Friday) as we take a more in-depth look at the boys and girls high school basketball programs in the Eastern Pennsylvania region.

Behind the Mic: Recruiting – At Its Worst

The word “recruiting” in high school sports is certainly a derogatory term.  Schools who feel victimized believe another institution has invaded their territory to grab one of their finest athletes in order to make their own team stronger.  Both public and private schools have been accused of “recruiting”.  Private schools can be a bit more open with the practice because, by their very nature, they “recruit” in order to populate their institutions.  They have the advantage of bringing students in from public school territory and, often, enhancing their athletic teams at the expense of a home district.  There’s no blame here.  It’s just the way it is and the governing body of high school athletics, the PIAA, has decided it is not worth the effort or the expense to dispute these transfers in court.  It is very hard to prove allegations especially when parents choose to send their child to a private school or they find a way to establish residence in a geographical area.  “Recruiting” occurs and even though it is disdained, very little can be done to stop it.

This leads me to focus on two private schools in Philadelphia – Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Wood.  It would not be a stretch to say these schools are two of the nation’s leaders in recruiting athletes.  Neumann-Goretti is currently ranked #1 in the nation in girls’ basketball.  Let that sink in – the very best in the nation!  They are currently beating their opponents by an average of 45 points a game.

Archbishop Wood has perennially been one of the best girls’ basketball teams in the state and in the nation.  Wood won three straight state championships from 2009-12 and has been to the state finals in three of the last four years.  They do not like the spotlight shifting to Neumann-Goretti. So the two are caught up in a recruiting firestorm!

One of the best players on the Goretti team is Christina Aborowa, a senior who came from Ondo, Nigeria.  On the day in November that Aborowa signed her letter of intent to play at the University of Texas, an email addressed to the Texas coach and athletic director arrived alleging that Aborowa was in the country illegally and that she was older than the age listed.  The email also alleged that her teammate, Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6’9” junior, was illegal and overage.  The email was sent with a fictitious name and was also supposedly sent to other colleges to discourage them from recruiting Aiyeotan.  Goretti was accused of cheating and the email implied that the FBI was looking into the case.

A Philadelphia newspaper, Philly Voice, investigated and concluded the email came from the Archbishop Wood head coach.  He had issued a “no comment” response when asked about the allegations, but has since resigned according to the Philadelphia Daily News.  The Archdiocese investigated the paperwork on the two girls and concluded that the girls are here “legitimately”.

The Bethlehem Catholic girls’ basketball team, a target in the past of recruiting allegations themselves, is in the midst of trying to win their third straight District XI basketball championship.  They are a very talented team.  State rankings have the Golden Hawks ranked as high as #2 in the state.  There is a good possibility if they are successful in the state playoffs that they could eventually meet up with Archbishop Wood, the #1 ranked team in AAA.  The Hawks could be problematic for Wood, but certainly not as problematic as the firestorm facing the Archbishop program at the moment.  Stay tuned!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. I sat in the stands this past Sunday for the Lafayette at Lehigh game. I rarely sit in the stands, since I can usually sit at the press table, even when I am not broadcasting.  My wife and daughter wanted to attend the game, so I sat with them.  It did not take me long to realize how bad some fans can be and the vitriolic nature of their disdain for another team or player. I don’t get it.  I’ll take press row seats anytime.
  2. One of the positive developments sitting in the stands Sunday was getting to know the parents of Dan Trist, Lafayette’s outstanding center and the leading scorer in the Patriot League. Even though Dan’s a senior, I had never met his parents because they were watching Dan’s first LIVE Lafayette game.  Clive and Helga Trist live in Sydney, Australia and have only been able to watch Dan play through our broadcasts on the internet.  They were sure having fun.  Every time Dan scored, Helga waved a full-sized Australian flag!
  3. I attended Wilson High School and played football, basketball, and baseball. I grew up being exposed to some of the great feats of Wilson Warrior athletics.  An anniversary of one such feat occurred this past week. On February 24, 1955, Wilson’s Cal Vogel scored 90 points in one basketball game and tied the state single-game record of Wilt Chamberlain.  Wilson won 95-52 over Pen Argyl.  Amazing!
  4. Toot! Toot!  That’s the sound we announcers make in jest to one another when we are praising ourselves.  I am going to do just that.  I watched our District XI wrestling coverage on Saturday night.  Scott Barr and Jim Best are outstanding announcers.  They are our RCN experts and they are the best.  Toot!  Toot!
  5. I saw J. K. Simmons’ Academy Award winning performance in Whiplash recently. He plays a music teacher who abuses all of his students, and one, a young jazz drummer, even more so.  It can be uncomfortable to watch.  It reminded me of some coaches I have seen over the years.

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Basketball Playoffs (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Hoops Playoff Primer

The Pennsylvania high school boys basketball playoffs have begun, with tons of talented teams ready to square off against each other over the next five weeks.

As we begin the road to state gold in Hershey, here are notes and highlights on some of the 4A teams that I’ve covered this winter for RCN Sports, along with a few predictions on what we might be able to expect from these teams this post-season.

PARKLAND
We’ve spend a few blog entries talking about just how good this year’s Trojan team is, and they have not disappointed, entering the playoffs with an undefeated EPC record. Quite frankly, Parkland was rarely tested in any of their league games and appeared to “turn on the switch” whenever they wanted to, to put games away and win contests by significant margins.

One aspect of the team that we have not addressed in previous blog entries is the Parkland “role” players.  Jack Dreisbach, Kenny Yeboah, Justin Jones and Kevin Dulorie are four players who haven’t gotten much attention in the media this basketball season.  Yet, when opponents try to stop some of the other top players, these four guys have stepped up and led the team to sound wins.  Dreisbach recently scored in double figures when Nazareth tried to double-down on other players.  Yeboah is a force in the paint, averaging seven points and nine rebounds per game.  Jones recently fueled a “put-away” run with seven points in limited action against a very good Emmaus team. Dulorie is a player with moves that would probably make him the go-to-guy if he was on at least half of the other teams’ rosters in the Lehigh Valley area.

It’ll be hard enough for many of the Trojans’ upcoming opponents to try to contain Kyle Stout, Sam Iorio, and DeVante Cross…but when these role players step up, as they have been doing of late, it might just be the icing on Parkland’s cake for a serious run in the state playoffs.

LIBERTY
The Hurricanes are probably one of two teams in the Lehigh Valley that have a legitimate shot at beating the Trojans on a given night.  Armed with an outstanding coaching staff, they have great balance  led by senior wingman Ludwin Gonzalez, and have the depth enabling them to attempt to beat Parkland with an up-tempo game.  They have an outstanding–and incredibly young–backcourt that would make for an exciting challenge for Cross to deal with.  Through no fault of their own, they haven’t been as battle-tested against the elite squads as other teams, thanks to their placement in the “Steel” division and the random selection of their non-division opponents.   However, they’ve proven themselves with dramatic victories over Allen, Freedom and Becahi, to name a few.

ALLEN
The Canaries might be the most athletic team in the area–period.  Although they didn’t face Parkland or Central Catholic, they have recorded more than their share of big wins.  They’ve also lost to Liberty twice, plus Nazareth and a few other teams that don’t have Allen’s solid winning percentage.  They have several scoring options in guards Bryson Walton, Koi Kostic and Talek Williams and from big men Isiah Hinton Gray, Jamiere Myers and Naequan Feliciano.  I don’t know if they have the consistency to be considered the leading candidates to win a league or district title.  That being said, they have the personnel to do it.  If they can channel the way I saw them play in the summer leagues, the Canaries might just win a winter title after all.

EASTON
I have not seen the Rovers in person, but watching them on RCN On-Demand made me think they can definitely win a few playoff games.  They enter the post-season as one of the hottest teams in the EPC.  Following their loss to Wilson in the Rotary Classic over the Christmas holidays, many thought Easton would have trouble making the District XI playoffs, let alone the league’s.  The Rovers have very good balance and nice size up front.  If they can continue the momentum they maintained in January, I think the die-hard Easton fans will be happy with their team in the playoffs.

WHITEHALL
Besides Parkland, no team played better on their home court than the Zephyrs.  They provided just enough offense and showcased a very impressive “match-up” defense to qualify for both the league and district post-season. Brett Radocha is the team’s only player scoring in double figures and Mikey Esquilin is one of the most exciting freshmen in Eastern Pennsylvania this winter.  However, Whitehall didn’t finish the season as strongly as many fans of the maroon-and-gold would have liked, and the Zephs never did seem to have the level of success away from the newly christened “Coach Tracy Court.”  On the positive side, they recorded very impressive wins over Liberty and Emmaus and will need similar efforts to have playoff success.

EMMAUS
The Hornets’ non-conference schedule might have been one of the most challenging of any team in the state.  The hope was that the high quality of competition they faced–and their wins in a few of them–would help Emmaus when they came home to play EPC teams.  They’ve had to withstand injuries to their top two players–twin brothers David and Matt Kachelries–who have both returned and picked up right where they were last season.  Junior center Joe Polczyski is one of the more underrated players in the league, but Emmaus fell short in several big divisional games in the season’s second half.  Head Coach Steve Yoder has done a remarkable job of rebuilding this program, I think, and his bench might be as deep as any in District XI.  I personally have yet to see the consistency in this team to put them in the “favorites” category to win a championship–this year, anyway.  I do think the team’s winning ways will continue even if they don’t win a title this season.

NAZARETH/NORTHAMPTON
Both of these teams’ head coaches, Joe Arndt and Coy Stampone, are two of the nicest guys in the area.  Both the Eagles and the K-Kids posted several big wins during the season.  Northampton is the “feel good” story of the winter with their dramatic turnaround from a sub-.500 season last year.  They could use their disappointment of missing out on the league playoffs (the “power point tiebreaker” kept them out of the playoffs by a couple one-thousands of a percentage point) to use as motivation in districts.  Nazareth defeated Northampton twice during the regular season and scored an impressive win over Allen as one of their highlights during the season.  Nazareth and Northampton both played a thrilling game against each other in the regular season finale and both teams could come back stronger than ever in 2016.  I don’t know if either team will have the firepower to contend this season, but they should be very proud of how well they played and how far they’ve come this winter.

SOUTHERN LEHIGH
Basketball fans may not realize that the Spartans are a 4A team this year, but the way they finished the regular season (wins over Saucon and Salisbury) has certainly given them a ton of momentum heading into the playoffs.  Currently, Southern Lehigh is ranked at the very bottom of the District XI standings, meaning they could face the toughest competition in the playoffs.  However, a Colonial League title win later this week would boost them up to a #2 seed and keep them away from facing Parkland as long as possible.  I like the job that Ben Tannous has done in just his second year, and he told me a few weeks ago that he would not count this season as a “success” until they posted wins over elite teams.  I think with their recent wins that they now have achieved that level and feel that there will be many more reasons to cheer this team going forward.

What are your thoughts on the top EPC teams and which players will shine during the league playoff season?  Join RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach, Joe Craig and myself on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show live from 6-7 pm as we preview the EPC and Colonial League girls and boys championship series and preview the next round of the playoffs for all classifications within the RCN viewing area.

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Basketball Mid-Season Report

As we reach the midpoint in the Lehigh Valley high school winter sports season, it continues to be an interesting season for local boys basketball.  While we have had quite a few close ball games, with a handful going into overtime, a look at the different league standings shows there are a few teams doing very well, and even more teams a couple steps behind–finding themselves battling each other for the remaining playoff berths.

The biggest “non-surprise” is the Parkland boys basketball team, as they continue to dominate everyone they’ve faced in the area.  Even against an Easton team that was coming off a big win, the Trojans eventually wore them down and won the game easily.

DeVante Cross is a player who we talked quite a bit about during the football season, but I have really been impressed by what he has done so far on the hardwood.  The Trojans have more than enough firepower to go around, but I think Cross’s improved play has made for an even more well-rounded ball club that will look to go deep into the PIAA playoffs.

While Parkland has been the area’s best team and has already clinched both an EPC and District XI 4A playoff spot, the Rovers are a team that has been playing well of late.  Easton currently finds themselves a couple games below .500 and are making a push for a post-season spot, following a big win recently over Freedom HS.

Three other teams that I have seen playing well and figure to be in the running for both league and district playoff action include Whitehall, Emmaus and Allen.  The Zephyrs have been playing extremely well after a slow start and have won seven of their last nine games.  While they haven’t been posting explosive offensive numbers, it has been their defense—in particular, the match-up zone defense—that has been very impressive.  Whitehall  held a Liberty team—a squad I feel is as athletic as any in the area—to under 50 points last week.  The Zephyrs did the same to an Emmaus team that has been playing some of the toughest teams from both Pennsylvania and New York in its non-conference schedule.

Speaking of Emmaus, there aren’t many teams that can boast as deep a bench as Steve Yoder’s ballclub, and they can beat you a number of ways.  They’ve had some injury issues to overcome, which, combined with their tough out-of-league schedule, has delayed their clinching of a playoff berth until this point.  But once in the playoffs, they are definitely a team that figures to win a few playoff games.

Allen is another team that has been playing extremely well overall.  It’s unfortunate that the new league schedule does  not feature the Canaries playing some of their traditional basketball rivals—at least for this season.  It is entirely possible they will get a chance to face Parkland and Central Catholic once the  post-season begins.  Allen has clinched a district playoff spot and looked impressive in its recent ball game against Bethlehem Catholic.

Perhaps the story of the EPC this year has been the play of Northampton—a team that had struggled in recent years, but has looked phenomenal in nearly every game they’ve played.  They play in the same division as Parkland, Whitehall, Emmaus, Central Catholic and Nazareth and have done more than hold their own, including posting a strong win recently against Dieruff.

Northampton Head Coach Coy Stampone will be one of several local head basketball coaches who will be on our “RCN SportsTalk” show on Thursday, January 29th from 6-7 pm.  I’m looking forward to speaking with Coach Stampone and getting his thoughts on how he has turned the program around, and what his team’s expectations are for the remainder of the season.

Looking ahead to the first ever Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the playoffs will feature eight teams vying for their post-season positions.  The eight teams will consist of the three division winners (from the “Mountain,” “Skyline” and “Steel” divisions) and five wild card spots.  Many assume that the five “Skyline” teams not named Parkland will occupy most, if not all, of those wild card spots.  Keep in mind that all those teams will play each other over the next few weeks, so if any one of those teams in the Skyline division go into a funk and lose several in a row, it would open up spots for a couple teams from the other divisions to sneak up and advance to the league playoffs.

One final EPC note about the Vikings—while they may not be the favorite this year in 3A because of the quality play so far by Pottsville, don’t count out Central Catholic from making another district playoff run.  Despite many several quality opponents in their classification, the Vikings have a lot of pride on the line and are looking to win their fifth straight 3A Title and eighth over the last ten seasons.
* * *
In the Colonial League, there are several teams that have continued to play outstanding basketball.  Salisbury has stayed right with the top teams (the others being Bangor, Saucon Valley & Southern Lehigh) and has played a strong non-league schedule once again this winter.

The wild card team—both physically and figuratively–in the Colonial League might be Wilson.  The Warriors ost to Pen Argyl, a team that lost to a struggling Northern Lehigh program and will probably not make the postseason.  They’ve also had some games in which they have struggled shooting from the floor and from the free throw line.  However, Wilson has also posted a number of huge wins,  among them an overtime victory over their rivals from Notre Dame-Green Pond and also played one of its best games of the season against Catasauqua.

Remember, the Colonial League has six berths for its playoffs this year, as opposed to just four teams advancing as in years past.  This could be huge for a team like Wilson, Palisades, Notre Dame or even Northwestern.  In previous years, it would appear to be a lock at this point that the Slaters, Falcons, Panthers and Spartans would be the only teams in the league playoffs.  But with the expansion of two more teams, it’ll make for a very entertaining race over the next few weeks to determine which other teams will qualify for the league playoffs.

Another thing to remember is that the league winners will automatically get top berths for the District XI playoffs.  So if a team that has been struggling during the first half of the year can get hot with a succession of victories over the next few weeks, they can receive a huge bump when it comes to District XI post-season seedings (see Notre Dame last winter).

Which teams have impressed you so far this season and what games have resulted in the biggest surprises?  Send us an email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us on Thursday evenings as we read and respond to your sports questions and opinions on each program.