The SportsTalk Shop: State Playoff Recaps

It was another exciting high school playoff season on RCN-TV, filled with outstanding teams and athletes, and a few surprises along the way. Before we transition to the spring sports season, I wanted to highlight some of the top moments during this year’s PIAA state basketball playoffs. Keep in mind, these observations are based on the teams I had a chance to see and didn’t include the teams from the western part of Pennsylvania.

BEST TEAM I SAW—BOYS
Neumann-Goretti was not just an athletic and talented team, they were QUICK! Quick when passing, playing defense, leaping ability…even on the break. Central Catholic played a great game and is loaded with fast players themselves, but I really don’t know if there’s another team in the state that could play with Neumann-Goretti in an up-tempo style game.

Central Catholic also had a great playoff run, and I can shamelessly mention that my early January prediction that the Vikings would make it to the state quarterfinals proved correct. (RCN basketball experts Tom Stoudt and Joe Craig said I was crazy for saying that, but you can see for yourself by checking out “RCN SportsTalk” for free On-Demand). Central posted two solid wins in states before seeing their season come to an end and have a lot of to be proud of what they accomplished in 2014.

BEST TEAM I SAW—GIRLS
North Penn not only had the best overall defensive team I saw all year, but they had multiple players who could score. Against Northampton, they were the only team I saw—boys or girls—that had FOUR players score 11 or more points in a game. They also brought in players off the bench that could play with most teams in the state. They have an excellent Head Coach in Mary DeMarteleire and have a ton of talent coming back next year, so I would expect their dominance in the state playoffs to continue for at least the next several years.

BIGGEST SURPRISE—GIRLS
Bethlehem Catholic’s loss to Scranton Prep in the PIAA’s 2nd round. There’s no question that the “upper bracket” of the 3A girls state playoff tournament had some incredibly good teams playing each other before you even got to the state semifinals. Becahi, Scranton Prep, Villa Maria, Archbishop Wood, Abington Heights, West Perry and Holy Redeemer all had legitimate chances go to deep, if not win, the championship—and all of those teams faced off against each other in the first three rounds. The fact that Scranton Prep completely held one of the top players in the state, Kalista Walters, in check for three-and-a-half quarters before fouling out while holding the high-powered Hawks offense (who came in averaging 59 ppg) to 21 points was a major, if not shocking, accomplishment.

Becahi returns nearly everyone for 2015 and should be one of the top teams again in the state a year from now and had an impressive showing in an earlier round game against Bonner-Predergast.

BIGGEST SURPRISE—BOYS
Delaware Valley Charter is also one of the top teams in the state, but I was impressed by how Notre Dame stayed with this team for almost a full half. The Crusaders had some tough shots bounce out that would have kept it closer, but Del Val is just loaded with talent and kept Notre Dame at arms’ length the entire second half. Dashon Giddings, Shahid Adams and CJ Wolfe are all great ball players who look to continue playing at the next level and they were a fun team to watch.

TEAMS TO WATCH FOR 2015
Two teams on the rise this year that will continue to get better next year are Emmaus and Abington. Both teams battled each other in the opening round and have a number of returning underclassmen, and should be back in states a year from now.

THE “TROJAN TAKEOVER”
Both the Parkland boys’ and girls’ basketball teams won the 4A District XI final and entered the state playoffs as #1 seeds (they’re one of only six schools to accomplish this in the same season since 1985). Both the boys’ and girls’ teams will be guests on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show live at 6pm to talk about their successes in the state playoffs. To tease the appetites of the “Trojan Takeover” fans in the meantime, here’s some of Parkland’s highlights in the PIAAs.

Which teams do you think were the best in the state this season? Which players stuck out in your mind and which teams will be back for the 2015 state tourney? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us this Thursday as we read and respond to your questions and comments on our final “winter sports” show of 2014.

 

Behind the Mic: How Do They Get So Good?

 

At this time of the year only the best basketball teams, whether it be high school or college, are still playing. We have, indeed, begun March Madness. The yearly event draws its name from the frantic race to decide the various league, conference, district, state, and national championships. As we watch the teams, we are equally thrilled by the play of outstanding individuals. I mean, good teams are made up of good players.

We have certainly had our share of outstanding individuals this season on RCN TV. To name just a few, Central Catholic’s Muhammad Ali Abur-Rahkman has scored over 2,000 points as he winds down his high school career; Bethlehem Catholic’s Kalista Walters has over 1,600 points and will probably break the school record shortly; Lafayette’s Seth Hindricks went over 1,000 points this season, missed 10 games and is only a junior! And now that we are in the state playoffs, I get to see teams that have one or two individuals who are just ridiculously skilled.

If you are anything like me, you must wonder, “How did they get so good?”

A New York City tourist once asked the famous question: “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer given became equally as famous, “Practice, practice, practice!”

I would guess the answer would be the same for an outstanding basketball player. It’s practice! How many hours of work have they put in; how many shots have they taken; how many laps and suicides have they run; how many foul shots have they practiced; how many rebounding, dribbling, passing drills have they been through? How many days and years have they devoted to be the best they can be?

The answer is best exemplified by a young player driven to be not just good, but outstanding. Let me introduce you to Jordan McCabe. Take a moment and watch his YouTube video:

Jordan McCabe will be a great player some day. He can’t miss. He learned early on that he had a passion for basketball and he wanted to be the best that he could be. He knows the formula for success – “Practice, practice, practice!”

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. You probably missed the irony of Ryan Braun’s return to baseball. Braun, if you are unfamiliar with the name, plays for the Milwaukee Brewers, was the 2011 MVP, and was suspended for 65 games last season for violating MLB’s anti-drug agreement. In the spring opener this month, while a fan was yelling, “MVP-ED” (for Performance Enhancing Drugs), he stepped to the plate and hit an 0-1 pitch over the wall, 345 feet away. Go figure!

2. Is this road rage? If you smash your own car in a fit of anger, are you guilty of anything other than stupidity? Richie Incognito, of Miami Dolphins bullying infamy, took a bat to his $300,000 Ferrari, smashing the hood and the grill. The police said there was no crime because there was no victim. Mr. Incognito would not press charges against himself. Go figure!

3. It sure looked like a certainty a few years back that Tiger Woods would break Jack Nicklaus’ record for majors won. Jack has 18; Tiger-14. Not so certain anymore. Tiger is 37 years old and in the last 50 years no one over 37 has won five majors. The competition each week is now stiffer than at any other time in history. He is not in great shape physically – a reconstructed knee, a bad ankle, and, now, a back that can cause him problems every time he plays. Now, the odds seem to be against him. Go figure!

4. I went to the Demi Lovato concert in the Lehigh Valley last Thursday night (don’t ask!). At 4:30 when I arrived for dinner, there was a line, at least the length of a football field, of young teenage girls waiting for the doors to open at 7:00. To make a long story short (again, no questions), the show started at 7:30 with a DJ, a magician, a soloist, more DJ, more magician, a girl-group, and more magician. Demi Lovato came on at 10:00 (that’s right – 2 ½ hours after the show started)! I left after one and a half songs! Three hours of my life I will not get back. Go figure!

5. Six Lehigh Valley teams are still alive in the state basketball playoffs, as I am writing this – two boys’ teams and four girls’ teams. Take the road trips with us to Pottsville, Reading, Souderton, Hazleton, and wherever else we may travel.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview 2014

The Pennsylvania state basketball playoffs will be commencing this weekend. It’s an exciting time of year—no more safety nets, as it’s a single-elimination tournament and the most talented players in the state might have their season, if not their scholastic careers, come to an end on a given night. We’re going to be broadcasting a number of exciting PIAA playoff games over the next few weeks and it’s going to be fun seeing the top players and teams across the state on RCN-TV.

We’re coming off of a thrilling District XI playoffs season in our RCN viewing area. In preparation for the state games, here are notes and video highlights of some of the teams we’ve had the pleasure of seeing over the last few weeks in postseason action.

PARKLAND (girls and boys teams)
Both teams are playing their best brand of basketball of the season as they head into the PIAAs. The boys team is incredibly deep and have been getting solid performances from all their starters, but what makes them even more dangerous are the players coming off the bench contributing without missing a beat. They pretty much dismantled all their opponents in the district playoffs and made this year’s district championship look easy.

Parkland has momentum and really has not shown any glaring weaknesses, save a slow first-half stretch to Stroudsburg in the semifinal game (the Mountaineers also got a gritty performance from Jacob Battle in the consolation game, which hopefully will propel them to a few wins in states).

The Parkland girls team also has a multitude of talent among both their starters and role players. Olivia Brown led her team in the girls district championship with a great all-around game and a clutch basket down the stretch run.

Erin Bross, Erica Bross, Aubrey Beidelman, Sarash Stagaard and Kristen McCarty are all solid ball handlers who can shoot, and the Trojans have a strong inside presence anchored by Brynne Brouse, Nadine Ewald and Brooke Robertson. They have a very formidable opponent in Central Bucks East, a team known this year for a stifling defense (allowing just 33 ppg) and an offense led by a double-double threat, Courtney Webster.

CENTRAL CATHOLIC (boys and girls)
The Vikettes battled state championship contender Bethlehem Catholic, but lost for a third time to the Hawks in the District XI Final. However, I was very impressed by the efforts of Olivia Roseman, Ashley Bross, Alyssa Mack and Emma Redding in their last two meetings with the Hawks, and they all made big plays again keeping the district title game close. They draw a tough opening round opponent in Abington Heights, a squad RCN SportsTalk guest Dave Troxell labeled a tremendous team on last week’s show. However, they have played—and defeated—a number of teams still alive in the state playoffs. They have solid balance and show great ball handling ability, and I see no reason why they can’t advance at least a couple rounds in states.

The boys team continues to dominate. Everyone knew they were going to be a great team this year, but to have the focus, night-in and night-out and be as solid a team throughout an entire season (they still haven’t lost a game all year) is truly a remarkable accomplishment. In addition to being outstanding athletes, the tandem of Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Jean Lee Baez has guided a steady ship with no noticeable blemishes, on or off the court, this season. We debated on SportsTalk last month (the show is available on RCN On-Demand) about their state title chances, and I’ll stick with my prediction that, at worst, they reach the state quarterfinals.

EMMAUS (Boys)
I finally got a chance to see Emmaus in person last week, and I was tremendously impressed with their win over Liberty. I knew Nate Feirertag was a great all-around player who plays with as much heart as anyone in our coverage area. Fellow senior forward Joe Nicolini stepped up big time with 19 points (17 in the 2nd half) for the Hornets to advance to the district championship.

This team has lots of talent on the way up and should be vying for state playoff spots for the next several seasons. I know Emmaus fans were disappointed by their loss to Parkland in the district final, and face a tough matchup in District I power Abington, a team loaded with size, speed and several players looking to play at the quality college programs. But Emmaus has bounced back from a tough loss on more than one occasion this year and I would expect a hard fought game this weekend.

NORTHAMPTON (Girls)
The K-Kids shook off a tough loss to Parkland in the semifinals to beat a quality Pleasant Valley team and earn a state playoff bid.

Leandra Sterner is quietly having one of the top all-around performances of the entire high school sports year. Coming off an historic performance on the soccer field this fall, she currently leads the team in points per game, assists and steals. Ali Reppert has a smooth-looking jump shot and Aja Blount might become the best center in the area in the very near future. I think they have a favorable matchup facing Wallenpaupack this weekend and see no reason why the Kids can’t advance into the next round.

NOTRE DAME (Boys)
If you like “shoot-out” games, you would have loved the performances of Tannor Reed, Vicent Eze and the Notre Dame boys team in their District XI 2A Boys Championship.

I think the Crusaders will be the first to admit that their defense needs to play better to defeat Delaware Valley Charter this weekend, but their game might be the most entertaining of all the contests on RCN Saturday night. The Crusaders play extremely well as a team, have a balanced attack and come in with plenty of momentum (they’ve won 13 consecutive games). Tuning in just to see Reed shoot should be worth your time and Eze has improved all facets of his game (he’s averaging 14 points, 17 rebounds and 5 blocks per game), including his ability to score when given the ball outside the paint.

BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC (Girls)
The reigning LVC and District XI 3A Champs will be our guests on RCN SportsTalk this Thursday (live at 6pm), so you can tune in for in-depth conversations with their coaches and players. We’ll also showcase some of their awesome highlights so far this season, and get their expectations on the state playoffs. You can also email us comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read and respond to your opinions live on the air!

Be sure to check back for more highlights and notes on the teams playing in this year’s state playoffs. Also, feel free to email us or post your feelings about the schools competing for titles this winter.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Basketball Playoff Thoughts

 

The District XI boys basketball playoffs are heading up…and RCN-TV will have you covered!

This week, we’ll have a full breakdown of all this weekend’s boys and girls high school championship games on our live “RCN SportsTalk” this Thursday at 6pm. Local coaches will be on our show dissecting all the playoff games and giving their insights, keys to victory and strategies for all of the big matchups this weekend. We’ll also have several title games broadcast Friday and Saturday on RCN (keep checking our website for our broadcast schedule).

In the meantime, here are several thoughts and video highlights of some of the teams in our coverage area still alive in the playoffs!

PARKLAND
With the return of Nick Rindock, the Parkland basketball team looks like it is playing its best basketball of the year at just the right time. It has an outstanding point guard in Jimmy Hahn, an exciting freshman who does a ton of things well in Sam Iorio, and looked solid defensively in its last two games (which included a tight ball game with undefeated Central Catholic).

The Trojans are playing like the best team in this classification right now, and, should it continue, could play several rounds into the state tournament.

EMMAUS
The Hornets got a scare Saturday as they had to fight off a scrappy Bangor ball club. However, this year’s group of players has had success at all younger levels and is ready for prime time. They have a ton of talent who have had big games throughout this season, including David Kachelries, Joe Nicolini, Nate Feiertag and Joe Polczynski. I think they might have been looking past the Slaters a bit, but that won’t happen this week and I expect Emmaus to give Liberty a solid game this Wednesday (LIVE on RCN-4 this Wednesday at 6pm).

LIBERTY
Both RCN Basketball analyst Tom Stoudt and I said back on “SportsTalk” in January that if Liberty got into the playoffs, they could be the most dangerous 4A team. Even with some roster subtractions, it looks like our prediction is coming true. They manhandled Whitehall in the first round and upset the number-one seed Pocono Mountain West. They have four players, DeShawn Oyeniyi, Ludwin Gonzalez, Jaevan Dobbins and Trenton Coleman-Bishop, all playing at a high level right now. With the exception of the third quarter versus the Zephyrs, everyone has been playing solid defense. I don’t know how he does it every year, but Head Coach Chad Landis always has his team playing well at just the right time and probably deserves to be the LVC Coach-of-the-Year for what he’s done this season. Even if Liberty loses Wednesday, they could still reach the state playoffs with a win in the consolation round on Saturday, which would be a major accomplishment given all this team has been through this winter.

STROUDSBURG
It’s becoming a tradition for the Mountaineers to play in the final rounds of the district playoffs, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Stroudsburg during the regular season once they merge with the LVC for the next school year. Shawn Thornton is one of the top coaches in the district, and the team has tons of talent once again this season, led by three players (Danny Cuevas, Edwin Lopez, Jacob Battle) all averaging in double figures. They have a tough matchup in Parkland this Wednesday, but if they can pound the ball inside and open up their great perimeter shooters, we should be in for a great contest (LIVE on RCN-4 this Wednesday at 7:30 pm).

CENTRAL CATHOLIC & BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC
We’ve talked quite a bit about both of these teams in an earlier blog post as well as on “SportsTalk” and neither team has done anything recently to derail their outstanding seasons. While the first meeting between these two 3A powers went decisively to the Vikings (highlights below), I would not be surprised if the Hawks challenge them a bit more here in round two (LIVE on RCN-4 this Tuesday at 7:30 pm). Remember, three teams can reach the PIAA playoffs in this classification, so the loser of the semifinal game will still have a chance to play on.

NOTRE DAME
No boys’ basketball team in the Lehigh Valley, with the exception of Central Catholic, comes into the postseason with more consecutive wins. I was promoting Tannor Reed for a Colonial League MVP award when we did their game against Salisbury in January, and he has truly carried this team through their ups-and-downs this year. With the 6’8” Vincent Eze back and doing so many things well at both ends of the floor, this team looks nearly unbeatable against most teams in Eastern Pennsylvania. They also have the momentum following their thrilling buzzer-beating win in the Colonial League championship.

CATASAUQUA
Despite the loss to the Crusaders, Catty has a lot to be proud of with reasons for optimism. They did not play well in the first half of their league championship game, yet went down to the wire and did not let a very talented Notre Dame team run away with the game. The Rough Riders are used to having players battling through tough injuries and this week will not be an exception. However, Catty has already defeated other, larger playoff-bound teams in Bangor (a 4A team) and Salisbury (3A) and could make for another thrilling title game if they dispatch North Schuylkill in the semifinals.

Which teams do you think will win championships this weekend? Which players will step up big and help their squads to victory? Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read your thoughts live on this Thursday’s show at 6pm.

 

Behind the Mic: “The Best ‘Recruit’ of the Year”

Say the word “recruit” or “recruiting” in the Lehigh Valley and get ready for an argument. Whether it’s football, basketball, or wrestling (and even baseball a few years ago), the term riles up athletic directors, coaches, athletes, and parents. Everyone has an opinion on what should determine the eligibility of any student who “transferred” or was “recruited” to another school for athletic reasons. I will leave this volatile subject up to the powers-to-be and I wish them well in finding a solution, if there is one to be found.

I want to talk about the best use of “recruiting” I have seen in my many years of doing high school sports. It came in the final game of the season for the Nazareth Blue Eagles basketball team when they played in their rivalry game against Northampton. For that last game, they added a player to their roster, not only to help them win, but in a way, to help all of us to understand the value of athletics and the value of working with young people.

Joe Arndt, the Nazareth coach, decided to add Devon Roe to his roster. Devon had tried out for the team in the fall, but despite all the encouragement he got from his fellow teammates, he just could not crack the roster.

You see, Devon Roe is a special-needs student who was supposed to be in a wheelchair by the time he was a teenager. However, Devon is not in a wheelchair and spent this past season serving as the Nazareth manager for the basketball team. He dutifully fulfilled his responsibilities for the first 20 games. Devon has many disorders including autism and OCD.

Friday was Senior Night and Coach Arndt felt it would be the perfect opportunity to do some “recruiting” of his own. He “recruited” Devon. Devon wore number 32 and was placed in the starting lineup. There were no protests from Northampton or their coach, Coy Stampone, who, ironically, was an assistant to Coach Arndt for many years. The District XI and the PIAA would not get involved in this case.

Devon led his team onto the floor for warm-ups, received a resounding standing ovation from the fans when he was introduced as a member of the starting lineup, and caught the opening tap. He quickly left the floor. He would re-enter the contest for the final six seconds.

His mother spent most of the day in tears and cried throughout the night. She has watched Devon overcome so much adversity in his life. He participates in the Nazareth job-study program and she sends him off to work at Petco and Giant a few days a week. She has had, I’m sure, many proud moments with her son, but Friday night was certainly a special one.

Congratulations to the coaches, the administration, and especially the players for teaching all of us a valuable lesson about rewarding hard work, teamwork, and compassion. And I offer special congratulations to Devon. He did what the coach asked, did not complain about playing time, and basked in the victory of his teammates.

This is the type of player every coach should recruit. It would help all of us!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. I notice that it always takes me some time to get into the Olympics and this year is no exception. Having grown up during the Cold War, where we spent Health Class in high school learning to build a bomb shelter and going through our decision to boycott the Russian Olympics during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, I feel some resentment toward Putin as I watch him. I’m sure I will get over it. By the end of this week, I’ll be chanting, “USA! USA!” along with the rest of you.
2. By the way, there are 12 more events (98 in all) than there were at Vancouver.
3. Sochi this time of the year has an average temperature of 43 degrees making this the warmest site for a Winter Games. The Super Bowl in cold weather; the Winter Olympics in warm weather? Someone will somehow correlate this to global warming!
4. I watched the final Tonight Show with Jay Leno on Thursday. It was quite good and Jay was very emotional. I have always been a Letterman fan and never found Leno to be all that funny. Ironically, I saw him at the Sands a few months back and his stand-up routine was hilarious. He will now do more of that and I would certainly go to see him.
5. The Beatles 50-year anniversary of their appearance in America was, also, quite good. Ringo and Paul McCartney were at their best. The Ed Sullivan clips brought back memories of watching them that night. I think everybody watched. I was a senior in high school. (And I’m feeling quite old right now! Time for a nap.)

 

 

 

 

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Winter Sports ’14 Highlights

 

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

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

Some other local sports highlights include:

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

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

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

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Hoops Mid-Term Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

March Madness – Behind the Mic

It’s March. If you are a college basketball fan, you know this is the week when many of the conference championships will be decided and the automatic NCAA bids are assigned. Then, every fan waits to see if their team will be part of the 64 that get in. Let the “madness” begin.

For me, however, March Madness has already begun. The high school “madness” began this past weekend, not with 64 teams in the state of Pennsylvania, but 256 teams. Pennsylvania has 4 classifications in both the boys’ and girls’ brackets – AAAA, AAA, AA, and A. Your classification is determined by the gender population in your school – the larger the school, the more A’s.

On Friday and Saturday of last week, we had 12 teams enter the state playoffs from our local viewing audience. We chose to do 8 games in the two days, based on the teams and the logistics of the games. Friday night, there were two venues, each with a doubleheader and Saturday, one venue with a quadruple header. This meant that ~60 workers would be needed to staff the games, along with 4 announcers. The crew set up at Freedom High School and Nazareth High School on Friday night and tore down after the games. They then met on Saturday to set up again at Allen High School and tear down again that night. This is a process that goes on 4 nights a week during the entire regular season. Trust me, these “behind-the-scenes-people” work very hard. They are the heart and soul of every production.

My work begins days before the actual games. This past weekend, I split the games with the other announcing crew and we each scheduled four. The process works like this for a Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday schedule:

  • Monday: I will contact all the schools and let them know our intention to televise their game. The local schools know the drill. For the schools out of the area, I will ask for the following: the coach’s contact information; a roster; a starting lineup; season statistics; background information on the coach, the school, and the players. I also ask for any “human interest” stories they may want to share. Usually, I can begin to prepare the local teams as the out-of-area information trickles in. I, inevitably, will have to put out reminders to the schools to send the information I had already requested.
  • Tuesday: I will compile everything I have gotten and organize it so the information is quickly available to me for the broadcast. This means transferring the roster, stats, details, background, etc. on to my scoring sheets. I will share all that I have been able to gather with my color analyst. Depending on the site, I will leave in the afternoon in order to get to the gym 2 hours prior to tip-off. I will do the game or games.
  • Wednesday: Contact all the Tuesday winners’ schools who will now play on Friday and repeat what I did on Monday. I will, also, repeat everything done on Tuesday for Wednesday’s games. Now, it’s off to the venue. Do the game or games.
  • Thursday, Friday, and Saturday: Repeat Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
  • And Sunday: Contact the schools again for next week.

That’s my “March Madness”. It’s intense, it’s stressful, at times, and it is the best time of the year!!


 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. Speaking of March Madness, Dick Vitale, the voice of college basketball for 34 years, will work his FIRST NCAA semifinal and championship game this year. By the way, he is 73 years old. ESPN just told him he has “a job for life”. He added, “I am never going to retire.”
  2. The Patriot League champion, crowned on March 13, gets an automatic bid to the “dance”. The League certainly earned credibility for that bid last year when Lehigh beat Duke in the first round. Can either Lafayette or Bucknell send a similar shock through college basketball’s elitists?
  3. I don’t know about you, but losing an hour’s sleep seems to have a much greater effect on my life than gaining an hour. Perhaps, this year, it had something to do with watching Lafayette-Lehigh on TiVo until 3:15 (DST) in the morning.
  4. Tiger Woods won this week because he putted so well. Steve Stricker finished second because he gave Tiger a putting lesson this week that caused Tiger to putt so well! Woods won $1.5 million and Stricker won $880,000! Sportsmanship or stupidity??
  5. I shined the clubs and cleaned out the bag. Now, it’s all about finding the time.

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!