The SportsTalk Shop: Bangor Baseball & More HS Spring Sports Notes

As we embark on the final month of the spring scholastic sports season, here are a few important news items you should know about.

One of the nice spring sports storylines—over the last two seasons, in fact—is that of the Bangor baseball team.

Last spring, the Slaters went on an almost unthinkable run of 23 consecutive victories, culminating with the school’s first Colonial League baseball championship since 1981.  While they lost significant talent to graduation, they brought back roughly half of their roster and were the odds-on favorite to repeat again this spring.

The league is clearly more balanced this spring; however, with many of last year’s up-and-coming prospects on other teams making the jump to becoming prime-time varsity talents this season.

The top of the standings have rotated schools almost on a weekly basis, with most every Colonial League game being very competitive—regardless of the competing teams’ win/loss record.

Despite many close games, Bangor clinched a berth in the playoffs last week with a 5-1 win over Catasauqua, thereby earning the right to truly defend its title in the league playoffs.

We had a chance to catch up with Head Coach Greg Hartman, pitcher Landon LaBar (who pitched a one-run complete game in the win over the Rough Riders, along with fellow senior, shortstop John Raub about last year’s record breaking season, the win over Catty, and the road ahead.

I’ve had the pleasure of being around a few of these athletes a few times over the last couple years, and they have always impressed me with their attitude, their obvious athletic talents and the way they pick each other up and grind out wins, regardless of the opponent.

The Colonial League baseball playoffs always seem to be very competitive all the way around, and the way the regular season has played out, I doubt very much this year’s post-season will be any less dramatic.
*****
Just a passing observation as I certainly don’t get a chance to see every game in person, but the local baseball games overall seem to have been have been much closer and more competitive than many of the high school softball games played this spring (“SportsTalk” co-host Keith Groller seemed to support this statement on last week’s show).

Both the Colonial League and the EPC have rotated different schools playing the role of “favorites” a few times, which defending Colonial champion Bangor falling as low as 4th at one point in their divisional standings.  Notre Dame, Wilson, Pen Argyl, Palisades, Southern Lehigh and Northwestern all have had strong springs and have chances to go deep in both leagues and districts.

By contrast, you could almost guarantee who wins the local softball teams in advance, with the top teams having their way with the rebuilding teams…and some significant territory separating the “haves” from the “don’t have just yets.”

Moreover, (again, it maybe just odd timing on my part), but every local baseball team I’ve seen has been decided by no more than three or four runs.

The “closest” softball game I’ve seen so far this spring was a 15-4 contest, although even that game was somewhat bizarre–the team that eventually lost initially had held a 4-0 lead going into the 5th inning, only to allow 15 consecutive runs in the fifth and loss by “mercy rule.”  Every other game I’ve seen has either had a wider margin of victory or some were even “mercy ruled” after just three innings of play.

Nevertheless, there have been some outstanding individual softball athletes this spring…the EPC just released its All-Star team this past weekend…

EPC Softball 2017 1st Team All

But now, records, individual accomplishments and margins of victory get placed on the back burner as we embark on the playoffs for most sports (tennis already started several weeks ago) and the excitement level and competitiveness start to rise this time of year.  It’s a great time to follow local sports!
*****
Also, the track and field post-season tournaments also have just begun.  Here’s the latest information received on our local boys and girls track athletes as they embark on the district, state team and individual playoff tournaments.

http://www.districtxi.com/spring/track–field-bg
******
In addition, RCN’s full production schedule gets back in action this week.  Tune in for our high school baseball playoff coverage as Gary Laubach and Scott Barr will be calling the EPC semifinal games (on Wednesday) and the EPC Championship game live on Friday.  Remember to bookmark our broadcast schedule page here at RCN-TV and check back to get the latest details on RCN’s coverage of the District XI 6-A baseball championship coming your way in two weeks (weather permitting).

I’ll also be out-and-about over the next few weeks continuing to bring you high school sports and pro baseball interviews for “RCN SportsTalk” and here on the RCN-TV website!

Behind the Mic: Bracketology

Northwestern is in!  For the first time in school history, the Wildcats are in the NCAA tournament after winning 23 games this season.  Can they win their first game ever when they take on Vanderbilt in Round One?

Before we get to that, there are more important things to consider – which of the 68 teams will win their bracket and move on to the Final Four?

WEST
Gonzaga (32-1) was given the top seed in this bracket.  There are many who believe that, despite their 29 straight wins before a loss to BYU, top seed was only possible because they played a weak schedule.  With that said, they have beaten the #2 team in this section – Arizona.  Gonzaga has never made it to the Final Four.  And… they will not make it again.  They will lose to Arizona in the Regional final.

And, by the way, Northwestern will lose to Vanderbilt in the first round.

MIDWEST
Kansas (28-4) is #1 in this region and the committee selected them #2 overall in the tournament.  They were the Big 12 champions.  I like the way Michigan played in the Big 10 tournament and they have local favorite Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman.  I like Michigan to beat Oklahoma State in their first-round game, but then they run into Louisville and their season will end.  Louisville will play Kansas in the Regional final.  Kansas is a potential national champion and will win this region.

SOUTH
After winning the ACC tournament championship, many expected Duke to garner this top spot.  Instead it went to North Carolina (27-7), a team that Duke beat two out of three times.  Time will tell if this was a wise decision by the committee.  It is probably their most questionable top seed.  It appears that UCLA or Kentucky would be their biggest challenge and that can only happen in the Regional final.  UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is certainly one of, if not the best, freshman in the country.  So I like UCLA vs North Carolina in the final.  North Carolina wins.

EAST 
I saved the East for last.  Can Villanova (31-3) do it again?  They are good enough to do it and they are certainly battle-tested having played one of the toughest schedules in the nation.  If, as many believed, Duke should have been a #1, then Villanova may have the toughest road to the Final Four because Duke is #2 in this region.  And it should come down to these two outstanding teams.  I would rather see Villanova win, but I think Duke wins this game.

FINAL FOUR
                        Kansas vs North Carolina
                        Duke vs Arizona

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
                        Duke vs Kansas
 
NATIONAL CHAMPION
Kansas

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. It was certainly not the weekend that local basketball fans expected when our 15 boys’ and girls’ teams played in the first round of the PIAA basketball playoffs. Only four of our teams advanced into the second round of playoffs.  Northampton, Bethlehem Catholic, and Southern Lehigh girls moved on, but only the Emmaus boys won their game against Cheltenham by a 68-67 score.  It was shocking that the Allen boys, Bethlehem Catholic boys, and the Easton girls lost.  What is the adage – “That’s why you play the game.”
  2. If the local basketball players disappointed over the weekend, the District XI wrestlers did not – Lehigh Valley AAA wrestlers claimed four state titles, two runner-ups, and 18 total medals. Nazareth won the team title, had two state champions, and Coach Dave Crowell was named Coach of the Year for a record sixth time.  In AA, eight local wrestlers won medals.
  3. Parkland boys’ basketball lost to Archbishop Ryan on Saturday, indicating, once again, just how powerful the Philadelphia Catholic League teams are. Ryan was the #3 team out of District 12 and they were every bit as good as any team here in the Lehigh Valley.  They beat Parkland by 24 – enough said.
  4. The Bucknell men will face West Virginia in their opening round NCAA matchup in the West Region. Bucknell was seeded #13 and that’s impressive for the Patriot League. West Virginia is the best team in the nation at forcing turnovers, so this will not be a pleasant experience for the Bison.  But I will cheer them on and hope for the upset.
  5. One final note about the Allen Canaries – this team under Doug Snyder made basketball in Allentown meaningful and exciting again. No team had a more supportive fan base and their energy migrated out to other communities once basketball fans got to see them.  It was a great year ending in disappointment, but thanks for so many memorable individual plays and games.

The SportsTalk Shop: District XI Previews – Week 2

First, a quick pat-on-the back for all the people who participated in last week’s “SportsTalk” show poll (a.k.a. “Who will win the Easton/Freedom football game?”).  Extra congratulations are in order for all the people who predicted (and/or rooted) for an Easton victory.  The win sets up one of several great contests this weekend and we’ll be previewing all of the match-ups involving District XI teams on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show (live, 7-8pm on RCN-TV).

Secondly, in addition to breaking down and making predictions about this upcoming weekend’s contests, I’d like to give the Easton and Saucon Valley fans a chance to give some payback to our adversarial co-host, Joe Craig, who predicted double-possession losses for both the Rovers and the Panthers.  After all, turnabout is fair play. We’d be happy to read your emails (RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com) and take your phone calls about those predictions as well as your thoughts on how your teams will do again this weekend.

Now, as we promised in last week’s blog, a closer look at the teams vying for a Class 2A and 3A title this weekend…

Class 3A Championship
Both of these teams got to the title game with solid defense…underrated defenses at that!

Saucon Valley has been in the spotlight because of the running ability of Evan Culver, quarterback Zach Thatcher’s effectiveness in running the offense and the spectacular and timely catches of sophomore Alstan Wolfe.  However, it has been the defensive efforts of those three—and many others—that has fueled the Panthers’ success over the last few seasons.  Culver, who joined his teammates as guests on “RCN SportsTalk” (see it again On-Demand or on our podcasts here on the website), said that he actually prefers to play defense.  That’s a pretty interesting statement considering he’s third among active District XI players in rushing yards and his 64 touchdowns and 4,129 ground-yardage blew away the school records quite some time ago.

Head Coach Matt Evancho, who ran the underappreciated defenses for those great Wilson teams in the 2000s, has been one of the top defensive minds in the Valley for some time.  Seniors Mike Kane, Christian Carvis, Nate Harka and Mike Paolini have been defensive stalwarts for several years and have made for one of the stingiest defenses—Colonial League or EPC–in the area.

Lehighton also allowed just one score in their semifinal game against Blue Mountain. The undefeated Indians forced four turnovers in the first half (six for the game) and scored a defensive touchdown. Their stout defense allowed QB Tyler Cann enough time to warm up the offense and post several second-half scores to put the game away.

Lehighton is similar to Saucon Valley in that they have a core of seniors who have been building to do some special things this fall.  The Indians have a very good secondary and it will not be easy when (if?) the Panthers look to pass the ball.

Class 2A Championship
Speaking of being underrated, I don’t think there’s been a less-mentioned player who’s deserved more accolades than Northwestern’s Harry Hall, who, oh, by the way leads ALL active District XI players in rushing yards.  Hall came into last weekend’s semifinal with 4,860 yards on the ground and 51 TDs (both school records).

I think the Lehigh Valley fan base looked at all the talent that the Tigers lost to graduation from a year ago, and assumed it would be a rebuilding year up in New Tripoli (although they were the #5 team in the “SportsTalk” preseason poll—just sayin’).  However, Northwestern has gotten solid performances on both sides of the ball and played well—even in their losses this season.

One of their losses was to the team they will face in the championship, Notre Dame-Green Pond.  The Crusaders are led by Tre Jordan, who’s passed for over 7,000 yards during his high school career, and he’s just as lethal running the ball.  Mitch Daniel, an outstanding point guard for the basketball team, has made a name for himself as a tailback.  Destyn Woody, Austin Kaulius, Nick Basenese, Jalen Simpson and Aaron Weller all have outstanding abilities receiving the football.  Christian Candelaria, Julian Wismer, Taino Gonzalez and EJ Medina have all had impressive seasons on the defensive side.

The Crusaders have a ton of weapons, a ton of speed and some outstanding defenders.  One would think Notre Dame just has too many horses for Northwestern to handle, but people have discounted the Tigers a few times now, so I’m expecting a very close game on Friday night.

Don’t forget, we’ll be talking about all the 2A/3A/4A playoff teams in our viewing area in action this weekend on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show (if you miss the program, the podcast will be available Friday afternoon here or catch the program On-Demand).  Also, make sure you check out the Easton/Parkland game Friday and Saucon Valley/Lehighton game Saturday on RCN-TV.

The SportsTalk Shop: Four Teams to Watch: Colonial League

Recently we discussed four East Penn Conference squads with interesting storylines to follow this fall. Today we look at some of the Colonial League teams to follow this football season.

NORTHWESTERN
A friend of mine who covers the Tigers told me in the summer of 2013 that the Northwestern football team had some really good talent, but that they were probably a year away from “making some noise” (aka. being considered one of the league’s top teams). He called me back last October and said he underestimated those kids and proclaimed them ready for prime time. Two weeks later they became the only Colonial League team in two years to beat Catasauqua in a regular season match-up.

Most of those same players who pulled off that monumental win against the Rough Riders have returned, and very few people who have seen them so far this year have been anywhere close to disappointed by their performance in this young season.

Individually, they have some amazingly talented players littering the roster. Among them are Cam Richardson (2 TDs against Bangor), Frank D’Angello (3-6 passing for 52 yards and a touchdown), Dylan Snyder (interception returned for a touchdown) and Harry Hall (also scored two touchdowns vs. Slaters).

The biggest general comment about the entire squad is the overall team speed. It’s going to be hard for any team to play a ‘shoot-out’ game with them, but former sports writer Bruce Buratti made a great observation on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show. Bruce pointed out that the weather conditions on a grass surface might be the only thing to stand in their way of winning a 2A District Championship. If the Tigers have to play a quality opponent in a rain-soaked game on a muddy surface, it might be their greatest weakness. But even then you’re talking about a number of “what ifs” that would have to happen, and it seems pretty clear after two impressive showings so far this year, that the Tigers are in great shape to win one—if not two—titles this fall.

SOUTHERN LEHIGH
Excuse me for 10 seconds while I play a few notes on my own horn. A few years ago and despite naysayers, I predicted Southern Lehigh would bounce back from an 0-3 start to win at least seven more games and reach the playoffs—they responded by winning eight games and a playoff contest. Last year on “SportsTalk’s” high school football preview show, I said the Spartans would win at least one championship. I was unanimously told by the experts on that show’s panel that I was wrong—only to see Southern Lehigh get within a half-a-yard of winning TWO titles. This year, I think they have the ability to go one step further. I think Southern Lehigh fans should believe they have a reasonable chance of winning the 3A District Championship.

(“What was that?” shouts the Becahi contingent. “What about the Golden Hawks?”)

Yes, I am aware the Spartans are in the same classification as Bethlehem Catholic—a team I recently predicted would go undefeated during their EPC schedule. And I am fully aware that, because of the new league alignments, the Hawks will probably hold the number-one seed and have home field advantage through districts. I also realized that the Spartans are without their star defensive player, and one of the area’s top middle linebackers from a year ago. But I was very impressed by quarterback Travis Edmond’s ability to run the offense and to pass the ball last season. They also return key players on the D-line and in the secondary, and I think the new players will be able to improve and gain experience as the year goes on (a huge test will be October 10th when they face Northwestern). I was also impressed by the way Solehi hung with the Hawks last year, after falling behind 14-0 (nearly 21-0) early in the title game and persevered to push the game into overtime. They’ve been scrimmaging against larger schools and their kids have an idea of what it takes to be successful on bigger stages and with higher stakes. On paper Becahi is still the best team in the division, but I see no reason why Spartans’ faithful should expect anything less than a district championship in the near future.

SAUCON VALLEY
Some football fans may forget, but Saucon Valley is also coming off a championship season, in which they captured the Eastern Conference Division-3 title. They won their final four games in a 9-3 season last fall, but have to fill the shoes of last year’s Express-Times player of the year — Nick Savant, who rushed for a school record 2-thousand plus yards and 28 touchdowns. There was also some pre-season concern how the teachers’ contract-situation might affect the athletes, which the players have appeared to put behind them. While the Panthers have a number of juniors and seniors on the varsity roster, they didn’t come into the season with a wealth of playing experience—especially on offense. However, first year starting quarterback Zach Thatcher is coming off an ultra-impressive game over Northern Lehigh (8-9 passing for 132 yards and 4 touchdowns, plus 63 yards rushing) and the Panther flat-out dominated the Bulldogs in every aspect last Friday. While the rivalry is not as publicized as an Easton/P’burg or Liberty/Freedom battle, there is no love-loss between Saucon and Southern Lehigh. Only one of these two 2-0 teams will remain in first place as they square off against each other Friday (10pm, RCN-TV).

As for the fourth team to watch…?

Wow. This is a tough one. Coming into this past weekend, I was expecting both Pen Argyl and Notre Dame to bounce back with a “W” and keep themselves right in the middle of the huge conglomerate of solid teams. However, not only did both the Knights and the Crusaders lose a second game last Friday (the season is still young), but a few teams really pushed themselves into the spotlight and have caught people’s attention. Everyone was counting out Catasauqua after they graduated nearly every starting player from a season ago, but the Rough Riders posted an impressive win Friday. Palmerton was a team no one was talking about in August, and now they’re undefeated through two weeks. Both Bangor and Palisades scored an impressive win each, and don’t forget about Northern Lehigh looking very strong in their week one victory. Even some of the teams that are 0-2 have had some good moments. So who is the next best team in the Colonial League this fall? I may have to leave that to you, the reader, and of course, the teams themselves, to figure that out.

What Colonial League teams do you think will step-up and remain in the upper half of the standings after this weekend? Who are some of the league’s top athletes and who are some younger players to watch? Send your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com or post a comment below and tune in to “RCN SportsTalk” every Thursday night at 6pm on RCN-TV.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Anti-Poll Halftime Standings

 

“Anti-Poll Halftime Standings”

Hard to believe, but we’ve already reached the midway point in the high school football regular season. It’s time for our mid-term grades for the RCN Football “Anti-Poll.”

Before I give you my observations, we’ll first take a look back at some of the teams we’ve featured this fall on RCN Sports Talk, and let the coaches and players give you their insights on their respective teams.

Now, here’s my take on the teams in the RCN Eastern Pennsylvania coverage area I’ve had the pleasure of viewing in person, plus some views uncovered from my contacts throughout the region.

Grade: A
Imhotep, Garnet Valley, Penncrest, and Catasauqua
Footballstories Editor/Publisher Al Thompson pointed out on last week’s RCN Sports Talk that, at that time, no AAAA team in our viewing area was in the “Top 100” national polls this year. However, that doesn’t mean we haven’t had our share of dominant football teams. Expect to see all of these teams in the PIAA playoffs. Imhotep fans might be inclined to go ahead and buy tickets to the state title game. In the Lehigh Valley, the Rough Riders continue to roll. Their offense seems to be able to score on anyone, at any time, and in a variety of ways. The word is that their defense must improve if they want to advance to the state finals, which would mean they’d have to find a way to stop the powerful Imhotep offense. I’ll find out for myself when I get my first look at the Rough Riders when I announce their game against Pen Argyl next Friday night, October 11, on RCN TV.

Grade: B+
Bethlehem Catholic, Easton, Emmaus, LaSalle, Parkland, Ridley, Whitehall, and Upper Darby
Emmaus and Parkland have a ton of momentum right now. They are both coming off wins against the Rovers and Zephyrs, respectively. One could argue that the Hornets had the best chance of any of these teams to be undefeated at this point. Both of their losses came late in the game due to strange plays. Parkland’s Kareem Williams might just be the most dynamic running back in the Lehigh Valley, which is saying something because I’m a big Shane Simpson fan. I was impressed how Whitehall was able to run the ball against the Trojans. The passing game looked good late, although by that point, Parkland was mostly in a “prevent” defense. They must have some other offensive weapons develop consistency to make a deep run in the postseason.

Bethlehem Catholic’s only loss was an impressive showing against the Rovers a few weeks ago. They can make a major statement with a win this Friday against Whitehall (watch this game live on RCN TV at 7:00 PM). LaSalle, Upper Darby and Ridley all suffered tough losses to very good teams early. However, they have bounced back and remain very much in the hunt for a district playoff spot.

And Easton? You can find out for yourself how they are doing by watching RCN Sports Talk this Thursday, October 3, live at 6:00 PM on RCN TV. Head Coach Steve Shiffert and his players will be my guests on the show. Feel free to email your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com now and we’ll read and respond to your messages live on the air!

Grade: B
Southern Lehigh, Saucon Valley, Pen Argyl, Notre Dame, Northwestern, and Palisades
These teams have all played well and will most likely continue to do so. It will be difficult for any of these teams to vie for the Colonial League crown if Catty doesn’t get tripped up at some point. However, any of these teams could do damage in the district playoffs, as Pen Argyl proved last year. We’ll be focusing more on these teams on RCN Sports Talk on our October 10 and October 17 shows.

Grade: C
Nazareth, Liberty, Central Catholic, Palmerton, and Pius
Liberty and Nazareth have some major questions that they have to answer in a hurry to make the district playoffs. Don’t forget, at least two teams from up north must qualify for the District 2/4/11 Sub-Regional Playoffs. With both of these teams already having at least two losses, they can’t afford another “L” with half of their schedule yet to play.

Central Catholic is coming off a victory against Northampton. They have some major challenges coming up on their schedule, and are not locks to make Districts this year. Remember that Central refused a bid to play in the Eastern Conference playoffs several years ago. It will be interesting to see if the Vikings play ANY post-season games this year after several seasons of reaching the PIAA semifinals or better.

Palmerton played well but lost an offensive struggle to Palisades last weekend. A good effort against the Tigers this weekend can push them back into the top half of the Colonial League standings. Pius is coming off a solid win over Towanda, and can move back to .500 with a win against Wyalusing Valley Friday.

Special Award
Dieruff
I said after their first win that the Huskies are already the feel-good story of this fall season. Going five years without beating anyone other than their ASD rival, Allen, had not been fun. The entire Lehigh Valley football community was genuinely happy for those kids to get that first “W” after Week Two. The fact that their success on the field has continued has proven that they have exceeded everyone’s expectations — except, perhaps, themselves. Based on what they’ve overcome, I have to give them a weighted ‘A+.’ I’m looking for even more positive news coming out of Dieruff High School going forward.

What are your thoughts and observations on the first half of the high school football season? Which teams will have the best “Second Half?” Post your comments here and tune in to talk high school sports every Thursday at 6:00 PM on RCN SportsTalk, live on RCN TV.