The SportsTalk Shop: HS Basketball Recap (Part 2)

As promised in last week’s blog, I did want to share a few of my reflections on the high school basketball season before we jump full force into our Lehigh Valley spring sports coverage.

Let’s start with the “good” things:

  • The District Semifinal contest at the PPL Center may have been a once in a lifetime experience for many associated with the event. Perhaps the biggest crowd we’ll ever see at a Lehigh Valley basketball playoff game was enhanced by two great games and many of the participating schools’ best players of all time converging at the same time. You could argue that the teams featured the four largest fan bases of any team in the region, which certainly make for a truly special night for many fans, athletes, parents and administrators.
  • The 6A boys and girls brackets were very competitive. Both Easton and Nazareth (in my opinion) were two of the best large school teams in the state entering the PIAAs, and both were eliminated in the first round.  The boys’ matchups were almost always entertaining as well in the league, district and state levels.  While there were a few blowouts and quite a few ‘lower seeds’ advancing deeper into the state playoffs than normal, these teams were usually quite talented and the contests were very competitive.
  • The nice-sized crowds at many of the larger schools featuring girls’ games as well as for both boys and girls teams at some of the smaller schools were encouraging. While not getting the media attention the EPC does, the Colonial League has some great crowds at most of their playoff games.   Bangor is an area that always supports its sports programs that followed its team well. Notre Dame fans were out in full force for both their boys and girls playoff runs.

Also, the Becahi girls had a nice turnout for many of their playoff games—most of them very one-sided with their Hawks dominating the opposition, and we already talked about the four schools (Allen, Emmaus, Parkland, Pocono Mountain West) who showed up in droves at the PPL Center.

  • Last and certainly not least, congratulations to the Nazareth wrestling squad and the Bethlehem Catholic girls basketball team for their dominating seasons, culminating with raising the state championship trophy. The Blue Eagles and Golden Hawks are two of a handful of teams from the Lehigh Valley that have state titles so far this school year.  We’ll be honoring Nazareth’s program on this week’s “SportsTalk” show (live, Thursday at 7pm) and we will be featuring more of this year’s PIAA champions (and hopefully we’ll add a few more title winners this spring) to upcoming editions of our Thursday night program—so keep checking back to the RCN-TV website for the dates and more details on when we’ll feature more championship teams.

And now…a few areas of concern:

  • As I predicted several weeks ago, the level of competition in many of the classifications below 6A was not nearly as strong as in years past. While I applaud the idea to get more schools involved and to try to create a “winning atmosphere” for as many kids as possible, it certainly diluted the overall quality of playoff games.  There were some very close—and very competitive–games overall, but there were also more blowout games in which the outcome of the game was never in question.  In 20 years of watching high school games as a media member and as a fan, I had only seen one “mercy rule” game in my life (many fans didn’t even know this rule existed for basketball until this year).  This year I sat through three games (including one state game) in which the contest’s clock just continued to run in order to let the losing team ‘off the hook.’  The combined margin of victory in the last four playoff games I broadcast was 108. Looking over the statewide brackets, there were many more games that were either “mercy games” or came close to invoking this dubious “rule” in league, district and state rounds.  To combat this, there is talk that the PIAA is putting together a “competitive committee” to balance the playing field for some schools.  Considering the state’s governing body just revamped their entire system and it resulted in more lopsided victories than ever before, I am very skeptical that things will change any time soon.
  • The attendance at a number of the mid-sized and smaller schools was not good (and, for some games, I’m being kind with that term) for premiere playoff games. I can understand smaller turnouts for mid-week games played in the afternoon and/or schools that have a far distance to travel.  But when the fans from Jim Thorpe outnumber three other Lehigh Valley schools for a district semifinal game, followed by a similar scene for the title game—and both were at sites in the heart of the Lehigh Valley—it did not represent the area very well.  One of the mid-sized classification’s championship games featured–at best–half-capacity and was not played at a gym that has a huge bleacher sections.

Granted, the overwhelming support at the bigger school games I’m sure made up for the games featuring lower turnouts.  Also, by having many more playoff games and inviting more teams in, I don’t think there’ll be any question that the final numbers of total playoff tickets will (and should) be higher than in years past.

I think overall it was a very good season for high school basketball.  With the graduation of many talented people this June, the summer basketball leagues will be even more intriguing as coaches look for people to step up and fill in some gaping holes.  Check back to the “SportsTalk Shop” in the coming weeks and months as we feature interviews and video of your local teams participating in spring and summer events.

Behind the Mic: Winter Bye-Bye

The season of 2016-17 officially came to an end this past weekend with the VIA All-Star basketball games being played.  Outstanding seniors donned their school’s uniforms for the last time and Lehigh Valley basketball was officially over.  There is no better time to reminisce…  Here are my top ten memories of this past season.

  1. The RCN TV team – I have spent more than 40+ years with this group and they never cease to amaze me with their work ethic, their dedication and their skills. Imagine over 100 winter productions laying wire, setting up cameras at the top of arenas, preparing the announcers’ booth, working the game and reversing the whole process when the game ends.  Now imagine doing that over and over and over again.
  1. East Stroudsburg North – This team had to put together a winning streak down the stretch just to get into the EPC playoffs and districts. They lost to Bethlehem Catholic in the EPC semis on a last second shot but came back to beat Whitehall, Central Catholic, and Pottsville to win their first District championship in school history.  The icing on the cake was their first-round state win (also, the first in school history) before finally falling.  It was a memorable season to say the least.
  1. Lafayette women win at home – On February 25, the Lafayette women were playing Colgate in the final home game of the year. They had not won a game at home all season.  In as entertaining game as you could see, the Leopards prevailed by a 90-85 score.  I’ll never forget how happy the women were along with their staff that they got this win on Senior Day.  Then, despite winning only two league games all year, they went on to win the first round game in the Patriot League Tournament.  More smiles.
  1. Lafayette hires new head football coach – Despite the winter sports season being about basketball and wrestling, the news that Lafayette hired a new head football coach makes my top ten. I loved working with former head coach Frank Tavani and, obviously, was saddened by his departure.  John Garrett was named the new head coach on December 21.  He enters Lafayette with a tremendous resume with both college and NFL experience.   Having attended some spring practices, there is a renewed energy in the staff and the players.  I’ll take that same energy into next season.  Go Leopards!
  1. Tom and John – All the respect and praise I feel for the RCN staff carries over to my color analysts for high school and college basketball, Tom Stoudt and John Leone. Obviously, the three of us spend a great deal of time together and it is full of conversation, joking, ribbing, and good times.  The winter goes very quickly when you are around these guys!
  1. Allen’s fan base – Many of us in the media have been lamenting the absence of good crowds for the high school basketball games in the past few years. Interest just seemed to lag.  Not this year.  Gyms were filled, for the most part, and the Allen fan base wins the award for the greatest support.  I think interest was up throughout the Valley, but no team had more support, both adult and student-based than the Allen Canaries.  There is nothing better than a high school gym filled with two good teams and an enthusiastic crowd.  There were plenty of both this season.
  1. Emmaus’ run in the PIAA state playoffs – This team went in as the #4 seed from District XI – a seed we had never had before the increase in classifications. In other words, before this year, they would not have even gotten into the playoffs.  They sure made the opportunity pay off.  No boys’ team from the Lehigh Valley went further into the playoffs.  They beat Cheltenham and Harrisburg before losing in double overtime to Carlisle in the most exciting game of the year.  Talk about seizing the moment.
  1. The individual talent – I have never experienced a year with so much talent on so many teams, both boys and girls. It did not seem to matter which gym you would walk into. You knew that there would be two or three or sometimes eight great players.  One night a doubleheader featured eight 1,000 point scorers (unheard of).  Martin, Williams, Iorio, Kachelries, Kachelries, Johnson, Singh, etc. on the boys’ side, and Blount, Brugler, Cyr, Luma, Zamolyi, Medina, Bloshuk, etc. on the girls’ side.  Most graduate but, hopefully, the next group is ready to make history as well.
  1. The Bethlehem Catholic state championship – This team won a school-record thirty games, breezed through the PIAA state playoffs and won their first state title in history. They were led by Jose Medina, who has won 75 games in three years as their head coach.  His team won the five state games by an average of 21.2 points (oh, my!!).  I just loved the way they played and the demeanor of the entire staff.  You can feel good about rooting for this team.
  1. I think #1 on every fans’ list this season was the amazing crowd (8,000 +) at the PPL Center for the EPC semifinals.  It featured four great teams – Allen, Parkland, Emmaus, and Pocono Mountain West.  The games did not disappoint, the venue was spectacular, and the crowd was awesome.  When I think back to my playing days (no snickering here, please), we had to travel to the State Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg to handle the crowd for a Lehigh Valley District semifinals and finals. Going to the PPL Center may have been one of the best nights ever for Lehigh Valley basketball.  It’s my #1!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. How about Mississippi State stopping the Connecticut women’s basketball winning streak at 111 games. Last year, UCONN beat Mississippi State 98-38.  The tables were turned in overtime this year 66-64.  UCONN was going for their fifth straight NCAA title.  They started their streak on December 23, 2014.  Look at the recap:

http://pmd.cdn.turner.com/ncaa/big/2017/04/01/1337884/1491026111912-uconn-missst-v3-mov-1337884_960x540_2104.mp4

  1. Sunday marked the 31st anniversary of the three-point shot (19’ 9”) in college basketball. It is perhaps the most dramatic change in modern basketball.
  2. The Flyers will not make the NHL playoffs. They were finally eliminated after losing on Sunday.
  3. The Dodgers and the Indians are the favorites to win the National and American League pennants with the Cubs and the Red Sox close behind.
  4. The Phillies won 71 games last year. Manager Pete MacKanin said he hopes to win ten more this season or one-half of the 162 games they play.  Based on last year, 81 wins would have put them in third place in the NL East behind the Mets and the Nationals.  A fan can only hope.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The SportsTalk Shop: “FINAL” 2017 Basketball Poll

I have to keep it real here—it was not the most exciting regular season in terms of monitoring our scholastic ranking system this winter.

While we’ve seen some well-played games (last Friday’s Freedom/Liberty game by far the best contest I’ve called this winter) and I’m anticipating a very entertaining post-season, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement among our “SportsTalk” poll results over the course of the regular season.

Before we get to our last rankings of the year, here’s a quick recap if you are not familiar with our program.

Our pollsters are comprised of a combination of local media members (Morning Call’s Keith Groller, RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach and RCN basketball Announcers Tom Stoudt and Dennis Laub and Lehigh Valley Basketball Rankings’s Toomey Anderson).  We also have three distinguished head basketball coaches giving their insights on the top teams in the Lehigh Valley area.

All District XI schools were eligible for the poll and were divided into either our “big schools” (5A & 6A classifications) or “small schools” (4A & below) rankings.

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

The “big schools” are Bangor, Central Catholic, 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.

As far as our “final” results…which looked very similar to what our pre-season poll looked like:

Big School Basketball Poll—Class 5A & up (8 pollsters)

  • Allen – 40 points (8 first place votes)
  • Emmaus – 26 points
  • Parkland – 22 points
  • Pocono Mountain West – 14 points
  • Bangor – 13 points

____________________________________________________________

Small School Basketball Poll—Class 4A & Below (7 pollsters)

  • Becahi – 35 points (7 first place votes)
  • Salisbury – 24 points
  • Notre Dame-GP – 23 points
  • Saucon Valley – 15 points
  • Wilson – 5 points

Just to recap, Allen maintained its standings as the area’s (and the state’s) top “big school” team all winter by running the table (through this past weekend), and was only really challenged in a handful of games all year.

Among the “smaller schools,” Bethlehem Catholic lost just three league games to date—all by three points are less, and all of them to bigger-sized schools.

The only other teams that had any significant in-season movement in our polls were Parkland and Wilson.  The Trojans  got off to a slow start and fell off our poll completely before  bouncing back and, now, looking about as good as any team in the region (except perhaps Allen, who they played Monday night on RCN-TV).  The Warriors, under a new coach and armed with a very young squad, have made a late-season push and end the season as our “number five” team.

One other note, while Pocono Mountain West slid down from its “number two” position in our preseason poll, I had one local head coach whose opinion I really trust tell me last weekend that he is seriously concerned about “West” and does not want to face them in the post-season.  The Panthers dropped a few regular season games that, on paper, they probably shouldn’t have lost—but with all the talent on that squad and the match-up problems they could create–they very likely could play deep into the league and/or district tournaments.

To help break down these results in further detail and to talk about the Colonial League and Eastern Pennsylvania Conference playoffs, RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach will join us on this week’s “SportsTalk.”

We’ll also talk about high school basketball in the DC region on this Thursday’s show as DMV Elite’s Marcus Helton will join us via Skype to talk about the area’s regular season, identify the top players and teams and look ahead to a busy final week of the regular season.  Marcus will also give us some upcoming “match-ups to watch” along with his take on which teams will have the most success in the region’s post-season tournaments.

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 opinions and questions. If there’s a team, athlete or playoff match-up 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: District XI Basketball Playoff Preview

Last week, we discussed a number of teams in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference or Colonial League post-season races—nearly all of them will look to be major players in the District XI tournament, which starts this week.  Today here at “The Shop,” we take a look at a few more teams that begin their district championship quests over the next few days.

“Give Me Liberty…”
Don’t let a first-round loss in the EPC playoffs fool you.  Chad Landis always seems to find a way to get his team playing deep into the district playoffs—and usually well enough to get at least one of the top-3 district seeds, which would give the Hurricanes a trip to states.

Liberty lost to a very talented Allen team last week.  On paper, however, I think Liberty could play with almost anyone in their bracket.  They have a tremendous talent on the inside in Cam Hoffman and exciting guard play with added depth now that Chance Neilly has returned and gotten some game action under his belt. They’ll open up the tournament by facing Nazareth on Wednesday (live, RCN4 at 7pm).

“…or Fly Like An Eagle”
Nazareth Head Coach Joe Arndt has to be on a short list of underrated basketball coaches in the region.  Following his great run in the post-season last year (more on that later), he has done a great job grooming young talents Jahan Dotson and Kevin Wagner to become one of the strongest 1-2 underclassmen punches among EPC teams.  Nick Youngkin has added scoring punch from different spots on the floor and probably deserves more attention that he’s received this season.  The key will be containing the likes of Hoffman, Andrew Hudak and Caleb Martinez on the inside and for Nazareth to get its share of rebounds.  More inside scoring could go along way for Blue Eagles—the loser of this ball game sees their season come to an end.

The 3A Race Should be Fun To Watch
Central Catholic has an incredibly talented team, filled with underclassmen and amazing potential.  But when you have a younger group of players, there’s always an element–however slight—of ambiguity in reading how they will play together in the post-season.  They lost to a very solid Pocono Mountain West team in the first round of the league playoffs and, unlike previous years, I don’t think the Vikings are your ‘stone-cold locks’ to win the district title.  Salisbury, Notre Dame and Saucon Valley are all good, well-balanced teams who can play with Central Catholic.

Bethlehem Catholic also showed a tremendous amount of poise in hanging with the area’s best team, Parkland, in their EPC first-round match-up and have scored some impressive wins during the regular season.  Ray Barbosa has done a great job in his first year with the Golden Hawks and I don’t think a lengthy run in districts should be seen as a shocker.

Also, waiting “in the wings” is a Pottsville team that just completed a perfect 22-0 regular season.  The Tide will face the winner of Tuesday’s match-up between Saucon Valley/Lehighton (live, RCN4 at 7pm).  There will be very few “easy” games in the District XI 3A Classification this time around, and I doubt very many people could clearly predict just how this bracket will shake out this winter.

This Year’s Cinderella?
Last year it was Nazareth’s boys team that surprised people with a lengthy and exciting run through the District XI tournament—winning a few more games than many expected.

Who will be this year’s dark horse squad to last the longest? Stroudsburg is always an underrated team that seems to find a way to advance deep in the playoffs—despite the fact local experts rarely predict a successful post-season run for the Mountaineers.  If they can get by Freedom on Wednesday, they have as good a shot against Pocono Mountain West, then would face the winner of the Bangor vs. Solehi/Whitehall matchup, so another post-season run by the Mounties certainly looks like it has potential.

Also, there’s a number of talented girls basketball individuals and teams to keep an eye on that don’t get the hype they deserve.  Easton is coming off an impressive performance in its EPC Championship victory and are led by standout stars like Gabby Bloshuk, Leanna Deegan, Olivia George and Shelby Stocker.

However, this might be one of the most competitive District XI girls playoff fields we’ve seen in some time.  Parkland features Emily Piston, Rachel Medlar, Nadine Ewald and Sarah Stagaard.  Among the other top EPC talents include Nazareth’s Tessa Brugler, Northampton’s Aja Blount and Victoria Keenan.  Colonial League players to watch include Southern Lehigh’s Amanda Mobley, Olivia Snyder and Ellie Cassel (all underclassmen, by the way), Palisades’ Karlee Krchnavi, Northwestern’s Erika Thomas and Bangor’s Marissa Fernandez-Tierney.  We talked about a number of these teams and players in last week’s “SportsTalk” podcast (listen here: rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk).

Don’t forget, we’ll be discussing many more teams, previewing match-ups and making District XI playoff predictions on Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, live from 7-8pm on RCN-TV with the show’s podcast available on Friday.  Guests include RCN Basketball Analyst Tom Stoudt along with Toomey Anderson and Andre Williams from LVBasketballRankings.com.  Email your high schools opinions and questions to rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and our panel will read and respond to your comments live on the air!

The SportsTalk Shop: 4A Playoff Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However…

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

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

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

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

The SportsTalk Shop: Four Teams to Watch: EPC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The “Other” Spring Battle

There’s plenty of good sports battles going on in the Lehigh and Delaware Valley areas this spring. The Phillies have looked decent so far and find themselves just behind Atlanta and Washington in the standings. There’s also some great rivalries at the collegiate and scholastic levels in many of the sports going on this spring, and many of the battles between the larger schools will get plenty of attention over the next few months.

But there’s one great rivalry that has been brewing in the RCN-TV viewing area. One that won’t garnish nearly as much attention as those mentioned above, and will not exactly capture the thousands of fans some of those big matchups will attract. In fact, the rivalry I would like to focus on involves two of the smallest schools in our coverage area. That of the battle between the Catasauqua and Pen Argyl girls’ softball teams.

Here’s a few statistical reasons why this rivalry has become so special in the Lehigh Valley:

• They played four times in 2013, with each team winning two games

• Catasauqua trumped Pen Argyl for the 2013 Colonial League Championship; the Green Knights returned the favor in the District XI Title game a few weeks later

• In as competitive a year for Colonial League softball as many people can remember, Catty & Pen Argyl are the two teams that nearly everyone agreed are the #1 and #2 teams in the league’s preseason polls (and the Lehigh Valley is LOADED with exceptionally good softball players this spring)

• In the first meeting this season, Pen Argyl jumped out to a 5-1 lead early, only to have the Rough Riders come back and win the game late

When Mother Nature allows, both teams have continued to rack up wins when playing other opponents, and seem destined to play each other at least two more times in very meaningful contests this spring.

I could continue comparing the on-the-field similarities, including how strong both teams’ pitching is, both squads’ ‘big game’ experience, the players’ ability to come up clutch hits, et al. Instead, I was struck by something not as clearly visible.

I had the opportunity over the past two weeks to meet with both teams as a part of the features we produce for our Thursday night sports show. In speaking with the players, I found that each of them exhibited a tremendous level of respect for the game, a passion to play it, and an incredibly strong knowledge and awareness of the game.

For people who haven’t regularly followed high school sports in recent years, this is far more unique than one might think. I have heard numerous, off-the-record stories in recent years regarding players who you’d have to drag to practice…or players who deal well with their teammates, and/or gruesome stories of an athlete not only making a bonehead play, but not understanding the game enough to realize what he or she did wrong. Living in an era frequently described as “me first” has lent itself to less team-focused play and not nearly as much desire, let alone passion, to practice or to work on improving skills and sports knowledge.

This was not the case when I stopped by the team’s practices. It was great to hear players genuinely looking forward to coming to practice—whether indoors or out, expressing a strong desire to encourage their teammates and working to improve the overall team. There was no talk about what an individual needed to do to enhance their opportunity for a scholarship (although there are a few at each school looking to do so). It was refreshing to hear the players’ insights about their school, their league and their sport.

I have to believe a large part of the credit for this team’s outlook—not to mention all the wins the last several seasons—has to belong to their respective coaching staffs. You won’t find a nicer group of coaches than the ones at Pen Argyl. Bill Schankel, Ron Singer, Tom Rosser, Brian Schriner, and James Trach, Jr. have always embodied that wonderful spirit of sportsmanship and good-nature that you find attending an event in Green Knight’s territory. I also enjoyed meeting Catty Skipper Bobby Thomas for the first time last week. He clearly “gets it” with a tremendous knowledge of softball and sports in general here in this area. The fact that the Rough Riders do not have enough players to field a JV team yet continue to produce topline talent the last several seasons is a direct result of Thomas’ coaching skills and the drive that his players have.

So while the Phillies will continue to battle the Nationals and Braves for the top spot in the National League East, Emmaus, Parkland, and a few other teams will have fierce battles on the baseball diamond, and local colleges will no doubt have their annual rivalry battles, let’s not forget about all the young ladies from Catasauqua and Pen Arygl. They will continue to make for some great on-field confrontations, and, more importantly, represent their school and their sport, with an amazing level of pride and professionalism.

What other sports programs do you feel deserve some extra attention? Which players have stood out and have overcome challenges this spring? Email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in for this Thursday’s live show at 6pm as we look back at the first half of the high school spring sports season and look ahead to the second half and the playoffs.

 

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.

 

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.