Behind the Mic: Wait and (Not) See

On Thursday, March 5, the PIAA suspended all athletic events for a two-week period.  Since then, every major and minor sporting event has been cancelled and placed in limbo for an indefinite amount of time.  Not only does it appear that there will not be any more basketball this year, it is becoming very likely that no spring sports will be played either.

I am certainly not complaining about the decisions made – they were and continue to be necessary until we get a handle on this grave situation.  Sports are part of the fabric of our lives proven by the void created by their complete absence right now.  But, it pales in comparison to achieving our ultimate goal – overcoming Covid-19 (coronavirus).

Since it appears that only a miracle would finish the state basketball playoffs, some mention of our three teams that were still alive is necessary.  Bethlehem Catholic, Nazareth, and Freedom were still advancing.  All three teams had moved to the quarterfinals.  Only seven teams stood between them and a state championship.  It was quite possible that Nazareth and Freedom could have met one another in the state championship on March 20.  Therefore, all three teams need a bit more ink.

Freedom was 24-5 this year losing three times to Bethlehem Catholic and in double overtime to Nazareth in the District XI championship.  They were one shy of the most girls’ basketball wins in school history.  They won both state games by double-digit margins.  Their seniors had a combined record of 82-29 and won a District Championship in 2018.  They had already advanced farther than any team in their history.  They will never know how this season would have ended.

Nazareth was continuing a great season (26-4).  Twenty-six wins is the most in a single season and they, too, had never advanced to the state quarterfinals. They managed to win the District championship after losing the EPC title to Bethlehem Catholic.  Their two state wins were by margins of 28 and 11 points.  They overcame being placed in the bottom half of the bracket and having to travel great distances for their games.  That did not matter – they won anyway.  Their team has no seniors, so, at least, they will all return next year.

Beca is in a category all their own.  Their season ended with a 29-0 record.  In the last four years, they have amassed a 112-8 record, last losing on January 31, 2019, to Freedom.  They have won 42 straight games and two of the last three state titles.  What made the end so disappointing this year was that their next opponent was Scranton Prep.  Their record was 27-0.  So without the shutdown, these two teams would have faced one another with a combined 56-0 record.  Scranton Prep had already gone farther than any team in their history.

So the only defeats in state playoffs to these teams came from Covid-19.  I would be shocked if another game is played this year.  So, disappointment will always exist, “what-ifs” will always be asked, and outcomes will never be answered.

One thing we do know with certainty – Freedom, Nazareth, Bethlehem Catholic (and Scranton Prep) all had great seasons and, for that, they should be extremely proud.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. There was certainly more bad news this past week concerning high school basketball in the Lehigh Valley. First, was the announcement by Doug Snyder that he was resigning as the head basketball coach at Allen High School.  This was his 23rd year at the helm and he had an incredible record of 364 wins and 263 losses.  They finished this season 23-6 and won the EPC.  Allen is not an easy place to coach with all the inner city problems, but Doug was the right person for the job.  He never wavered on the values that he taught and never let winning get in the way of doing the right thing.  He will be sorely missed.
  2. Within the same week, Liberty head coach Chad Landis decided it was time to spend more time with his wife and four daughters (certainly another huge challenge for him). Chad coached Liberty for 12 years and won 198 games.  His team was 20-6 this past year.  Much like Snyder, Landis made his players better people amid similar challenges.  Two outstanding teachers of life and the game of basketball will now have to be replaced.  No easy task, for sure.
  3. At least with NFL free agency occurring right now, there will be some sports news to report. What will Tom Brady, Dak Prescott, Drew Brees do?  There are over 100 free agents so there should be something to talk about in the next month.
  4. Thank you to all the stat people, the athletic directors, the coaches, the administrative assistants, and to the fans for another great, yet somewhat unsatisfying year.
  5. Much like the rest of the month – TBD

Behind the Mic: Thrill; Agony

From 1961-1998, I regularly would watch The Wide World of Sports on ABC.  Jim McKay was the host and the show’s introductory video and catchphrase was “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”.  Those words were spoken over a celebration of a great win followed by a ski jumper severely crashing during a competition.  The pictures and the phrase became ingrained into the psyche of every regular viewer.

That phrase came back to me this past week while broadcasting the two Emmaus state basketball games.

Let’s start with the “thrill of victory”.  Emmaus had beaten Cheltenham 68-67 the previous Saturday to advance to the PIAA State second round.  They were the only AAAAAA boys’ team left from the Lehigh Valley because both Allen and Parkland had already been beaten.  The irony of their participation is that up until this year when the PIAA added six classifications, Emmaus would not have even gotten into the state playoffs.  With the additional classes, four teams were eligible and Emmaus was the fourth.

That set up a one day snow-delayed matchup with the Harrisburg Cougars, the #1 team out of a very strong District 3 at Reading High School.  Harrisburg had beaten Reading in their District playoffs and they were now considered the favorite to make it to the state championship game.  In a thrilling game with a nail-biting finish, Emmaus won 64-61 and, for the first time in school history, would move on to play in the state quarterfinals.  They would be part of, in NCAA March Madness lingo, the Elite Eight!  The celebration that followed was the definition of “the thrill of victory”.

That set up a return trip to Reading for Emmaus as they would take on the Carlisle Thundering Herd for a place in the state semi-finals.  Harrisburg had beaten Carlisle twice and they were in the same district as the Cougars.  They entered the playoffs as the #5 team in District 3.  Emmaus certainly could enter this game knowing they were every bit as good as their opponent.  And they were.

Emmaus led by six at the end of one period and by ten at the half.  They still led by ten with just 3:05 to go in the game.  But… Carlisle waged a comeback.  Emmaus still could clinch the win as they led 62-59 with 7.9 seconds to go.  Emmaus’ all-time leading scorer, David Kachelries, a 76% free-throw shooter, went to the line to shoot one free throw (he had made his first six of the game, but missed his previous three).  Make it and the Hornets are in the state semi-final; miss it and the Herd still needed to make a three-point shot to send the game into overtime.  He missed and Ben Milligan made a three at the buzzer to tie the game at 62.  “Thrill” and “agony” by anyone would be delayed.

Emmaus needed three free throws on one trip to the foul line by David’s twin brother, Matt Kachelries, to send the game into a second overtime.  He calmly went to the foul line and made all three.  The first overtime ended 69-69.

But the second overtime period ended with Carlisle controlling the scoreboard and the Thundering Herd galloped to a 78-74 win.  The Emmaus season was over.  The Kachelries twins had scored an amazing 57 points in the game and that was still not enough.

David ended his career with 1,910 points and Matt finished with 1,027.  Matt had missed two-thirds of his sophomore year due to injury or his total would have been much higher.  Emmaus finished with one their greatest and most memorable seasons ever.

None of that mattered though at @ 6:30pm on Saturday night as the Green Hornets and Coach Steve Yoder walked off the floor in Reading.  Much like the skier in the Wide World of Sports intro, they were severely suffering from “the agony of defeat”.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. The Bethlehem Catholic AAAA girls’ basketball team is the last team standing from the Lehigh Valley. As I write this, they are preparing to play Gwyned Mercy in the PIAA semifinals.  A win would get them into the state championship game.  Congratulations to Coach Medina and the girls.  Go Hawks!!
  2. How are you doing on your NCAA bracket? I assume many of you had Villanova and Duke to go far into the tournament and even winning it all.  I had Duke making it to the Final Four.  I still have Arizona, Kansas, and North Carolina alive to make the Final Four.  I heard a lot of moans and groans this past weekend.
  3. It is hard to imagine that the next Eastern Pennsylvania Conference basketball season could match this one. Losing so many stars like Sam Iorio, Kevin Wagner, the Kachelries twins, Tyrese Martin, Talek Williams, etc. will be hard to duplicate for a very long time.
  4. He gets a mention every week – Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman of Central Catholic is still playing in the NCAA tournament. Muhhammad starts and plays as many minutes as anyone for Michigan.  He scored 16 against Oklahoma State and some vital points down the stretch against Louisville as his team moved on to the Sweet Sixteen.
  5. My usual reaction at the end of the basketball season is how fast winter flew by. Except this year, the season has come to a close and winter continues to rear its ugly head.  C’mon!  What’s a golfer to do?

The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Mic: March 1 Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

PPL Center

 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Hoops – Playoff Video Recaps

After a busy and exciting week of calling District XI high school championship playoff action on RCN-TV, I am taking a few days off as we prepare for RCN’s coverage of PIAA State Playoff action.

So at the “SportsTalk Shop,” here is a highlights package of the playoff action over the past few weeks featuring teams in the RCN coverage area.  I’ll be back next week with more sports insights here at “The Shop” as well as on “RCN SportsTalk” next Thursday, live at 7pm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t forget to check out RCN’s sports coverage of District XI teams in the state playoffs starting this Friday and best of luck to all the teams participating in the tournament!