The Sports Talk Shop: Chris’s “ALL-UNDERRATED” Football Edition (Part 1)

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Last year, I did a blog entry here at “The Shop” reflecting back on the past basketball season that was well-received and seemed to generate some very positive comments.

The idea for that blog was not to single out the best players, teams and individual plays, but to spotlight student-athletes and coaches who did something great but perhaps didn’t get the attention he or she deserved.

As with the “All-Underrated Team” I did last spring, it’s completely arbitrary and was based solely on the games that I witnessed in person—either as a broadcaster or as a spectator. It did NOT include any games or videos I watched through RCN On-Demand, HUDL or any videos I saw on social media.

With that in mind, I wanted to single out some individuals who fit that same criteria during this past District XI high school football season.

The awards go to…

MOST UNDERRATED KICKER

Whitehall’s Alex Khouri.

The Zephyrs had a rare poor season and was one of the few Lehigh Valley teams that did not qualify for the playoffs this year.  However, Khouri was one of the most consistent extra point kickers in the area and had a strong leg on kickoffs in the few times we got an opportunity to see Whitehall this past season.

MOST UNDERRATED DEFENSIVE PLAYER IN A GAME

Southern Lehigh Linebacker LB Asher Smith. In a game I witnessed as a fan, the junior really stood out in a much-needed win over Palmerton after the Spartans were upset against Saucon Valley to open the season. Smith had a team-high nine solo tackles (10 total), five pass breakups and one pick-six….he also played well, was all over the place the previous week in keeping his team in the close game in the Panthers loss and also ended up with several returned kickoffs as one of the “up men.”

MOST UNDERRATED DEFENSIVE PLAYER/SEASON

Bethlehem Catholic’s Tavion Banks and Paul Carreras

Banks was one of the preseason “running backs to watch” in both local papers, however, he impressed me even more with his defense this past fall.  Banks is one of the top cover men in league—I kept reading in the high school football capsules each week that Becahi’s secondary was a weakness and that teams will look to exploit the Hawks’ ability to give up big plays.  However, the Hawks’ passing yardage was right in line with their opponents (153 yards per game vs. 158 at the end of the regular season).  I thought Banks did a great job keying on other teams’ top receivers and Becahi had just as many big players (if not more) than many other LV teams.

Carreras deserves extra mention because he was not only a standout linebacker all year long, but he was impressive offense (and both a running and a blocking back) and even excelled in the thankless role of a punter (averaging over 37 yards per punt during the regular season—one of the top marks in the area) and filled in kicker when Penn State-bound Anthony DeSilva went down with an injury (and did an admirable job in that role, too.)  All he did on defense was lead his team in tackles, tackles for a loss and sacks (77, 22 and 8, respectively, using his final regular season numbers).  Not too bad anchoring a defense that—for the third straight year—many people called the best “Front 6” in the entire Lehigh Valley.

MOST UNDERRATED IMPACT (IN THE LEAST AMOUNT OF TIME)
 
Parkland Running Back Isiah Rico.  Before last season started, I heard great things about Rico’s potential as a quality back in the Lehigh Valley.  When senior starter Joseph Guida went down with a major injury, the sophomore Rico had to step into the spotlight in what may have been the team’s biggest regular season game against Bethlehem Catholic—only to sustain several serious injuries himself in that contest.

But what impressed me the most about Rico’s season was not the numbers he posted during his brief varsity experience this fall, but rather the conversation I had with him the week after suffering the injury.  When I talked with him the before the Liberty game, he was very positive about the team’s ability to overcome losing its two top running backs (at a time when there was still much indecision about the Trojans’ quarterbacks as well).  He also was in great spirits and refused to say anything negative about the situation surrounding the injury (on a controversial hit) and really gave some great responses in what could have been a very tough situation for him.

I am sure he will go on to post great numbers in his junior and senior seasons, but I instantly became a fan of Rico going forward based on the maturity he displayed in an off-the-field conversation.
 
MOST UNDERRATED UPSET

The then-winless Zephyrs. They defeated a Central Catholic team that had won two of its first three games, including an impressive victory over a Nazareth team that was also feeling good about themselves following terrific performances the first few weeks of the season. Whitehall not only pulled the upset but did it by scoring 75 points (and several Vikings fans admitted they probably could have scored more than night if they wanted to).

Both Central Catholic and Nazareth proved to be playoff teams again this year, which further showed what a big win it was for the Zephs.  (Did I mention that I was the only Lehigh Valley football media member who had predicted that Whitehall would win that game in advance?  I won’t mention I also predicted their other upset win over another playoff team in Northampton.)

MOST UNDERRATED COMEBACK STORY

The Northern Lehigh football team. Not only did Head Coach Joe Tout and his coaching staff turned around last year’s dismal season by posting five wins, but would have easily qualified for the playoffs had the powers-that-be not reduced the 3A classification qualifiers from eight to four teams.

A playoff appearance for the always hard-working Bulldogs would have been the perfect cherry to top the dramatic turnaround, but this year’s team certainly laid the groundwork for what will probably be an even more impressive football squad for the 2019 campaign.

MOST UNDERRATED FAN BASE

Palisades. One of District XI’s smallest schools features one of the most passionate and classy fans—from students, players, parents and coaches.

We talked at length about how well this group handled the controversial situation involving the previous year’s state playoff game loss to Conwell Egan.  This year, the team was in the hunt for another Colonial League championship—yet had the dubious distinction of being in the 3A classification (which switched from eight playoff qualifying spots to just four) and faced a nearly impossible road to a potential post-season berth once the team picked up its first loss.

This group remained loyal when the team was struggling to get enough players on the field to play a few years back and have handled being one of the league’s elite teams the past few years with respect towards other schools.  It was very enjoyable to travel outside our coverage area to Kintnersville again this year to see the stadium (how can you go wrong with a pirates ship on the field?), to experience the warm hospitality I experienced and receive the nice comments they passed along to me regarding reading my blog.

More “awards” coming, next week….

The SportsTalk Shop: Playoff Football Primers

The state high school football playoff season is officially underway in Pennsylvania (it actually started last week for Lehigh Valley teams due to the expanded playoff format, but we’ve talked about that in great detail before…)

There are several big matchups coming up this weekend.  Here are some insights on each of the games which feature teams in the RCN viewing area.

CLASS 6A
EASTON AT PARKLAND
Parkland is getting key people healthy—especially at running back—at just the right time.  During his tenure at Liberty, Head Coach Tim Moncman has often shown his desire to grind out long scoring drives if he has the horses available, and the improving health of Nick Suriel has allowed his Trojans to do that last week in their win over Nazareth.

This sets up an interesting issue:  Easton has had much more success stopping (or at least containing) the run against almost every team they’ve faced this year.  Even through injuries, the Red Rovers were the second best 6A team in points allowed this year during the regular season (Parkland was first), and they, too, are getting guys healthy—especially lineman—heading into the post-season.

This figures to be a low-scoring game.  Time of possession, turnovers and the ability to pick and choose your spots to throw deep will be keys and should make for one of the more entertaining games on Friday night.

FREEDOM AT EMMAUS
I’m really surprised it took a gutsy coaching decision by Emmaus Head Coach Harold Fairclough to put away his Hornets’ first round win over Liberty.  Both teams were missing key personnel and Liberty did a nice job containing Emmaus’ running attack.

In the first meeting between these two, the Hornets proved to be one of the few teams that found a way to pressure Freedom QB Joe Young and made him rush his passes.  If the Patriots’ offensive line can buy him more time—and I’m sure Head Coach Jason Roeder and his staff will also be making adjustments—Freedom could have much more success offensively this time around.

Emmaus’ Josh Artis helped to stretch the defense in the second half of the regular season matchup, which led to a Hornets victory.   As long as Freedom doesn’t hurt themselves with penalties/turnovers, a Patriot win wouldn’t surprise me at all.

CLASS 5A
Southern Lehigh vs. Whitehall
This is the matchup that surprised no one once the new classifications were laid out and both of these teams, along with East Stroudsburg North and South, were guaranteed playoff spots.

This is the game RCN will broadcast Friday.  We’ll be talking about this contest in much more detail on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show, when I’ll be joined by The Morning Call high school football scribes Keith Groller and Steve Miller for insights, analysis and predictions.

CLASS 4A
Saucon Valley vs. Bethlehem Catholic
In my opinion, this championship game is the most intriguing playoff contest this weekend.

Becahi steamrolled through most of the top teams in the EPC and featured the best run defense in the area before hitting an injury wall in the last quarter of the regular season.  They had to bounce back from a Central Catholic beating the week prior to avenge the Vikings’ defeat in the playoffs (see video above).  They also accomplished last week’s victory without some of their top players due to injuries.

Furthermore, Becahi—a team last year predicted to go deep in the state playoffs—is looking to get revenge on Saucon Valley—the team that knocked them out of the post-season last fall in the district semi-final.  Both teams have had great success defensively this year and also feature solid players on special teams.  I think you would have to give the Hawks the advantage offensively, but the same was said last season and that didn’t stop the Panthers from using its underdog status to fuel a hard fought win.

CLASS 3A
Pen Argyl at Palisades
The Green Knights have been a tough team to figure out this year.  Pen Argyl was one of our top four Colonial League teams in our pre-season and scored some impressive wins.  They’ve also lost a couple games that surprised some of our football experts here at RCN-TV.  Palisades has really been playing well under Kevin Ronalds and looked strong last week in their win over Northern Lehigh.

I’d give the advantage to Pen Argyl given Logan Sterner’s running ability and the Knights having a more battle-tested group, but this should be another interesting match-up this weekend.

North Schuylkill at Notre Dame

Notre Dame took a while to get its motor running versus Lehighton last weekend, but once they did, it turned into the blowout that I had predicted it would on last week’s show.

The Crusaders clearly have the most offensive weapons of any in this classification and have been doing a better job defending the run over the last several weeks, which traditionally has been North Schuylkill’s bread-and-butter.

I haven’t seen North Schuylkill in person this season as they play outside our coverage area but already have some calls in and am waiting for more information and details on this year’s squad as this week’s blog goes to press.  Again, I’ll have to use the “tease” button here and invite you to watch this Thursday’s show (or hear the podcast at rcn.com/rcntv/sports-talk) for more on this playoff game.

Don’t forget to bookmark and check out RCN’s broadcast schedule here on the website and check back throughout our local team’s playoff run for more details on our featured games.