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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EPC Softball 2017 1st Team All

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

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

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

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: Four Teams to Watch: Colonial League

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for the fourth team to watch…?

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District XI Football Recaps

 

District XI Football Recaps

It was our pleasure to cover the District XI football playoffs once again this fall on RCN-TV. While some games were one-sided, there were some great contests with many outstanding individual and team triumphs en route to this year’s championships.

CLASS 2A PLAYOFFS
Catasauqua accomplished what it couldn’t do a year ago–when Pen Argyl defeated the Rough Riders in the District title game.

Like many of the great head coaches in our viewing area, Tom Falzone used this experience as a life-lesson. In speaking with his players before the game, he talked about not always having a second chance in life, being appreciative when you do, and making sure you focus on your priorities when given opportunities. Several of the Catty coaches and administrators have talked about what a special, respectful and fun group of players they have had for the last two years, and it was great for their program to finally have the gold metal placed around their necks.

Palisades, Catty’s opponent in the championship, also had a great year…exceeding everyone’s expectations but their own. Head Coach Kevin Ronalds got an extra special gift this fall, as his son, serving oversees in the military, came home to see his family and got to spend a few weeks in the Lehigh Valley before returning to an “undisclosed location.” Ronalds is one of a handful of coaches in the area who have successfully rebuilt their football programs this fall. In my long-range crystal ball, I see an even more competitive 2014 season in the Colonial League. The Pirates, Southern Lehigh, Saucon Valley, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Pen Argyl, Northern Lehigh and perhaps one other team all have legitimate chances to fight for the league crown.

CLASS 3A PLAYOFFS
In the District XI semifinals, Southern Lehigh dominated in its win over Pottsville with a very balanced attack. While Bethlehem Catholic also won by a significant margin, I was impressed by Lehighton and how they battled the Golden Hawks, especially after sustaining an injury to one of their key players.

The championship was one of the most competitive games all season. Perhaps most impressive to me was the Southern Lehigh secondary. Despite giving up between 5 to 9-inches in height to a quicker group of wide receivers, the Spartans held Becahi to 7 passes for 24 yards–one of their lowest outputs of the season. Likewise, Collin Kendricks and company contain the Hawks’ ground game, but Becahi’s defense was also up to the challenge. Guys like Will Ward, Antwon Keenan, Dante Lonardo, Josh Heron, Searn Moroney, Mike McDanniel and others stepped up in key moments, enabling the Hawks to win the title in overtime:

CLASS 4A PLAYOFFS
In the first round, both Parkland and Whitehall looked solid, although Stroudsburg and Pleasant Valley both played valiantly and did not disappear after the Trojans and Zephrys took early leads. The big story for me was the development of Parkland’s DeVante Cross as a passer in this game:

For Whitehall versus Pleasant Valley—two teams that love to run a hurry-up, fast-tempo offense—it was an entertaining game, with lots of highlights on both sides of the football:

In the district semifinal, Parkland’s defense stepped up big time as I thought they would (see my blog entry from the second week of September) and held the vaunted Whitehall offense in check until the Trojans had built a solid cushion:

Easton, playing without some key players, defeated Wyoming Valley West by one point in their first round playoff game. A week later they dominated its matchup against undefeated East Stroudsburg South, setting up the championship faceoff with Parkland.

For the second straight year, it was Parkland avenging a regular season loss to Easton in the championship. Another irony, the District XI season ended almost identical to the way it began–with the Trojans dominating a team on both sides of the ball. The win over the Rovers was vastly more impressive than their week-one blowout over a rebuilding Del Val team. Easton had looked as the most well-rounded team of all the schools I visited during August double-sessions. Parkland’s offense and defense have been improving all season and was just too strong last Friday as the Trojans made the title game win look easy.

Which team do you feel had the most impressive run during the district playoffs? Which highlights do you think were the best? Send us an email with your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us for our next live show on December 5th at 6pm. Among out topics on that program, we’ll be updating the PIAA playoff pictures and also talking Eagles and NFL news with beat writers Nick Fierro and Al Thompson.

Check back to our blog soon as we’ll be looking for your help in nominating the top teams, athletes, games and more for our sports “year-in-review” program.

The SportsTalk Shop: Anti-Poll Halftime Standings

 

“Anti-Poll Halftime Standings”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: High School Football “Anti-Poll” #2

 

High School Football “Anti-Poll” #2

Before we take a look at the smaller schools in our RCN viewing area, I wanted to congratulate a few of the bigger schools, in particular Emmaus, Dieruff and Bethlehem Catholic, for their efforts this past weekend. After my pre-season prediction that the Hornets would make the district playoffs, they needed a win over a very tough Central Catholic team on Saturday to get their first win and keep their post-season hopes alive. If they can build on the confidence they earned on their last minute drive and victory over the Vikings, I think they have a legitimate shot at being 2-2 and getting back into the playoff chase.

I’ve remarked for years how mentally tough those Dieruff Huskies are — continuing to battle despite losing talented players to follow other opportunities. Their hard work paid off Saturday with their first victory over a team (other than rival Allen) since 2008.

Although Becahi lost on Saturday night against Easton, I am truly impressed by Head Coach Joe Henrich and his troops for a close loss to Easton — a team I believe is the most talented squad in District XI right now. With a 2-1 start and a realistic chance to beat a few more teams in the coming weeks, look for the Golden Hawks to make a run at districts. This would be a tremendous accomplishment to a team many people thought might only get a win or two this season. It’s also a testament to Henrich and his belief in his program.

Now for the AA and A “Anti-Poll”  for teams in the RCN viewing area:

CATASAUQUA – I don’t know if there’s a team that will be able to slow down this group of Rough Riders until the state playoffs get underway. Any team that wants to win a PIAA title most probably will have to face powerhouse Imhotep. Catty really has too many outstanding players — pretty much everywhere — to start naming them in a single blog post. The opposing coaches I’ve spoken with so far this year say you pretty much have to play a perfect game while hoping that Catty has an off-night just to have a chance at staying with them. Yet even when Catty makes a mistake, they have so much speed that they can usually make up for momentary errors and prevent other teams from big plays. For more on this year’s Catasauqua football team, we’ll have Athletic Director Tom Moll on RCN Sports Talk  this Thursday at 6 PM.

NOTE: Moll will be among the athletic directors, league and district officials that will be on this week’s show. If you have a question or issue about high school sports, this Thursday is the time to tune in and gets your questions answered.

SOUTHERN LEHIGH – I know the Spartans are a 3-A school, but I didn’t get to mention them in last week’s Anti-Poll as I concentrated mostly on the LVC. In RCN SportsTalk’s High School Football Premiere show which aired September 5, I said that I thought Southern Lehigh has a legitimate shot at winning a title this year. The fact that they lost to Catty in Week Two makes it much more difficult to go after the league title. However, Central Catholic is not a shoe-in to make districts this season. If Becahi doesn’t qualify (they still have Parkland, Whitehall, Liberty, Nazareth among the teams yet to play), I think the Spartans enter the AAA postseason as the favorite among the Lehigh Valley squads, although Saucon Valley could have something to say about that.

PEN ARGYL – I would not be surprised if the Green Knights make the playoffs as the #2 team among the Lehigh Valley AA teams. Players like Ryan Lobb, Nick Oyer, Michael DePaolo and Brady Mutton are smart, talented kids who can adapt to coaches’ adjustments with the best of them. Not many coaching staffs in the Colonial League have put together better schemes than the Pen Argyl coaches over the last few years. It may not happen when they play Catty during the regular season, but I would expect a fierce battle once again if Roughies and Knights face each other in the playoffs this November.

NOTRE DAME – Notre Dame is one of several “feel-good” stories in the Colonial League this year, along with fellow 2-1 teams PALISADES, SAUCON VALLEY (a 3A team this fall), PALMERTON and NORTHWESTERN. The Crusaders have a brand new attitude amongst its players – which is sometimes the most important aspect of turning a program around. Head Coach Chuck Mueller has his kids playing inspired football. They’re coming off a tough loss to Pen Argyl, but I think they can certainly make a run at a post-season berth, which would be a major step forward for this team. The booster club has offered me the red carpet treatment if I stop by their practice (although I’m not really a red carpet-type of guy). I’m hoping my schedule allows for an opportunity very soon to talk Notre Dame football. It should make for a very interesting next few weeks with many of these one-loss teams yet to play each other.

PIUS – The Royals lost a one-touchdown game to a tough Steel-High team last weekend. Pius has a solid line anchored by senior Kyle Kokawski, and most of last year’s team is back. But the Royals might have another challenge on their hands as they face Dieruff, who has to feel good following their first win of the season. It’ll be a big lift for whichever team wins that matchup on Friday night.

We’ll check back with our local high school football teams in a few weeks for our mid-regular season “Anti-Poll”. Which teams would you like me to discuss for our next poll? As always, we welcome your comments on the above teams. Feel free to email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us LIVE, Thursdays at 6 PM on RCN TV as we talk high school football this fall.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Local Baseball Championships

While most of the RCN crew was broadcasting the LVC Baseball Championships, “SportsTalk” cameraman Mike Kingsley and I had the privilege of reporting on the Colonial League Championship in Limeport. It was a special night for a few reasons.

First … what a tremendous turnout! I decided to drive my personal car to the event and allowed Mike to have our “press spot”, not realizing that I would end up parking about a quarter-mile away due to the tremendous turnout and a completely overloaded parking area. Needless to say, it was a beautiful night and I NEEDED some exercise, so everything worked out fine. Too often, baseball (and other spring sports) are hurt by having to play games in the afternoon when parents/family members/friends, etc. are working and can’t see their kids in action. With this event, the under-the-lights atmosphere of the historic/unique Limeport Stadium (complete with cows in the right field “bullpen”) was heightened by the jammed-packed stands. It was great representation for the Colonial League to have so many people in attendance.

Second … thanks to the fans who came up to me and had so many nice things to say about the spring sports season, the kids, the teams, the great ball games and the numerous complements our “SportsTalk” team members received for our coverage of local teams and players. There are so many wonderful people in this area. It’s always good to talk about the positives in the community when dealing with high school athletics.

Third … Congratulations to the championship-winning Falcons, who are getting used to quality performances in big game situations. The Salisbury baseball team won their second consecutive league title, and fourth championship in the last five years (3-leagues & one district title). The “kids” were great to speak with and truly handled themselves with class and respect for the runner-ups, a very good Southern Lehigh team. The Falcons know how to play the game and appreciate their accomplishments, without letting it inflate egos or affect their focus.

Salisbury Baseball

You can view the segment at http://youtu.be/Wt3wS3W8isI

Justin Aungst had a particularly spectacular night; keeping hitters off-balance all evening on the mound, while providing the only offense the team would need–a first-inning, two-run home run over the left field fence. The team made some great plays behind him and they didn’t hurt themselves with mental errors (this team rarely does under Manager Mike Pochron). Their “celebrity” status (see the number of Youtube hits for their basketball game’s last second playoff win over highly-touted Wilson) hasn’t affected the players during their near-perfect baseball season to date (ironically, their only loss thus far was to Wilson). This group of underclassmen, most of whom have played together since third-grade, look for even higher goals the rest of this season.

Likewise, we had produced a feature on the Whitehall baseball team a few weeks ago on our “RCN SportsTalk” show (available on video-on-demand), and they, too, have envisioned some lofty goals thanks to their very workmanlike approach and success. Here are some of the highlights from the Zephyrs’ LVC championship win.

Lehigh Valley Conference HS Baseball Championship 2013 Highlights

You can view the segment at http://youtu.be/WwU7R1cQ1RE

Post below who you would like to win the District XI baseball playoffs. Can any teams from the RCN viewing area make a run in the state playoffs? Selfishly, I hope so. Gary Laubach, Scott Barr and I will once again be working with the RCN crew to broadcast the PIAA state finals at State College again this year. While I find it interesting to meet and interview new people every year at this event, it’s also nice to see some familiar faces in the title games.

Reflections on the 2012-13 Basketball Season – The SportsTalk Shop

High School Basketball Thoughts: Reflections on the 2012/2013 Season

First of all, this is for amusement purposes only.  It is simply based on my memory of the games that I saw in person this year, and not a collective decision of all games in our coverage area this season. There were some tremendous accomplishments by young people in the Lehigh & Delaware Valley areas, and some moments that will stick with me for quite a while.  I’m glad to have the opportunity to share some of these experiences with you—and you’re more than welcome to add your own on our “comments” section to highlight the young men and women’s outstanding achievements this winter!

In no particular order, some of my “honors” for this year’s HS boys and girls basketball seasons include:

BEST GROUP OF SOPHOMORES –Constitution High School. These guys practiced against the State Single-A champs as freshmen a year ago, and looked impressive enough to defend their titles when I saw them play.  They can not only play up-tempo basketball with the best of them, but they seem like a very smart group and have a really quality head coach in Rob Moore. Don’t be surprised if they make a regular appearance in PIAA championship games for the next several years.

BEST DYNAMIC DUO — CCHS’s Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman & Jean Lee Baez. They were not only two of the most talented players in the Eastern PA region coming into this season, but they actually got BETTER as the year went along.  MAAR started the season as the single-biggest scoring threat in the Lehigh Valley Conference, and as the year unfolded, developed the challenging skill of making his teammates better, while still being one of the most dynamic scoring machines in the region. Baez also improved in all facets of his game (which includes adding 30-percentage points to his free throw average) and should become the most dominate post player in the area for next year. They have solid role players around them — all of whom will get better with a year of experience with their new system and by having these two players on their team. As of this writing, Central’s final chapter hasn’t been completed yet for this season, but I have no doubt that they will win titles again in 2014 and go deep into the state playoffs in the senior seasons for both Abdur-Rahkman and Baez.

BEST BASKETBALL IQ – Nazareth Girls team. They showed on RCN SportsTalk that they can have some fun (although I couldn’t get them to sing like the boys team did a few years ago), but when the whistle blows, they are a no-nonsense team that is very focused and always seems to make the smart play, on offense or on defense. On highlights after making a basket, when our cameras get a “reaction shot,” they’re always looking at the opponent’s defense, pointing out opponents making adjustments or cuts down-court, or sniffing out an outlet pass to make a play on it.  They can play “junk” defenses with the best of them, and had a perfect balance of talent (one of the most prolific 3-point shooting teams of all time) and smarts (knowing WHEN to shoot the 3) to become the first-ever Nazareth team to win two major titles in one school year.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT – Freedom’s loss in the state playoffs.  If I heard it once, I heard it a hundred times this year,  “Joe Stellato is such a nice guy.”  And he absolutely is. But I also don’t know of another coach who works harder or is better prepared or has a better understanding of his team.  I thought (and many people were rooting for) his team to earn some semblance of a post-season honor this year; either a title or a state playoff win. They lost to two quality teams in the league & district playoffs.  I don’t want to take anything away from Upper Darby, but the Patriots had the lead several times in their opening round state playoff game and just took some mind-numbing bad shots when they didn’t have to.  I know that loss will stick with me until next season … and I can’t imagine how tough it’ll be for Coach Joe and the absolutely fabulous “Riot Squad” fan base to bounce back from (hey guys, don’t forget to put my face on a poster for next year—if you can find enough trees for all the paper you’ll need).

NICEST “EVENT” – Bangor Boys basketball team. I’m identifying them for a few reasons. One, their ‘almost win’ over a streaking Wilson team up at the Pensyl Gym in mid-January. They were without four regulars for the game and had the potential to be blown-out in one of the biggest regular season matchups of the year (I had thought so anyway). But Bron Holland’s team battled and was down by two possessions late in the game (they did get a bad break late as well) before Wilson won the game and continued their tremendous regular season run. The team also got a chance to witness a major Top 25 NCAA upset in person at Gola Arena. Then, of course, they battled back to win a thrilling Colonial League Championship (their first in 25 years) in OT and avenge the Wilson loss.

MOST OVERACHIEVING TEAM (although they shouldn’t have been) – Parkland Boys basketball. I’m giving them the nod for this because I was shocked at how many pre-season prognosticators didn’t expect this team to do as well as they did. Sure, they were picked to win the North Division in the LVC this year, but I was amazed by some of my announcing colleagues who labeled some of the Trojans’ early season wins as “upsets.”  Even late in the year, a number of our local experts thought the way they matched up against Freedom would be too much for the Trojans to overcome—and those predictions ended up looking disastrous, with Parkland making the district championship victory look seemingly easy. They had a solid all-around player in Austin Beidleman (and I do have to give credit as always to Mr. Keith Groller who continued to have a solid “Stone-Cold Lock” by making Austin THE player to watch this year on our “SportsTalk” HS Basketball Preview show in December), a very heady point guard in Jimmy Hahn, a inside and outside threat in Justin Zajko, a player I had touted last year in Nick Rindock (insert my “see-I-told-you-so” line here), and some nice “role” performances by the likes of Austin Jones, Nick Selvaggi (boy did he come up looking solid in the playoffs) and others. Most of these players are back next year, so be on alert and don’t try to underestimate this team again in 2014.

BIGGEST INDIVIDUAL MATCH-UP FOR NEXT YEAR – Vincent Eze vs. Phil Pierfy.  Both of these underclassmen have made great strides over the last two years. Both have the potential to be major players at the college level—although each one has their own, very different style. The Notre Dame/Wilson match-up is always a fierce rivalry and is competitive at least twice a year regardless of the team’s records and standings position, but I’m hoping I can see these two players do battle at least once next year.  I’d hate to be one of the people that might have to choose between one or the other for the best center in the Colonial League next year.

PLAYER MOST SORRY TO SEE LEAVE –Liberty’s Greg Noack. No player came over to the announcers’ table more often in 2013 and say “hey how you doing,” or “thanks for doing our game” than Mr. Noack this year and no one had more pressure put on him to do well this season. The Canes season ended a bit earlier than I had thought this year (they got a TOUGH matchup with Williamsport in the “Chester” bracket), but through all the ups-and-downs, this year, Greg helped his team earn an LVC title this year and made for some great memories for the loyal-Liberty fan base.

PLAYER(S) MOST GLAD TO SEE RETURNING –Liberty’s DeShawn Oyeniyi & K J Williams. No player made more of a difference for his team nor improved from last year more than the guy whose last name no one can correctly pronounce (except of course for the RCN announcers). Oyeniyi proved to be a solid double-double threat on nearly every night, and should become one of the premiere LVC players next year—ifLiberty can find another player to take some of the post-presence heat off of him (this will not be an easy task).

Also, Tom Stoudt called K J Williams the most athletic player in the league this year, and I cannot disagree with him. He’s one of the premiere players to watch in both football and basketball (seriously, think about how many players we’ve seen as good as Williams in two different sports the last few years!), and I’m looking forward to seeing him racing down the sidelines & making unbelievable catches in the fall.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A FRESHMAN — Allen’s Zay Jennings. No team went through more ups-and-downs this year than the William Allen Boys Basketball team. Through it all (and one of the ‘benefits’ of the off-the-court issues), there were several outstanding contributions by the Canaries underclassmen, who made the most of the earlier-than-expected increase in playing time.Jennings quickly established himself as a premiere perimeter jump shooter and a very heady player—his ninth grade status notwithstanding. Expect Allen to made a bigger splash in the post-season in 2014 and don’t be surprised to see Zay’s name on an All-LVC team or two in the future.

“STONE-COLD LOCK” FOR BASKETBALL IN 2014 –Southern Lehigh’s Girls team will be in the Colonial League Championship. A very smart, versatile and athletic team, with many returning parts from this year’s league title squad will definitely be playing for a chance to defend its title — again. They play a very tough schedule and gave the District Champion Golden Hawks all they could handle in the district championship game, and I have no doubt we will see them again doing great things in the post-season next year.

TEAM THAT COULD SURPRISE YOU IN 2014 — Emmaus Boys team.  They gave us some great moments in 2013 and they are absolutely LOADED with talent in the underclass levels.  The JV team looked impressive the two times I saw them this year against opponents with traditionally strong programs.  I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Hornets advancing further in the playoffs a year from now.

OK, who did I miss? And what teams and players stick out in YOUR mind as the high school basketball season winds down? Post a comment here and email me at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com. We’ll be wrapping up the winter sports season on our next show, Thursday at 6pm on RCN-TV.

One other note:  in response to a blog follower’s comments in a previous post regarding the Phillies broadcasts and our channel lineup, I wanted to thank you for your opinions and I can assure you that I passed your comments along to my supervisor and alerted the appropriate persons of your views.  Please feel free to email me your concerns and questions and I’ll do my best to give you the best response I can.

 

The SportsTalk Shop – February 19th

BOYS & GIRLS DISTRICT PREVIEWS

Last week we talked about the teams that made or just missed qualifying for the LVC and Colonial League HS Boys’ Basketball Playoffs (see our February 11th entry). Today we look at some of the Boys’ and Girls’ District XI pairing match-ups, and also “update” some of the team’s information based on last week’s events.

Class 4-A Boys

Whitehall is riding a momentum upswing after a last-second come-from-behind win over Allen and has really come together as a team at the perfect time.  I had talked earlier about how the Zephyrs had some very good individual athletes on the team, headlined by Tony Belluccci, but the team has strung together some impressive wins.  Stroudsburg is a challenging opponent and I expect this to be one of the best opening round games of the tournament.  Both of these teams are capable of beating their next round opponent Pocono Mountain West, who has experienced some tough losses to Lehigh Valley teams in the second half of the year, but still is the top ranked 4A team in the district.

The Easton/Allen matchup is the game RCN has selected to broadcast Wednesday, and is also an intriguing match-up.  Allen has the height advantage inside and every time you count them out, they’ve surprised us this year (including winning 4 of its last 6 in beating some of the top teams in the area to make the play-offs).  Easton has excellent guards in DeVante Queen, Xavier Jenkins & Company.  The Allen guards will have their work cut out for them trying to slow them down, but if they can control the tempo and deny the Canaries’ ‘bigs,’ they look to have the advantage.

Parkland looks to bounce back from their LVC Championship loss and would love to cruise past East Stroudsburg-South and Bangor to get some revenge against league champion Liberty.   The Hurricanes looked like the dominant team we were expecting during the league play-offs, with 6 or 7 of their players capable of starting on most other team’s squads.  DeShawn Oyeniyi might have the dubious distinction of being the most pivotal player in the success of any state-bound team, yet not be a member of his all-league team (and there were justified mitigating circumstances).  Freedom was one of our panelist’s “dark horse” teams to watch on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, and will play the winner of the Rovers/Canaries in the second round.  Congratulations again to the Slaters for their first league title in 25 years.  However, it’s going to be hard again for them to win a district play-off game as they will most probably open against the Trojans.

Class 3-A Boys

Gary Laubach made my day by reminding me that there will be three 3-A teams that qualify for the state playoffs this year.  This is great news for Wilson fans, who lost a tough game to Bangor in the Colonial League championship and may have a tough time beating Central Catholic in the semifinal round, as the Vikings looked to re-bound from their league semi-final loss to Liberty.  The Warriors, who have lost just two games this year, had opportunities late against the Slaters, but Jeremy Ringland hit a dramatic shot at the end of regulation to send the game to overtime for Bangor to win.  Salisbury, I think, has a very tough match-up in facing Wilson, who has beaten the Falcons three times in a row.  Matchup-wise, Salisbury needs to run to have success and would have an easier time being bracketed with a team like Tamaqua, Northern Lehigh or Lehighton.
The team to watch could be Bethlehem Catholic, who’s making its first appearance in districts in some time, after having to defeat Easton to qualify.  Matt Husek is a hidden talent and I think they are fully capable of winning their opening round contest versus Blue Mountain.  Plus, the Hawks have an interesting bracket path could lead to state qualification or even the championship game—a HUGE accomplishment for a nice guy in Mike Frew, who took over the program this year.

I haven’t seen Southern Lehigh this year, expect for watching their league-opening win over Wilson on RCN’s video-on-demand, but it’s Bob Shaffer and Kurt Zellner’s last run together.  Knowing those Spartans’ basketball players of the past, I wouldn’t be surprised and hope that they can put a run together for their coaches so we can see Bob & Kurt coach another game on RCN-TV.

Class 2-A & A Boys

I “think” things have worked out well for both Catty & Notre Dame so that they should make it to the championship game and subsequently earn a trip to States.  I have no idea about Williams Valley and North Schuylkill (no yet, anyway), but I talked in an earlier blog about the positives of both the Rough Riders and the Crusaders.  I’d love to see them advance and try to win a PIAA game.  We also talked quite a bit about Pius on the Feb. 14th edition of “SportsTalk” (check it out on VOD) and about their strengths and chances to advance in the postseason.
Class 4-A Girls

Nazareth looked impressive in defeating Parkland for a second time in three tries (they came within a point of sending the game they lost into overtime).  However, they have to get past a gritty Liberty, who is very well-coached.  Speaking of, how about the job Jeff Jacksits is doing once again at Northampton, who started the year off dreadfully, only to come back and make districts?  Don’t know how they’ll fare against Stroudsburg or Pocono Mountain West, but what a huge accomplishment it would be for the K-Kids to get to a semifinal game against defending district champ Bangor, one of a quartet of impressive Colonial League teams again this year.

Class 3-A
I was very impressed with Southern Lehigh again this year!  Madelene McDonald, Mady Campbell and their whole team are fundamentally sound, and I was awed by their basketball smarts and ability to drive and score/draw fouls … and then convert at the line.  Melann Amory is a very underrated player and Brianna Prince has very quick hands and is an excellent “undersized” post presence.
The Spartans will probably have to battle Northwestern for a third time in the 2nd round. The cliché mentions how tough it is to be a quality team three times, and the third battle will be an all-out war.  League MVP Sara Jones and her back court mates were not-too-happy about watching the final minutes of the championship from the sidelines, and they will be looking for revenge big-time.
On the other side of the bracket, you will see (once Bethlehem Catholic trumps Palmerton) another rematch between the Hawks and Central Catholic.  Both were upset in the league semi-finals and there’s still no indication that Janelle Robinson can make a remarkable recovery; however, Bethlehem Catholic still has LVC League MVP Kalista Walters and a very talented group of players that were the top girls team in the Valley during the regular season.  I keep hearing people saying Central is “down” this year (how good is their program in which 4 losses is considered “down” by some), but I think the inevitable meeting between these two teams in districts could be another barn-burner.

Class 2-A

One of my favorite teams from outside the area to cover is Pine Grove — not only do they always have an outstanding team (either the boys or the girls seemed to win a title every year), but they send me NCAA Division One-like information about their program.   Notre Dame Head Coach Josh Kopp is also one of the most prepared coaches in the Valley and his team that just fell sort of a Colonial League championship appearance this year.  This should make for an interesting District XI title game with Pine Grove.

Well … that’s my take on the District XI play-off picture.  Tell me where I made mistakes and where I’m completely off-base via email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com as we’ll be talking about the district basketball play-offs for the next couple weeks (the show airs live on Thursdays at 6pm on RCN-TV).  You can also post your comments here on our blog!  Best of luck to all the teams!