The SportsTalk Shop: 4A Playoff Primer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However…

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

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

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

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

The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview 2014

The Pennsylvania state basketball playoffs will be commencing this weekend. It’s an exciting time of year—no more safety nets, as it’s a single-elimination tournament and the most talented players in the state might have their season, if not their scholastic careers, come to an end on a given night. We’re going to be broadcasting a number of exciting PIAA playoff games over the next few weeks and it’s going to be fun seeing the top players and teams across the state on RCN-TV.

We’re coming off of a thrilling District XI playoffs season in our RCN viewing area. In preparation for the state games, here are notes and video highlights of some of the teams we’ve had the pleasure of seeing over the last few weeks in postseason action.

PARKLAND (girls and boys teams)
Both teams are playing their best brand of basketball of the season as they head into the PIAAs. The boys team is incredibly deep and have been getting solid performances from all their starters, but what makes them even more dangerous are the players coming off the bench contributing without missing a beat. They pretty much dismantled all their opponents in the district playoffs and made this year’s district championship look easy.

Parkland has momentum and really has not shown any glaring weaknesses, save a slow first-half stretch to Stroudsburg in the semifinal game (the Mountaineers also got a gritty performance from Jacob Battle in the consolation game, which hopefully will propel them to a few wins in states).

The Parkland girls team also has a multitude of talent among both their starters and role players. Olivia Brown led her team in the girls district championship with a great all-around game and a clutch basket down the stretch run.

Erin Bross, Erica Bross, Aubrey Beidelman, Sarash Stagaard and Kristen McCarty are all solid ball handlers who can shoot, and the Trojans have a strong inside presence anchored by Brynne Brouse, Nadine Ewald and Brooke Robertson. They have a very formidable opponent in Central Bucks East, a team known this year for a stifling defense (allowing just 33 ppg) and an offense led by a double-double threat, Courtney Webster.

CENTRAL CATHOLIC (boys and girls)
The Vikettes battled state championship contender Bethlehem Catholic, but lost for a third time to the Hawks in the District XI Final. However, I was very impressed by the efforts of Olivia Roseman, Ashley Bross, Alyssa Mack and Emma Redding in their last two meetings with the Hawks, and they all made big plays again keeping the district title game close. They draw a tough opening round opponent in Abington Heights, a squad RCN SportsTalk guest Dave Troxell labeled a tremendous team on last week’s show. However, they have played—and defeated—a number of teams still alive in the state playoffs. They have solid balance and show great ball handling ability, and I see no reason why they can’t advance at least a couple rounds in states.

The boys team continues to dominate. Everyone knew they were going to be a great team this year, but to have the focus, night-in and night-out and be as solid a team throughout an entire season (they still haven’t lost a game all year) is truly a remarkable accomplishment. In addition to being outstanding athletes, the tandem of Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Jean Lee Baez has guided a steady ship with no noticeable blemishes, on or off the court, this season. We debated on SportsTalk last month (the show is available on RCN On-Demand) about their state title chances, and I’ll stick with my prediction that, at worst, they reach the state quarterfinals.

EMMAUS (Boys)
I finally got a chance to see Emmaus in person last week, and I was tremendously impressed with their win over Liberty. I knew Nate Feirertag was a great all-around player who plays with as much heart as anyone in our coverage area. Fellow senior forward Joe Nicolini stepped up big time with 19 points (17 in the 2nd half) for the Hornets to advance to the district championship.

This team has lots of talent on the way up and should be vying for state playoff spots for the next several seasons. I know Emmaus fans were disappointed by their loss to Parkland in the district final, and face a tough matchup in District I power Abington, a team loaded with size, speed and several players looking to play at the quality college programs. But Emmaus has bounced back from a tough loss on more than one occasion this year and I would expect a hard fought game this weekend.

NORTHAMPTON (Girls)
The K-Kids shook off a tough loss to Parkland in the semifinals to beat a quality Pleasant Valley team and earn a state playoff bid.

Leandra Sterner is quietly having one of the top all-around performances of the entire high school sports year. Coming off an historic performance on the soccer field this fall, she currently leads the team in points per game, assists and steals. Ali Reppert has a smooth-looking jump shot and Aja Blount might become the best center in the area in the very near future. I think they have a favorable matchup facing Wallenpaupack this weekend and see no reason why the Kids can’t advance into the next round.

NOTRE DAME (Boys)
If you like “shoot-out” games, you would have loved the performances of Tannor Reed, Vicent Eze and the Notre Dame boys team in their District XI 2A Boys Championship.

I think the Crusaders will be the first to admit that their defense needs to play better to defeat Delaware Valley Charter this weekend, but their game might be the most entertaining of all the contests on RCN Saturday night. The Crusaders play extremely well as a team, have a balanced attack and come in with plenty of momentum (they’ve won 13 consecutive games). Tuning in just to see Reed shoot should be worth your time and Eze has improved all facets of his game (he’s averaging 14 points, 17 rebounds and 5 blocks per game), including his ability to score when given the ball outside the paint.

BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC (Girls)
The reigning LVC and District XI 3A Champs will be our guests on RCN SportsTalk this Thursday (live at 6pm), so you can tune in for in-depth conversations with their coaches and players. We’ll also showcase some of their awesome highlights so far this season, and get their expectations on the state playoffs. You can also email us comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read and respond to your opinions live on the air!

Be sure to check back for more highlights and notes on the teams playing in this year’s state playoffs. Also, feel free to email us or post your feelings about the schools competing for titles this winter.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Basketball Playoff Thoughts

 

The District XI boys basketball playoffs are heading up…and RCN-TV will have you covered!

This week, we’ll have a full breakdown of all this weekend’s boys and girls high school championship games on our live “RCN SportsTalk” this Thursday at 6pm. Local coaches will be on our show dissecting all the playoff games and giving their insights, keys to victory and strategies for all of the big matchups this weekend. We’ll also have several title games broadcast Friday and Saturday on RCN (keep checking our website for our broadcast schedule).

In the meantime, here are several thoughts and video highlights of some of the teams in our coverage area still alive in the playoffs!

PARKLAND
With the return of Nick Rindock, the Parkland basketball team looks like it is playing its best basketball of the year at just the right time. It has an outstanding point guard in Jimmy Hahn, an exciting freshman who does a ton of things well in Sam Iorio, and looked solid defensively in its last two games (which included a tight ball game with undefeated Central Catholic).

The Trojans are playing like the best team in this classification right now, and, should it continue, could play several rounds into the state tournament.

EMMAUS
The Hornets got a scare Saturday as they had to fight off a scrappy Bangor ball club. However, this year’s group of players has had success at all younger levels and is ready for prime time. They have a ton of talent who have had big games throughout this season, including David Kachelries, Joe Nicolini, Nate Feiertag and Joe Polczynski. I think they might have been looking past the Slaters a bit, but that won’t happen this week and I expect Emmaus to give Liberty a solid game this Wednesday (LIVE on RCN-4 this Wednesday at 6pm).

LIBERTY
Both RCN Basketball analyst Tom Stoudt and I said back on “SportsTalk” in January that if Liberty got into the playoffs, they could be the most dangerous 4A team. Even with some roster subtractions, it looks like our prediction is coming true. They manhandled Whitehall in the first round and upset the number-one seed Pocono Mountain West. They have four players, DeShawn Oyeniyi, Ludwin Gonzalez, Jaevan Dobbins and Trenton Coleman-Bishop, all playing at a high level right now. With the exception of the third quarter versus the Zephyrs, everyone has been playing solid defense. I don’t know how he does it every year, but Head Coach Chad Landis always has his team playing well at just the right time and probably deserves to be the LVC Coach-of-the-Year for what he’s done this season. Even if Liberty loses Wednesday, they could still reach the state playoffs with a win in the consolation round on Saturday, which would be a major accomplishment given all this team has been through this winter.

STROUDSBURG
It’s becoming a tradition for the Mountaineers to play in the final rounds of the district playoffs, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Stroudsburg during the regular season once they merge with the LVC for the next school year. Shawn Thornton is one of the top coaches in the district, and the team has tons of talent once again this season, led by three players (Danny Cuevas, Edwin Lopez, Jacob Battle) all averaging in double figures. They have a tough matchup in Parkland this Wednesday, but if they can pound the ball inside and open up their great perimeter shooters, we should be in for a great contest (LIVE on RCN-4 this Wednesday at 7:30 pm).

CENTRAL CATHOLIC & BETHLEHEM CATHOLIC
We’ve talked quite a bit about both of these teams in an earlier blog post as well as on “SportsTalk” and neither team has done anything recently to derail their outstanding seasons. While the first meeting between these two 3A powers went decisively to the Vikings (highlights below), I would not be surprised if the Hawks challenge them a bit more here in round two (LIVE on RCN-4 this Tuesday at 7:30 pm). Remember, three teams can reach the PIAA playoffs in this classification, so the loser of the semifinal game will still have a chance to play on.

NOTRE DAME
No boys’ basketball team in the Lehigh Valley, with the exception of Central Catholic, comes into the postseason with more consecutive wins. I was promoting Tannor Reed for a Colonial League MVP award when we did their game against Salisbury in January, and he has truly carried this team through their ups-and-downs this year. With the 6’8” Vincent Eze back and doing so many things well at both ends of the floor, this team looks nearly unbeatable against most teams in Eastern Pennsylvania. They also have the momentum following their thrilling buzzer-beating win in the Colonial League championship.

CATASAUQUA
Despite the loss to the Crusaders, Catty has a lot to be proud of with reasons for optimism. They did not play well in the first half of their league championship game, yet went down to the wire and did not let a very talented Notre Dame team run away with the game. The Rough Riders are used to having players battling through tough injuries and this week will not be an exception. However, Catty has already defeated other, larger playoff-bound teams in Bangor (a 4A team) and Salisbury (3A) and could make for another thrilling title game if they dispatch North Schuylkill in the semifinals.

Which teams do you think will win championships this weekend? Which players will step up big and help their squads to victory? Email your opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read your thoughts live on this Thursday’s show at 6pm.

 

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!