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The SportsTalk Shop: HS Basketball Mid-Season Report

January 19, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

As we reach the midpoint in the Lehigh Valley high school winter sports season, it continues to be an interesting season for local boys basketball.  While we have had quite a few close ball games, with a handful going into overtime, a look at the different league standings shows there are a few teams doing very well, and even more teams a couple steps behind–finding themselves battling each other for the remaining playoff berths.

The biggest “non-surprise” is the Parkland boys basketball team, as they continue to dominate everyone they’ve faced in the area.  Even against an Easton team that was coming off a big win, the Trojans eventually wore them down and won the game easily.

DeVante Cross is a player who we talked quite a bit about during the football season, but I have really been impressed by what he has done so far on the hardwood.  The Trojans have more than enough firepower to go around, but I think Cross’s improved play has made for an even more well-rounded ball club that will look to go deep into the PIAA playoffs.

While Parkland has been the area’s best team and has already clinched both an EPC and District XI 4A playoff spot, the Rovers are a team that has been playing well of late.  Easton currently finds themselves a couple games below .500 and are making a push for a post-season spot, following a big win recently over Freedom HS.

Three other teams that I have seen playing well and figure to be in the running for both league and district playoff action include Whitehall, Emmaus and Allen.  The Zephyrs have been playing extremely well after a slow start and have won seven of their last nine games.  While they haven’t been posting explosive offensive numbers, it has been their defense—in particular, the match-up zone defense—that has been very impressive.  Whitehall  held a Liberty team—a squad I feel is as athletic as any in the area—to under 50 points last week.  The Zephyrs did the same to an Emmaus team that has been playing some of the toughest teams from both Pennsylvania and New York in its non-conference schedule.

Speaking of Emmaus, there aren’t many teams that can boast as deep a bench as Steve Yoder’s ballclub, and they can beat you a number of ways.  They’ve had some injury issues to overcome, which, combined with their tough out-of-league schedule, has delayed their clinching of a playoff berth until this point.  But once in the playoffs, they are definitely a team that figures to win a few playoff games.

Allen is another team that has been playing extremely well overall.  It’s unfortunate that the new league schedule does  not feature the Canaries playing some of their traditional basketball rivals—at least for this season.  It is entirely possible they will get a chance to face Parkland and Central Catholic once the  post-season begins.  Allen has clinched a district playoff spot and looked impressive in its recent ball game against Bethlehem Catholic.

Perhaps the story of the EPC this year has been the play of Northampton—a team that had struggled in recent years, but has looked phenomenal in nearly every game they’ve played.  They play in the same division as Parkland, Whitehall, Emmaus, Central Catholic and Nazareth and have done more than hold their own, including posting a strong win recently against Dieruff.

Northampton Head Coach Coy Stampone will be one of several local head basketball coaches who will be on our “RCN SportsTalk” show on Thursday, January 29th from 6-7 pm.  I’m looking forward to speaking with Coach Stampone and getting his thoughts on how he has turned the program around, and what his team’s expectations are for the remainder of the season.

Looking ahead to the first ever Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, the playoffs will feature eight teams vying for their post-season positions.  The eight teams will consist of the three division winners (from the “Mountain,” “Skyline” and “Steel” divisions) and five wild card spots.  Many assume that the five “Skyline” teams not named Parkland will occupy most, if not all, of those wild card spots.  Keep in mind that all those teams will play each other over the next few weeks, so if any one of those teams in the Skyline division go into a funk and lose several in a row, it would open up spots for a couple teams from the other divisions to sneak up and advance to the league playoffs.

One final EPC note about the Vikings—while they may not be the favorite this year in 3A because of the quality play so far by Pottsville, don’t count out Central Catholic from making another district playoff run.  Despite many several quality opponents in their classification, the Vikings have a lot of pride on the line and are looking to win their fifth straight 3A Title and eighth over the last ten seasons.
* * *
In the Colonial League, there are several teams that have continued to play outstanding basketball.  Salisbury has stayed right with the top teams (the others being Bangor, Saucon Valley & Southern Lehigh) and has played a strong non-league schedule once again this winter.

The wild card team—both physically and figuratively–in the Colonial League might be Wilson.  The Warriors ost to Pen Argyl, a team that lost to a struggling Northern Lehigh program and will probably not make the postseason.  They’ve also had some games in which they have struggled shooting from the floor and from the free throw line.  However, Wilson has also posted a number of huge wins,  among them an overtime victory over their rivals from Notre Dame-Green Pond and also played one of its best games of the season against Catasauqua.

Remember, the Colonial League has six berths for its playoffs this year, as opposed to just four teams advancing as in years past.  This could be huge for a team like Wilson, Palisades, Notre Dame or even Northwestern.  In previous years, it would appear to be a lock at this point that the Slaters, Falcons, Panthers and Spartans would be the only teams in the league playoffs.  But with the expansion of two more teams, it’ll make for a very entertaining race over the next few weeks to determine which other teams will qualify for the league playoffs.

Another thing to remember is that the league winners will automatically get top berths for the District XI playoffs.  So if a team that has been struggling during the first half of the year can get hot with a succession of victories over the next few weeks, they can receive a huge bump when it comes to District XI post-season seedings (see Notre Dame last winter).

Which teams have impressed you so far this season and what games have resulted in the biggest surprises?  Send us an email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us on Thursday evenings as we read and respond to your sports questions and opinions on each program.

The SportsTalk Shop: Redskins, Eagles, Nationals & Phillies Off-Season

January 12, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

It certainly has been an interesting few weeks for these four pro teams in the RCN viewing area—all for different reasons.  The Nationals are heading into, what I believe, is a very critical season for them sustaining their long-term success.  The Redskins are trying to figure out how everything went tragically wrong in 2014 and how to rebound as quickly as possible.  The Phillies are starting a rebuilding process that—if it doesn’t gain traction over the next several months—could produce massive changes to their long-time front office personnel.  And the Eagles…well, even the most seasoned beat writers are still trying to figure out just exactly what happened over the last month, and whether the off-season moves they’ve made so far will make the team dramatically better—or worse.

First, here are some thoughts on all four teams as discussed by a panel of media pundits.

Now, a little more now on the Nationals.  I, too, see 2015 as a huge year for Washington.  They clearly are the best team in the National League East and should have no trouble holding off any “surpassing expectations” type of season the Marlins or Mets might have.  Washington is very similar to what the Phillies were as they were entering their 2008 season, with their core reaching the prime of their careers—and several players about to begin their “contract year”.  In my opinion, the Nats MUST get to the World Series this season.  I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, here are three things that have to happen for the Nats to have success this year.

 1) “Go To” Players Must Step Up

It’s time for the big-money guys to do what they get paid for—win.  It’s not enough to put up big individual numbers.  It’s not enough to say the right things in the media. The “go to” guys have to take it to another level and make the players around them better.  Jayson Werth, a player who has experience doing that with the Phillies, will have to make a successful recovery from his arthroscopic shoulder surgery this week.  He won’t be ready by the start of spring training, but needs to be ready to play by mid-April.  The old adage of “you can’t win a pennant in April but you certainly can lose one” applies.  Highly touted prospect Michael Taylor will probably be patrolling Werth’s left field spot (remember, he’s switching positions with Bryce Harper this season) for a good chunk of spring training.  While I’m very high on Taylor and feel he can be an everyday Major League outfielder at some point, it’s extremely risky to rely on a minor leaguer—no matter how high their pedigree—for anything in a season as critical as this one…which brings us to topic #2…

 2)  Stay Aggressive Adding Role Players.

Signing these guys are not flashy moves.  Some of these acquisitions won’t even register on national sports news programs.  But these types of moves are what help win championships.  Sticking with our parallels to the ’08 Phillies, imagine that team without the following moves:  Pat Gillick taking a chance on Werth as a ‘complement’ to Geoff Jenkins in RF; not having J.C. Romero anchoring the 7th/8th innings; not having Matt Stairs available to pinch hit…

Injuries will occur.  Players will go into slumps.  The Nationals have already added some nice pieces over the last year (and a gritty player like Kevin Frandsen last year was a great example).  However, I’m not expecting much out of Dan Uggla, and continuing to search for diamonds-in-the-rough will be even more imperative as 2015 unfolds.  GM Mike Rizzo must continue to look for even the slightest moves that can improve his team.  The organization must continue to add depth and leave nothing to chance this season.

3) Sign Desmond NOW!

Ian Desmond is one of the best shortstops in the game.  The Nats will have many questions heading into the offseason, resigning free agents-to be that are currently on the roster, regardless of how the team does this season.  The last thing this year’s team needs is added distractions.  You clearly must bring him back for next season, and entering spring training with his future in limbo opens the door for speculation and puts doubt into the minds of other players about the future of the team.  I mentioned earlier how important it is to get off to a quality start.  You don’t want one issue snowballing into an avalanche of ambiguity.  There is no question that Desmond should be the one guy you bring back for next year, and to go into March with him NOT signing a long-term deal would be a colossal mistake.

The Phillies were able to build on what they established in 2007 to capture a World Championship.  A failure by Washington to at least get beyond the NLDS would signal a lateral progression…or worse, a regressive atmosphere around the organization.  This isn’t the type of feeling you want to have lingering as you try to re-sign as many of the current, productive Nationals players as you may need after this season.  Hard decisions will have to be made on both sides, and those decisions get tougher for all involved if there are questions about the direction of the franchise.

Philadelphia—now—is in a full-blown rebuilding process, and many more things need to be done.  It will certainly not be easy to accomplish those things (moving Ryan Howard, Jonathan Papelbon, et al).  While I actually think they have made some good moves—so far—this winter, I’ll wait to talk about them more in detail until we see more of their off-season work.  The Phillies now have the luxury of time to let their plan develop…the element of time is exactly what the Nationals could soon be running out of.

What are your thoughts on the four pro sports teams mentions?  Who makes the biggest noise this offseason and what moves do you see happening?  Email your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and keep checking back to the RCN-TV website as we’ll continue to follow these teams’ storylines and in the coming weeks will have more programs on these franchises on ‘RCN SportsTalk’ (live, Thursdays at 6pm

The SportsTalk Shop: 3 HS Hoops Notes

January 6, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

We’re about a month into this winter’s high school basketball season in the Lehigh Valley area.  As we embark on the “January” portion of the scholastic schedule, here are three observations of the new hoops season that I feel deserve some extra mention.

1.  Parkland’s extremely good, but…

I’ve been privileged to be surrounded by great minds in many different sports and try to defer to the local sports experts when formulating opinions on who the top teams are expected to be.  It’s for that reason that I rarely see a team play summer league basketball in July and can make “stone-cold” predictions about something that happens in February.  I broke my own rule this past summer when I saw the Parkland boys basketball team dominate in a variety of summer hoops tournaments, and said soon after on “SportsTalk” that I felt the Trojans were unquestionably the team to beat for league and district honors.  I felt good about my statement when I heard much smarter basketball minds proclaiming similar expectations as we got closer to the winter sports season–some even believing Parkland could go undefeated during the regular season.

This year’s Trojans’ team reminds me of the Emmaus boys team led by Aaron Grey, who would go on to play in the NBA.  They blitzed through the league playoffs and entered the District XI playoffs with a 28-0 record.  Their season came to a sudden and amazingly fast conclusion when they lost in the first round of the district playoffs.  This year’s Parkland team, albeit without the size of a Grey-type of player, might actually be deeper than that Emmaus team.  Clearly they continue to be the favorite in this area–there aren’t many Lehigh Valley teams that can play with them.  However, I do believe there are a few teams that could step up and cause Parkland trouble on a given night.

Here’s some of the highlights of several “other” top EPC teams playing during the first month of the season…

2.  A “somewhat” bizarre Colonial League start.

For what it’s worth, the current Colonial League standings are very close to my best guesses to the correct order of the standings.  But what has surprised me is some of the individual game results so far this season.  For example, I thought Bangor would be the number-one team in their division, but Bron Holland’s team has once again raised the bar again this season.  In the past, the Slaters would build a quality team for several years…peak for one or two years…then return to “rebuilding mode” for several more seasons.  But lately, Bangor seems to bounce back despite losing talent to graduation and surpass expectations.  They posted dominating wins over the first few weeks of the season, with many different players stepping up, while playing “lights-out” defense in most of their ball games.

In addition to Bangor, Saucon Valley, Salisbury and Southern Lehigh are also teams jumping out to solid starts.  However, that has not kept other teams from challenging the league’s top squads, as Wilson proved by just falling short in their attempt to beat the Slaters and Panthers before Christmas, and then capturing the annual Easton Rotary Championship just before New Year’s Eve.  Also, common opponents results have not been very revealing.  A repeating trend has team “A” beating team “B” soundly one night, only to lose to team “C” (a team that previously lost to team “B”).  It has made for a very entertaining first month to the season, although clearly the best game that I have seen so far this year is Saucon Valley/Notre Dame’s overtime battle, as seen on RCN-TV (available for free through RCN On-Demand).

Here are some of the highlights from that game.

3. Catty’s Changing Guard.

I thought it was a tremendous decision for Catasauqua to name Dave Troxell as their new athletic director this fall.  The only disappointing aspect about the move was that I would no longer see Dave coaching a girls basketball program that featured some of the school’s greatest athletic moments with him at the helm.  While the program struggled after his first departure from the team a few years back, I was confident that it would return to glory with him in charge.  With his promotion, I felt there were very few people reasonably able of taking over that position who could lead the team’s rebuilding efforts as swiftly as if Coach Trox himself were in charge.  I was happy to see one of those people, Ed Seidick, was chosen as their new head coach.  Ed is a Lehigh Valley guy who’s been a part of one of the top girls’ programs in the area, working under the tutelage of Jeff Jacksits.  He’s worked with some of the top female basketball athletes over the last several seasons, and the Northampton basketball program has been a constant contender at the 4A level for many years.

While the team may not be at playoff-level this year, I am confident it won’t be too long before we see the Rough Riders girls team back in the playoff picture.

What observations have you made about the 2014-15 edition of high school basketball in the Lehigh Valley area?  Which teams and players have stuck out in your mind so far?  Email your      comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join Toomey Anderson, Tom Stoudt, Joe Craig and myself as we look at the first half of the basketball season and preview the second half on the January 15th edition of “RCN SportsTalk” (live at 6pm on RCN-TV).

 

The SportsTalk Shop: 2014 Year-in-Review (Part 2)

December 29, 2014 By Matt Kennedy Leave a Comment

A very merry season’s greetings and happy new year to everyone!  Chris Michael is on vacation for the next week, so “RCN SportsTalk” co-host Joseph Lynnwood Craig will be manning the “SportsTalk Shop” around the holidays.  Joe gives his weekly views on the Thursday night show and this time, he gives his views on some local high school sports issues over the past year.  Don’t forget, you can get more views and opinions on the top teams, players, games, moments and other special highlights over the past 12 months by watching the “SportsTalk: 2014 Year-in-Review” program that will air on RCN-TV several times before and after New Year’s Day and is also available to watch at anytime for free on RCN On-Demand!

Now, here’s “Joe’s Take” on local championship teams and other outstanding programs in the Lehigh Valley area.

As 2014 comes to a close, a few observations about high school championships seem to be in order.  Keep in mind that last school year’s winter and spring seasons combine with the fall season of this school year to form the 2014 lineup.
First of all, 22 high schools in District XI have won team championships in the year 2014.  There have been 52 champions crowned in 21 sports; 10 boys sports, 10 girls sports and one co-ed sport (golf).
Parkland has overwhelmingly crowned the most champions with 11.  The following list contains the schools with the number of team champions from each school:

Parkland – 11                          Allentown CC – 2                Mahanoy – 1                Pius X – 1
Beth. Cath. – 5                        Notre Dame G.P – 2           Salisbury – 1                Saucon – 1
Emmaus – 4                             Minersville – 2                    Nazareth – 1                 Whitehall – 1
Southern Lehigh – 4              Marion Cath. – 2               Tamaqua – 1                Pine Grove – 1
Moravian Acad. – 4               Easton – 2                            Sch. Haven – 1
Northwestern – 3                  Notre Dame ES – 2             Pen Argyl – 1

A person would wonder how does one school win so many championships as Parkland has?   Surely the athletes are not any bigger, stronger, faster, or more skilled than their counterparts at other schools.  I’m sure that they eat similar foods, drink similar water, dress the same way and enjoy the same activities as any other teenagers. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I suspect it has a lot to do with off-season preparation, camps, and facilities available to them, along with the community support that is provided in feeder programs across the board. Whatever it is, the other schools and communities better take note.  They all need to step up if they want to compete with Parkland.

Another comment would be to notice the number of championships that a small school like Moravian Academy has won.  They’ve won four championships while many other schools have won none.  That’s amazing when you think about it.  Granted they have won in small school classifications but in three of their titles they beat many schools in the AA classification.  Those sports were Boys Tennis, Golf, and Girls Tennis.  They also won in A classification Boys Soccer.  By the way, they were the champs in that category.  I think that is noteworthy.

There have been some great teams from District XI this past year, so here are a few that come to mind.  The following teams have won State championships this past year: Bethlehem Catholic in wrestling (AA), Parkland Girls Volleyball (AA), and Moravian Academy Boys Soccer (AA).  There will be a lot of discussion in local media over the next  few weeks regarding great games and great performances by teams and individuals and we sure have had our share.  District XI has plenty of great high school athletes this year and a history of some of the best in the state.  Perhaps we will get into these in the future.
Until then, that’s Joe’s Take!

The SportsTalk Shop: 2014 Year-in-Review (Part 1)

December 17, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Time is running out on the 2014 calendar, which means it’s time for our annual shows and “SportsTalk Shop” blog postings that look back at highlights from the past 12 months.  Each year we come up with new categories for our special “RCN SportsTalk” panelists to respond to on our show, which will air several times over the holiday season and also available on RCN On-Demand.  Here’s a look at this year’s topics; you are welcome to email (RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com) your responses to these questions and maybe we’ll read your opinions on the show:

Best Running Back in Eastern PA this fall
Most Intriguing Team in 2014
Most Overplayed Story of 2014
Biggest “Oh My” Moment of 2014
Most Underrated Story of 2014
A “Shout-out” to one sports personality this year
 
Biggest Sign The Sports Apocalypse is Near
Sports Personality You Would Have Liked to See More of in 2014
Best & Worst Sports Decision Made in 2014
Something Witnessed in 2014 That You Hope To See Again
Best Performance By An Underclassmen
Biggest Turnaround in 2014
Most Lasting Image of 2014 (Local & National)

Then, for our last segment…looking ahead to 2015:

Toughest Coaching Challenge for 2015
One Team & Player to watch in 2015
Something “New” You’d Like to See in 2015
One Piece of Advice for an Athlete/Coach in 2015
“Stone-Cold” Lock To Happen 2015

Here are a few of my own responses to these topics (you’ll have to watch the show to get my takes on the rest of them).

For “Most Overplayed Story of 2014,” I have to target ESPN’s thrashing of the 76ers’ ‘tanking’ strategy.  It wasn’t enough that they have been poking fun at the team’s idea of losing on purpose so that they can acquire better draft picks and clear salary cap space to pave the way for a brighter future.  They’ve piled on by constantly putting them on their “Not Top 10” list and frequently ask their NBA analysts about the team’s pitiful plight, repeatedly asking their experts if this is the worst team of all time—in any sport!  If you want to hammer the organization for its theory—fine.  But what has annoyed me of late is that, when Magic Johnson suggests that his Lakers lose on purpose to follow the same idea, they fall over themselves praising his “ingenious” theory.

Hello…national hypocrites?  You can’t bash one team’s idea for months, then praise another team for the exact same idea just because you’re fans of the greatest Lakers player of all time.  Have some backbone and either stick with your initial opinion, or get off the Sixers’ collective backs and stop trashing them every chance you get.  Yes, we know they stink—and they’re good at being bad.  That’s the whole idea.  Stop reporting their losses like you’re surprised…and remember how much you criticized them if they are contending for a world title four or five…or six…years from now.

A “Shout-out” to one sports personality this year:  Salisbury’s girls basketball head coach, Joe Mladosich.  He not only earned his 200th coaching win this past year, but, like so many scholastic coaches, did it without the fanfare and publicity that other sports garnish.  In fact, Coach Mladosich tried to kept the approaching honor a secret from the team.  Most of his players didn’t even know when he was going to eclipse the milestone victory, and the few associated with the program who did know, he asked to keep it a secret.  I had a chance to speak with his girls and they all spoke highly of their coach and felt honored to be part of his program and his special victory.  When we interviewed him for “SportsTalk” about his accomplishment this past year, he was very unassuming about his success and instead placed the credit on his assistant coaches and his players.  On behalf of all the coaches who pass up self-promotion to put the spotlight on their team, I’d like to recognize Joe’s unselfish acts as my “shout-out” person of the year.

Most Intriguing Team in 2014.  No doubt for me…I’d have to go with the Becahi girls basketball program.  Very few Lehigh Valley teams in any sport had more success than the Hawks in 2014…only to see their head coach, Bill Lanscek, get the hook at the end of the season.  Becahi responded by hiring one of the brightest basketball minds in Megan Dellegrotti, fresh off multiple appearances (and wins) in the Colonial League Girls’ Basketball Championship game, only to have her resign less than two weeks before the start of the season.  I’m not going to speculate here on what’s going on with the program and their coaching staff.  I’ve heard tremendous things about their newest head coach, Jose Medina.  His team should again contend for a state title in 2015, but, unfortunately, the coaching storylines for this program made them my most intriguing squad from this past year.

Biggest “Oh My” Moment of 2014.  I’m going to have to cheat a little on this one and add an “s” to the word “moment.”  However, there were just too many highlights to separate just one from the games involving the Notre Dame and Catasauqua boys basketball teams (we’ll have highlights of these games on our TV show).  These two teams made for some of the most exhilarating moments of the year in both the Colonial League AND District XI 2A Championship games.  Half-court shots made at the buzzer, one player (Vincent Eze) blocking ten shots in a game, a last second rebound/game-winning basket (also by Eze), amazing baskets from Brandon Purrone, David Wetherhold, Dakota Shiffer, Tannor Reed and many others…all made for multiple great moments.  Throw-in the fact that the one championship game had to be rescheduled and came on the heels of our biggest snowstorm of the year AND came at the end of four consecutive broadcasts I did for RCN, definitely made for a memorable night.

Sports Personality You Would Have Liked to See More of in 2014.  Former Olympian, Spokesperson, Author, Coach and Humanitarian Joetta Clark Diggs was one of the many sports personalities that I was blessed to meet for the first time this past year, and was so fortunate to hear some of her stories and views on women sports issues this past year on our studio show.  She has very interesting views on many topics, runs camps that benefit local youths and recently published a new book.  In order to even start giving due to all of her accomplishments, I’m going to focus on her in an upcoming edition of the “SportsTalk Shop” early in 2015.

I’ll be on vacation for the next several days but be sure to check back as “SportsTalk” co-host Joe Craig will also share his thoughts looking back at the past year.  Also, check out our “year-in-review” show on RCN-TV and don’t forget to tune in to all of RCN’s special holiday programming and its Christmas Takeover.  My personal favorites are the “Jack Benny Christmas Special” and a true classic—the Jimmy Durante film, “A Christmas Wish.”  Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone!

The SportsTalk Shop: Penn State and PIAA Recaps

December 10, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

I’d like to think we have “fireworks” on every edition of the “RCN SportsTalk” show in which we discuss a variety of different topics–sometimes of a controversial nature.  On last week’s program, however, we had not one, but two major blow-ups from both our panelists and from our phone callers, regarding two completely different subjects.  The two topics firing up people included our assessment of Penn State’s football season and a few questionable calls at the end of the PIAA state playoff game between St. Joe’s and Parkland high schools.  Here are two clips, back-to-back from last week’s show, which ignited the controversies.

Now, regarding the Penn State issue of which all of us on the show agreed that the Lions’ 6-6 record should be viewed as a “successful” year (the officials made sure they didn’t win a 7th game with a couple egregious calls late in their game against Ohio State).   Shortly after we made those statements, one of our phone callers, in no uncertain terms, blasted our opinions—stating that six wins against a handful of soft opponents should not garnish a positive review.  Furthermore, the caller stated that Penn State hasn’t beaten a top- five team in nearly thirty years and the team’s true “glory years” vanished in the 1980s.  He went on to criticize their scheduling several weaker non-conference games each season.

Here’s my take on issue #1.  When you consider what the Nittany Lions program has gone through over the last four years, you’d have to be happy with six wins and a bowl bid.  There’s no way to officially say how many quality football players the scandal has cost the program.  In addition to players who left or decided on another school, you had players like Mike Hull, Christian Hackenberg and others who rode out the sanctions having to deal with depth issues throughout their careers.  Players fought through and played with injuries because of that lack of depth, an inconsistent offensive line that put Hackenberg and other backs constantly under pressure from opposing defense…I could go on stating the trickle-down effects that permeated every facet of the team.  They were close to winning a few of their games against tougher opponents while soundly defeating programs that, as of this year, are step below Penn State (yes, I would have to thrown in my beloved Temple football team in this category).

Among many post-regular season accolades include Hull being named the Big Ten Linebacker of the Year and both Hull and Anthony Zettel named to the conference’s “first team.”  There were certainly success stories with the younger players on the team, and reason for even more optimism based on their “successful” play this fall.  Among the first-year players just named to BTN.com’s “All-Freshmen Team”: safety Marcus Allen, tight end Mike Gesicki, wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton, offensive tackle Andrew Nelson and punter Daniel Pasquariello.  Despite the offensive struggles later in the year, all of these players improved as the season advanced and should be part of bigger and better things as the program continues to build itself back to a national presence.

To the issue of Penn State scheduling weaker teams: Penn State almost every year has to schedule at least seven home games to defray their enormous costs (this is due to budget issues which Morning Call’s Mark Wogenrich eluded to on our show).  Aside from the four Big Ten games that they must play, it’s pretty much impossible for one elite team—let along two or three additional teams–to grant an enormous (and costly) favor of playing the Lions at State College without having them return the favor the following season.  Penn State has to find up-and-coming programs (like my alums from Broad Street) to travel to Happy Valley to gain exposure.  These teams don’t match the status of a powerhouse team—one who, if Penn State defeated, would satisfy some fans’ requirement to call the season a success.  In my opinion, and with all the other issues Penn State is trying to put behind them, to expect something far beyond what happened this fall won’t be a possibility until 2016 at the earliest.  Until then, you must temper your expectations for the football program and give them props when they do make strides—like I still feel they made in 2014.

The second issue that fueled a heated argument on last week’s show involved a few controversial calls at the end of the Parkland/St. Joe’s state high school playoff football game.   I myself was at another game that day and did not watch it live—and instead received a biased review of the calls well before I had a chance to sit down and watch a replay of it for myself through RCN On Demand.  I must admit that I agree with all of our RCN commentators –  Gary Laubach, Mike Joseph, Tony Cocca and “SportsTalk” co-host Joe Craig—all vehemently saying on-air that they hated (and that’s using a ‘kind’ verb) the calls.  Clearly, the officials made a few incorrect decisions at crucial times.  However, I would like to address an aspect of this controversy that I haven’t heard anyone talk about since the program.

I think an enormous amount of credit should be given to Parkland for the class they demonstrated with regards to the controversial calls—all of which severely hampered them from winning the game. Head Coach Jim Morgans was furious with the calls and expressed his disappointment after they occurred.  But I’ve run into a number of coaches—both past and present—who admitted they probably would have gone ballistic if they were on that sideline and had those calls made against them at key moments in a huge game.  If Parkland won that game, it would have been an historic victory for the District XI football community.  It would have kept alive the team’s drive for a state championship.  But even with an extreme level of disappointment following the calls, the players, coaches and staff all handled themselves in a respectful manner.

There was no formal protest.  No website created to replay the controversial calls and ask people for their opinions.  No continuing, angry sound bites in the local media.  They were upset.  They were angry…but they kept themselves under control.

Clearly, they would have preferred to win the game and advance to the state semifinal game.  But all things considered, Parkland had an excellent season on the field, and showed championship-level class in the days that followed an incredibly  disappointing, and unfortunate, loss.  But one of the great things about sports is the character-building aspect that can be an even better learning experience.

What are your thoughts on Penn State’s season and the PIAA playoffs? Email your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us each Thursday at 6pm as we discuss more hot topics each week!

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Football Playoffs Recap

December 2, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

It was another interesting high school football playoff season, with plenty of drama, surprises and exciting finishes.  Today, we take a look at the bigger schools in the Lehigh Valley and their playoff runs in the district and state tournaments (more comments and opinions of this year’s high school football season, as well as Penn State football talk, on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show—live at 6pm).

Class 4A
Among the most anticipated match-ups of the District XI players was the rematch of Freedom and Whitehall.  Both teams had outstanding 2014 campaigns and their contest during the regular season ended in overtime with a thrilling, come-from-behind victory by the Patriots.  The playoff match-up was also very competitive, with Freedom continuing its amazing turnaround season with a win over the Zephyrs.

The Patriots, as we have discussed in earlier posts this fall, were one of the most remarkable stories in Pennsylvania this season, bouncing back from a 2-8 season last year to advancing into the quarterfinals of the District 2/4/11 sub-regionals before losing to Easton.

The Rovers were another great story this year.  While the pre-season prognosticators had Easton picked anywhere from second to fifth (and don’t think for a moment that the players and coaches were not aware of those ‘lower’ expectations), one of PA’s most successful programs ran through a very tough Eastern Pennsylvania Conference without a blemish, and continued to look solid in its quarterfinal game against Pleasant Valley (the Bears were making their second consecutive district playoff appearance).

After losing to Whitehall midway through the regular season, Parkland dropped off the radar—well, as much as they can due to their decades-long success—and opened the sub-regional playoffs as the seventh-seeded team having to travel outside the Lehigh Valley to advance in the playoffs.

While the Trojans didn’t appear as dominant offensively as they might have in previous years, they were solid enough and teamed with a smothering defense to topple Easton in overtime and earn their third consecutive District XI championship.

Parkland became just the third school since 1993 to “three-peat” as consecutive District XI football champ in ANY of the area’s classifications.  With quarterback DeVante Cross and many more talented players coming back in 2015, look for the red-and-silver again to be right in, or above, the elite teams when next season comes around.

CLASS 3A
Bethlehem Catholic was once again the favorite heading into this year’s District XI 3A tourney, and certainly was on a mission to prove that it was the best team in the classification this year.  They had plenty of motivation:   a tighter-than-expected win in last year’s district playoffs, a quicker-than-expected exit in the state playoffs in 2013, a disappointing loss to Stroudsburg destroying their hopes of a perfect season this fall and, oh, yeah, the initial report that they were going to be excluded from the new league.

Despite any potential distractions, the players went out and clearly took care of business in both the opening round of the districts and the PIAA playoffs.

Two of the most exciting games I got a chance to call on RCN TV all year were the two games played between Saucon Valley and Southern Lehigh.  In the first matchup, the Panthers jumped out to a huge lead and then hung on to beat the Spartans.  In their second contest, with the right to move on to the District 3A title game up for grabs, the roles were reversed, with the Spartans taking a big lead early.  However, that didn’t stop Saucon Valley from making for an exciting finish.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Saucon Valley as the 2015 favorite in the Colonial League.  However, they weren’t very happy, as were quite a few area football fans, by the end of their 3A championship game against Becahi.

There were some interesting comments about the ending of the game, and some of the late-game actions and post-game comments did not sit well with each other’s fan base.  It would certainly be interesting to see a rematch between these two programs next year…but, well, let’s just enjoy the holiday season for now and some other sports action before we start going there!

Don’t forget, you can relive all of these teams’ biggest playoff games by watching them again, for free, on RCN On Demand.  These games will be available to watch for two months following their initial airdates, and you can purchase DVD copies of the games as well by contacting us at RCN.  And don’t forget to join us on next week’s “SportsTalk” show as we’ll feature some of the state championship teams on our Thursday program.

The SportsTalk Shop: Joe’s Take — Greatest LV Football Players

November 26, 2014 By Matt Kennedy Leave a Comment

First of all, a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving Day holiday to all of our faithful “SportsTalk” viewers and blog readers.  We’ve gotten some wonderful feedback about the show and our blog the last few months and appreciate all the positive responses. We hope to continue earning your interest and attention as we transition to the winter sports season very soon.  Chris Michael is taking a few days off for the holiday this week and in his place is “RCN SportsTalk” co-host Joe Craig manning the “SportsTalk Shop.”  Joe gives his commentary on a variety of sports issues for each edition of the “RCN SportsTalk” show on (what is suppose to be a short) segment, entitled, “Joe’s Take,” which you can see every Thursday at 6pm on RCN-TV.  Here, Joe gives his opinions on who he thinks are the top ten football players—EVER—in the Lehigh Valley area.

Picking the top 10 football players to ever play in the Lehigh Valley is absolutely the toughest assignment I could have undertaken.  There’s no way anyone is going to agree with me because there have been so many worthy choices.  Now, before you jump all over me, remember that I’m not very bright.  But I will put up these 10 guys against anyone’s list.

Here goes!  The list is not in any particular order but I do believe the very best player ever is Chuck Bednarik of Bethlehem Liberty.  How can anyone argue with this choice?  Following Chuck is Jim Ringo of Phillipsburg.  Both of these men played in the Lehigh Valley, went on to play professional football, and are members of the Hall of Fame.

So far, I have listed two great linemen.  Now for two great backs.  How about Bobby Pilz of Easton, 1968.  Pound for pound he may be the best ever.  In three years at Easton, they went 28-1-1 and that 1968 team is considered by many to be the best team ever to play in the Lehigh Valley.  Pilz had a stellar career at N.C. State under Lou Holtz.  Another back has to be the great Artie Owens of Stroudsburg.  He played in the early 1970’s and went on to become an All-American at West Virginia under Bobby Bowden.

No list of linemen would be complete without the next two greats:  Mike Hartenstine of Bethlehem Liberty and Matt Millen of Whitehall.  Hartenstine was All-State and an All-American in high school who went on to play at Penn State under Joe Paterno.  He went to the pros and had a great career with the Chicago Bears.  Neshaminy All-Stater Bruce Traney called Mike “the scariest player I ever faced.”  Now, Matt Milen was also Mr. Everything at Whitehall and became an All-American at Penn State again under Joe Paterno.  Matt went on to become an all-pro linebacker at Oakland and finished his career with the Washington Redskins.  He was a five-time Super Bowl champion.

Two more backs:  actually Andre Reed of Dieruff became a Hall of Famer in the pro ranks as a wide receiver with the then-great Buffalo Bills.  He played in four Super Bowls.  A Kutztown graduate, Andre excelled at receiver and quarterback at Dieruff.  That brings us to James Mungro of East Stroudsburg.  James held the state record for rushing yards for many years.  He went on to play at Syracuse and was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts where he had a fine career.

The last two members of my top 10 are both from across the Delaware River.  How about Dick Lynch from Phillipsburg Catholic and the great Ned Bolcar of Phillipsburg.  Dick Lynch played for coach Mickey Frinzi at the now-closed P’burg Catholic.  Dick went on to Notre Dame University.  While at Notre Dame, he scored the game-winning touchdown that beat Oklahoma and broke the Sooners’ 54-game winning streak.  He was then drafted and played for seven years for the New York Giants as a defensive back.  He was an all-pro during this time.  Ned Bolcar was best known as a tough linebacker at P’burg.  He played for Phil Rohm and Tom Dominic from 1983-1985.  Ned was a two-time All-Stater in New Jersey.  He went on to Notre Dame where he started at middle linebacker for three years.  In 1988 he captained the Irish to a national championship.  He then was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks and finished his career with the Miami Dolphins.

Well, there you have it.  I know what you’re thinking:  “How could Joe miss ______________ (fill in the blank)!”  Yeah, there are plenty of other great players that we have been blessed to see play right here in the Valley.  And while you could make another deserving list, I think you’d agree that at least some of my top 10 transcend time.  Let me know what you think by emailing us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and who you would include in your top 10.  Until next time, that’s “Joe’s take”.

The SportsTalk Shop: Non-Football Fall Sports Highlights

November 19, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

While high school football is extremely popular in Eastern Pennsylvania, there was a plethora of great athletic accomplishments achieved by boys and girls in many different sports this fall season.  On our “RCN SportsTalk” show, we highlighted many of these outstanding programs this past year and we’d also like to add more honors in today’s blog entry.  Here’s a sampling of the great non-football Lehigh Valley sports stories that took place.

It was not a surprise the Saucon Valley boys soccer team captured this year’s District XI 2A title—they were one of the preseason favorites, but the girls’ team relished the role of underdogs all season long and joined the boys in action on championship day before falling to Northwestern.  The Panthers’ program was just one of the top soccer squads in the area.  Here’s some interviews with local coaches and athletes on their fall teams.

Southern Lehigh turned in a great storyline in its win over Emmaus in the District 3A soccer final.  The Spartans, led by long-time coach Terry Nevill, who announced he was stepping down after this season, turned in a run few soccer fans will forget anytime soon.  The Spartans defeated the teams ranked first, second and third en route to the championship.  The win marked the first time in Nevill’s career that he won a 3A title.

An exciting season for girls’ volleyball fans ended with very few surprises, as four of the most dominating programs – Parkland, Emmaus, Bethlehem Catholic and Notre Dame – advanced to the district finals.  We caught up with the ladies from the Trojans and Hornets to talk with them about their season and on facing each other four times this season.

The Whitehall girls’ soccer team captured another District XI championship by beating Nazareth.  The Zephyrs’ program, one of the last “big schools” to form a girls’ soccer team in Lehigh County, has established itself as one of the premiere programs in the region.  We highlighted Kourtney Cunningham (who scored the game winner in the district final) and her sisters playing two fall sports at the same time on a recent “SportsTalk” show.  Whitehall’s field hockey program was also strong once again this year, as was Nazareth, Northampton, Parkland and others, but perennial state qualifier (and often state champ) Emmaus once again won the District XI 3A title.

The Easton cross country team became just the second Lehigh Valley team ever to sweep the 3A District Title in their sport.  The Northwestern girls’ program (guests on “SportsTalk” this past fall) had another successful season as they shared 2A honors with Central Catholic.

The local tennis scene might have had the biggest news of them all.  The Parkland girls’ team that had gone years without a league loss, suffered a few defeats in what turned out to be a “retooling” year for the Trojans in the new Eastern Pennsylvania Conference.  Several teams that had some success in previous years rose to new heights this fall.  We had a chance to interview some of the top girls’ tennis players in the area, including the District XI’s doubles pairings.

And it was a win-win fall season for Emmaus coach Mike Mihalik.  His team not only won a District XI 3A golf title for the second consecutive year, but he was also unanimously approved by the East Penn School Board to be named the new head coach of the highly successful Hornets baseball program, succeeding longtime skipper John Schreiner.  Mihalik was a former Parkland graduate who spent time pitching in several minor league affiliates after originally being drafted by the Phillies.

We welcome you to post or email (rcnsportstalk@rcn.com) other fall sports team or individual highlights to us. We constantly look to honor the young men’s and women’s accomplishments in the RCN viewing area.  Also, to see more of these interviews and as well as recent news on our local sports programs, you can check “SportsTalk” out for yourself through RCN On Demand or live every Thursday at 6pm on RCN-TV.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Football Playoff Preview

November 5, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

The RCN TV crew is gearing up for another exciting high school football post-season. We’ll be busy with the top games on Friday and Saturdays for the next several weeks. Before the fun gets underway, here’s a peek at the teams in our coverage area and a look at what lies ahead over the next few weeks in the different classifications. (We’ll have much more on the playoffs over the next several weeks on our “RCN SportsTalk” show as well).

Class 4A
Easton enters the District XI playoffs as the number one team (10-0) with multiple impressive wins during the regular season. Here are some thoughts from the Rovers themselves on their season to date and experiences this year.

The Rovers have done a great job of keeping their focus week in and week out. Fans and media observers look ahead to the potentially grueling three-games-in-eight day stretch that they have to fight through as a major deterrent to a deep state playoff run. However, a large number of people, both inside and outside of the Easton borders, have raved about this year’s squad. Many have dubbed it the best Easton team in over a decade, which is truly an amazing compliment given their tradition and the great players who have played there. Here’s some of their highlights the last time we saw them in action on RCN TV.

First, Easton has to advance through some tough competition within the district. Easton opens with Pleasant Valley (9:30pm; RCN-TV) this Friday and the Bears have to shake off a disappointing loss to Stroudsburg last week. Easton defeated Pleasant Valley earlier this year—the winner of this game faces the winner of the Whitehall/Freedom match-up (7 pm live, Friday; RCN-TV), which will be a major topic of conversation on our Thursday “RCN SportsTalk” show.

I think Parkland is once again in an interesting position. They lost two regular season games and fell to the #7 seed entering the playoffs. They’re matched up with a Delaware Valley program that has become a consistent opponent for the Trojans over the last few post-seasons. On paper, Parkland has all the weapons on offense, defense and special teams to go far in the playoffs. I still believe DeVante Cross can be one of the most talented quarterback in the state, and they have a stable of quality offensive players led by Jarel Elder. Omar Haddad has been and will be a huge key for them on defense. I would not be surprised if they once again face Easton in the District XI 4A Championship in a few weeks.

Class 3A
Becahi comes into the playoffs winning their last two regular season games, but they still have a bad feeling following their loss to Stroudsburg.

Remembering that loss, and correcting the mistakes they made in that game, might actually help the Hawks over the long haul. I think the frustration of that game, and some of the issues they had to overcome in last year’s 3A championship, might help them focus this playoff season in making sure they take care of business early in games, and keeping the pressure on teams when/if they get an early lead. They’ll start off against Lehighton (7 pm live, Saturday, RCN-TV), a team led by junior running back Wyatt Clements (over 2,000 yards rushing and 37 touchdowns) and junior quarterback Tyler Cann (over 1,100 passing yards). “SportsTalk” co-host Joe Craig already told me he thinks Lehighton will be a tough matchup for the Hawks, but I’d expect Becahi to once again be playing in this year’s 3A final.

The other 3A playoff game might just be the most competitive game all weekend, featuring a rematch of a great game during the regular season between Saucon Valley and Southern Lehigh (9:30 pm Saturday, RCN-TV). The Spartans have really been playing solid football all year long and showcase multiple impressive players on both offense and defense. Here’s a look at some of them in action.

Saucon Valley, meanwhile, defeated Southern Lehigh earlier this year. I’ve been impressed by several of the Panthers this year, including running back Evan Culver, who’s averaging over 10 yards per carry. Early indications are that Saucon Valley could be the team to beat in 2015, but honestly, I’ d have a hard time trying to predict a winner in this year’s matchup between these two rival schools.

Class 2A & A
While I haven’t had a chance to see the teams that are in the 2A playoffs this fall, I have continued to hear many positives about Northwestern. They definitely have the horses to make a run at the 2A District title, and quite possibly more. Harry Hall, Frank Dangello, Cam Richardson, you could go on just talking about all the horses they have on this year’s team. Palisades is once again having a great season, with a terrific coaching staff and one of the top District XI backs in Christian Gretzinger, who went over 3,000 yards rushing the previous week. However, I’d have to think the Tigers are definitely the favorite in this weekend’s matchup, along with whoever they would face next week in the title game.

Also, Pius is having another solid season. They don’t feature the multiple playmakers at the level they were playing at a few years ago when they made a major run in the state playoffs, but Phil Stambaugh once again has some quality kids led by Tre Jordan. The junior quarterback has already thrown for over 3,500 yards passing and is closing in on 50 touchdowns for his career. Much like Northwestern, look for the Royals to be the solid team to beat in the District XI A playoffs.

Of course, we’ll have many more thoughts on the teams and players in the postseason, and we’ll also have comments on the local teams in the “Eastern Conference” playoffs, as well as predictions from our panelists on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” from 6-7 pm, which is also available On-Demand. You can email your comments and questions to us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll respond live on the air to your emails on our next show.

 

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