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The SportsTalk Shop: The “Crossover” Season

March 30, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

‘Tis the season.

There is a well-known sports term perfectly describing this time of year for many involved in athletics.  It’s the time of year when all the winter sports are climaxing to an exhilarating finish.  “March Madness,” state tournaments and final swimming and diving meets…all with their elaborate playoff systems formed to create an exciting and balanced formula, pitting the best teams, and individuals squaring off against each other and building in intensity until reaching their conclusions.  With any luck, the results are memorable and thrilling finales.  As we approach the end, everyone involved can enjoy the memories created by this fiercely competitive segment of the calendar, while we all sit back, relax and reflect during a slower, more peaceful time of year….

For some of us.

While there is a perception that the end of winter sports season induces a slower time-period in the sports world, students, parents, athletic directors…and even some of us in the media, have a different story.  A “crossover” exists when one sports season begins winding down following a flurry of playoff action, while the spring sports teams are quietly trying (as best as Mother Nature allows) to put together a winning formula for what every coach hopes will be a successful campaign.  But a heavy snow late in the winter keeps athletes from getting much needed playing time out on their respective athletic fields.  Little to no snowfall but extreme cold temperatures also keeps athletes inside preventing them from much needed practice time out on their fields.  A couple days of rain on surfaces that are still frozen or a low snowfall amount with quickly rising temperatures on hardened surfaces create swampy and/or flooded conditions which…well, you get the idea.

For athletes who participate in both winter and spring athletics, it’s rather challenging to be going full-steam ahead in one sport, then quickly don a brand new uniform and begin competing at a high level instantly in a whole new activity.

And those of us in the media also are doing our best covering the final games of the basketball season while simultaneously attempting to interview as many spring sports coaches and players as we can, without the benefits of cloning.  All this must be accomplished before the looming and unforgiving deadline of the first game/match of the spring season which, ironically and painfully enough, usually gets postponed the day of, due to… (snow, rain, the cold, field conditions, electrical issues, or fill in your own reason here).

Keeping this theme in mind, this week at the “Shop” we look at one of our final winter sports interviews of the year, while also giving you a sampling of several of our spring high school sports previews (you can see more of them on “SportsTalk” live on Thursday evenings or on RCN On-Demand).

First, we check in with Mike Jones to get his thoughts on the final games in the NCAA tournament, the success of the nationally ranked DeMatha basketball program once again this winter, and the outstanding basketball tradition in the Washington, DC area.

Now, here are a few insights into several spring sports teams in the RCN coverage area.

So whether you’re spending the next several days enjoying what promises to be a exciting finish between the last four teams in the NCAA tournament (for the record, I did have Wisconsin and Kentucky in “my” Final Four, but missed with Duke and Michigan State).  Or, if you’re coaching, playing, or supporting one of the outstanding scholastic sports programs this weekend, I tip my cap to everyone who doesn’t take it easy over the next week, continuing to participate in the efforts of our young athletes in action during this special time of year.

‘Tis the season.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Recap

March 23, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

After shoveling snow out of my driveway for the final time this winter (even if we get more of the white stuff, I’m just plowing through with my car from now on), I had a chance to witness some of the PIAA state playoff games.  Unfortunately, none of the teams in our RCN-TV coverage area made it all the way through the state tournament, but that didn’t stop us from seeing some tremendous efforts from our local teams in the postseason on RCN-TV.

Here’s a look at our final set of basketball highlight packages from our state playoff game broadcasts; then, a few of my own observations on the final weeks of the PIAA basketball season.

Now a few thoughts as we close out the high school basketball season for our Pennsylvania sports fans.

    • Becahi’s Head Coach is a Stand-Up Guy

First of all, Jose Medina took over the Becahi girls basketball team very late (November) before this season started.  There’s no question this team had talent, but to keep all the pieces together and still win 27 straight games, an Eastern Pennsylvania Conference Championship, a District XI 3A title, advance to the 2nd round of the state tournament and to be ranked in the top four statewide throughout the entire season, all were tremendous accomplishments.
Once more, following a disappointing loss to Conrad Weiser and the controversial decision in which his star player, Kalista Walters, was left in the game with three fouls in the second quarter, he responded to my request to be on our “SportsTalk” show and address this and other issues with this year’s team (this show is available through RCN On Demand).  I cannot offer enough respect and support going forward for Coach Medina for tackling these topics head-on with me on our live show, and admire how he and his players have conducted themselves following their surprising, upset loss in the state tournament.  I heard from a good source that their up-and-coming players like Tessa Zamolyi and Rebekah Recchio were quality, hard-working players even before this season started, and the way they addressed the ending of their season makes me think the future of this program is as bright as ever.

    • Speaking of Conrad Weiser…

The Scouts from the Conrad Weiser girls basketball team made for one of the best stories in the entire state.  While some did not count on Weiser to be a force entering the league playoffs—let alone districts and states—the Scouts fought their way into the Final Four in the Berks County playoffs, then followed that up with a trip to the district championship game.  Then, after a mild upset win in the first round of states, they won back-to-back games against the best teams in the state to reach the PIAA quarterfinals.  Head Coach Mark Owens called his team “The Little Engine,” referencing the childhood story of the train that wouldn’t give up.  Despite being discounted multiple times, Owens’ group of undersized players (their tallest player is 5-8, shorter than about a half-dozen players they faced in states) made for an exciting post-season experience and showed what hard work, dedication and determination can do on the scholastic level’s biggest stage.

    • The “Final Pairs”

Here’s a look at the final two teams in each classification of the PIAA tournament.  See if something jumps out at you as readily as it did for many high school sports fans (this weekend’s winning teams in BOLD).

State Basketball Finalists
Class 4A Boys – Roman Catholic, Martin Luther King (Both District 12)
Class 4A Girls – CB West (District 1), Cumberland Valley (Dist. 3)
Class 3A Boys – Newmann-Goretti, Archbishop Carroll (Both District 12)
Class 3A Girls – Archbishop Wood (District 12), Black Hawk (Dist. 7)
Class 2A Boys – Conwell Egan (District 12), Aliquippa (Dist. 7)
Class 2A Girls – Newmann-Goretti (District 12), Seton LaSalle (Dist. 7)
Class 1A Boys – Constitution (Dist. 12), Farrell (Dist. 10)
Class 1A Girls – Old Forge (Dist. 2), Vicentian Academy (Dist. 7)

If you noticed most of the teams reaching the state championship games were from the Philadelphia region (Districts 1 and 12) and that ALL the boys winners were from District 12 (first time that has EVER happened in Pennsylvania), give yourself a gold medal.  It was common knowledge that once the District 12 schools were granted access to the PIAA tournament, the teams from the Delaware Valley would often be favorites in playoff match-ups.  However,  I don’t think many basketball fans not from the southeastern corner of the state anticipated just how dominate these programs are.   I’ve had the opportunity to see teams like Roman Catholic, Martin Luther King, Conwell Egan, Newmann-Goretti and Archbishop Carroll play at a high level for several years.  Their successes is not a fluke, nor do I anticipate their quality of play dropping off any time soon.

Is it right that most championship participants of a statewide tournament come from one area?  I cannot argue against it and believe there are opportunities with this tourney for a team to have a chance—although not a great one—to compete for a crown.  Whether it’s envy, sour grapes or an unjust system, the debate will rage on until more teams from other parts of Pennsylvania start making it to the title games—and for the boys teams, it’ll mean winning championships on a more regular basis.  One thing that cannot be disputed is that the success of high school basketball in Philadelphia is as strong as ever, and any sports fans left to watch the last three rounds of the PIAAs will continue to watch Philly’s brand of basketball for years to come.

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies and the PIAA

March 16, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

We had the opportunity to speak with several important guests on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk,” discussing a number of issues relevant to sports fans in the RCN viewing area.  For this week’s entry in the “SportsTalk Shop,” I’d like to share some of my opinions on these topics and add a few more bits of information that we didn’t have a chance to address.

The first topic of conversation with the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jake Kaplan focused on spring training for the Phillies and also the comparisons between the current Nationals’ starting rotation and the “4 Aces” that the Phillies featured a few seasons ago.

Now, there are several other issues regarding the Phillies exhibition season.  As we close in on the final two weeks of spring training, the Phillies roster is starting to come into focus—and there’s actually some good competition for the remaining roster spots.  The most competitive battle is for the three remaining bullpen spots, with several southpaws standing out.   Andy Oliver, Elvis Araujo, Mario Hollands, Adam Morgan, and Joely Rodriguez all have been throwing well with most of these pitchers not allowing a run so far this preseason.  Oliver (a Rule 5 player who the Phillies risk losing if not on the MLB roster this season) and Hollands (who pitched last year) probably have the edge, but the fact that so many of the young pitchers have looked impressive is an encouraging sign for the future.

The potential starting lineup is also intriguing.  If this team was battling for a playoff spot, the overabundance of left-handed bats would be a definite concern.  Since the Phillies are more in “talent retrieval mode,” the fact that the lefty-hitters are all making contact and squaring the ball up the last few days is worth noting.  Here’s my view of what an Opening Day lineup—especially if an opposing right-handed pitcher is throwing—might look like as of now:

CF – Ben Revere (L)
LF – Odubel Herrera or Grady Sizemore (both L)
2B – Chase Utley (L)
1B – Ryan Howard (L)
C – Carlos Ruiz (R)
3B – Cody Asche (L)
RF – Dom Brown (L)
SS –Freddy Galvis (S)

Also, with Ruiz getting older and coming off another season with an injury, he probably will only start three to four games per week.  This means his backup, unless they do add a significant name, will bat lower in the lineup, and will make the upper half of the lineup even more left-handed.

* * *
The other big subject on last week’s show dealt with the ongoing talk that the PIAA (the governing body for high school sports in Pennsylvania) could realign the classifications for high school football in the Keystone state.  The biggest issue with the new proposal is that it would change the current four classes format (based on male student enrollment numbers) to six classifications.

Here are a few thoughts on the proposal and how it could affect the football landscape in Pennsylvania.

As for District XI fans in the RCN viewing area, here’s a look at the current alignment and the potential breakdown—as of now—for what a six classification format would look like:

Class 4A— over 493 male students
Allen, Dieruff, Easton, East Stroudsburg South, Emmaus, Freedom, Liberty, Nazareth, Northampton, Parkland, Pleasant Valley, Pocono Mountain East, Pocono Mountain West, Stroudsburg, Whitehall.

Class 3A—300-49
Bangor, Bethlehem Catholic, Blue Mountain, Central Catholic, East Stroudsburg North, Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Pottsville, Saucon Valley, Southern Lehigh.

Class 2A—175-299
Catasauqua, North Schuylkill, Northern Lehigh, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Palisades, Palmerton, Panther Valley, Pen Argyl, Pine Grove, Salisbury, Tamaqua, Wilson.

Class A—1-174
Mahanoy Area, Marian Catholic, Minersville, Nativity, Pius X, Schuylkill Haven, Shenandoah Valley, Tri-Valley, Williams Valley.

Six-class proposal
Class 6A—608 male students and above
Dieruff, Easton, Emmaus, Freedom, Liberty, Northampton, Parkland, Pleasant Valley, Pocono Mountain East, Pocono Mountain West, Stroudsburg, William Allen.

Class 5A—410-607
Bangor, East Stroudsburg North, East Stroudsburg South, Nazareth, Southern Lehigh, Whitehall.

Class 4A—301-409
Blue Mountain, Central Catholic, Jim Thorpe, Lehighton, Pottsville, Saucon Valley.

Class 3A—210-300
Bethlehem Catholic, North Schuylkill, Northern Lehigh, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Palisades, Palmerton, Pen Argyl, Pine Grove, Salisbury, Tamaqua, Wilson.

Class 2A—148-209
Catasauqua, Mahanoy Area, Minersville, Panther Valley, Schuylkill Haven.

Class A—1-147
Marian Catholic, Nativity, Pius X, Shenandoah Valley, Tri-Valley, Williams Valley

My thoughts on this…I’m honestly not so sure it’s a good idea.  I think there are some positives (I’m all for shortening the season) along with some concerns.  There are some major hurdles that different sections of Pennsylvania would have to overcome (the biggest would be scheduling) in order for this to happen.  I also think it would put a strain on some of the newspapers and website outlets that cover high school football, to make the leap from covering (at most) two championships per night to potentially four or more—especially with newspaper staff numbers dwindling.

However, I have known District XI Football Chair Jason Zimmerman and several other proponents of this proposal for quite some time. I believe that Jason and the people he is working with genuinely care about the scholar athletes’ best interests and believe in doing what’s right for the kids in Pennsylvania.  If he feels strongly enough to invest his and other administrators and coaches’ time and energy into exploring this proposal, then I think we should all take a serious look at the ideas presented.

The SportsTalk Shop: “Districts & Regionals” Video Recaps

March 10, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Last week here at the “SportsTalk Shop,” I examined the top stories, teams and individuals involved in this year’s District XI boys and girls basketball tournament.  As always, the RCN crew did their usual outstanding job, bringing all the sights and sounds of the local playoffs to our viewers–their schedules stretched to the limit to cover as many basketball games as possible.  And let’s not forget the District XI and Northeast Individual Wrestling coverage our crew provided for our viewers.  This year’s tournaments certainly had their share of thrilling action, great individual performances and exciting finishes.

Here are video highlights from our District XI boys and girls basketball post-season coverage, as well as highlights from our playoff wrestling coverage.

 

Which highlights were your favorites from this year’s District XI playoffs?  Which teams made for the most exciting finishes?  Send us an email with your thoughts and opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read some of your comments on an upcoming show.  Also, here’s a reminder of a special “RCN SportsTalk” program on Thursday, March 12, from 6-7pm.  On this show, we’ll be joined by District XI Football Chair Jason Zimmerman and PIAA President Dr. Robert Lombardi to discuss the new “six football classifications” proposal, which could gather momentum later this month and potentially change the landscape for the sport in both the Lehigh Valley and in Pennsylvania.  We’ll also have a live update from Florida on the Phillies’ spring training news, and thoughts on who’ll make this year’s team.

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Hoops – District XI Recaps

March 4, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

It was another fun (and extremely hectic) District XI playoff season for us at RCN-TV.  A huge “THANK YOU” to all the representatives of the district, the athletic directors, coaches, statisticians (especially Bob & Pat Whirl!) and everyone involved in the tournament.  The playoffs were not without their share of exciting moments, a few upsets and some great storylines involving the communities within RCN’s Lehigh Valley coverage area.

Here are a few thoughts and observations regarding this year’s tournament.

1)  Parkland and Becahi Delivered
Coming into this season—heck, even over a year ago—the Parkland boys and Bethlehem Catholic girls basketball teams were the definitive teams-to-beat in the 2015 District XI tourney.  On paper, they clearly had the best teams, but that doesn’t always translate to winning a championship.  No matter how dominating their regular season, one bad night could shatter all of their expectations—especially with an early loss in the playoffs.  However, these teams came out and played their best.  What was more impressive was, if one player was having a rare off-night, others stepped up and delivered.  The result?  Neither of these teams needed a late-game, “sweat-it-out” basket to win its game, and entered the state playoffs as #1 seeds.  It’s one thing to appear to be the best team, but there’s something to be said for going out and executing each and every night.  Through many months of hard work and dedication, they made their success “look” easy, and winning every single game against every area opponent is a tremendous accomplishment for both of these schools.

2)  The Nazareth Community
One example of the truly special communities within the RCN area is Nazareth.  From its #1 fan (Andy Weaver) to its classy and professional head coaches (Joe Arndt, Rich Bickert), to its passionate fan base, it’s always fun to broadcast a Blue Eagle game.  Both teams took different routes to advance to the final day of the district playoffs.  The Nazareth girls team has several seniors armed with experience earned during the Blue Eagles’ 2013 championship season, mixed with some of the most talented sophomores in the area.  Many girls basketball experts thought Nazareth’s experience would give them the advantage over the upstart Red Rovers, a team I don’t think got as much attention as they deserved.  Easton has a host of athletic underclassmen and no doubt will be competing for league and district titles for many years to come.  But 2015 belong to the Eagles and I’m looking forward to seeing them in action this Friday in their opening round state game against Mount St. Joseph’s.  Especially with the game conveniently located, I’m expecting the people of Nazareth to take the short trip down Route 191 and continue to support their team as they embark on their playoff run.  (Programming note: Coach Bickert and members of his District Championship team will be guests on the March 19th edition of “RCN SportsTalk” at 6pm).

Speaking of the Eagles’ fan base, the people of Nazareth weren’t the only area basketball fans who were rooting for the Eagles boys team, a unit that embodied the spirit of the ‘Comeback Kids’ over the last few weeks.  Nazareth had to defeat Northampton (who was fighting for its league playoff life) just to qualify for the playoffs, then came back to beat Liberty (a team many pegged to play Parkland in the Championship) in the first round.  Then, they overcame a 12-point fourth quarter deficit to beat a Stroudsburg squad that had come the closest local team to beat the Trojans.  Finally, Nazareth bounced back from a 15-point third quarter deficit to force overtime against Whitehall in the semifinal, making for the most thrilling fourth quarter of the tournament.  Although Nazareth would go on to lose to Allen on the playoff’s final day, the Blue Eagles made for some lasting memories for many local basketball fans.  The fact that the boys athletes showed up at the girls’ games and vice versa was tremendous to see, and the entire town should be proud of its winter sports athletes.

3)  The “Ultimate” Underdogs
I don’t know if there’s a more underrated boys basketball head coach in the area than Salisbury’s Jason Weaver.  Ever since he took over the Falcons basketball program seven year ago, all they’ve done is win games.  Every couple years he’ll lose the entire starting lineup to graduation, and yet, by game one of the following season, the Falcons are right there, playing as well as anyone in the Colonial League…and each February they’re beating teams in the post season.  When Salisbury lost its top scorer Dasheen Reid before districts started, they came back and posted one of the most impressive start-to-finish games I saw all year in their win over Wilson.  They continued on and lost tough ball games to Central Catholic and Tamaqua to finish out their season, but, like Nazareth, I don’t know how many local basketball fans thought they would preserve through some adversity as well as they did, and should be commended for their effort.

And speaking of Salisbury, how about a shout-out to two of the top girls basketball performers in our area—the Falcons’ Meagan Eripret and also Palmerton’s Jade Farquhar.  Although we didn’t broadcast any of their games, I had a chance to watch both of these standout stars in action.  We interviewed Eripret for “SportsTalk” last year when her head coach Joe Mladosich won his 200th game and she was very well-spoken and unselfish when discussing her skills and abilities in relationship to the team’s success during her career at Salisbury.  She became the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,787 points and has made her Falcons a perennial post-season contender over the last few seasons.

Farquhar was the Colonial League’s MVP and she scored her 1,000th point in a game against Pleasant Valley earlier this season.  I was also told that she contributes countless hours volunteering at local organizations and youth activities.  I heard extremely wonderful things about both of these young ladies, both in terms of the performances on and off the court from people who follow girls basketball on a regular basis.

Another such individual I have had the good fortune of seeing often was Wilson’s Phil Pierfy, who’s tremendous scholastic basketball career came to an end in this year’s district playoffs.  He’s a two-sport standout star in basketball and baseball, and I know a number of college coaches in both sports that would love to add him to their teams.  Warrior’s Head Coach Bob Frankenfield would commonly refer to Phil as a great “STUDENT-athlete,” putting the emphasis on the first part of this term.   The high standard players like Eripret, Farquhar and Pierfy live up to are what true champions are made of, and should be celebrated just as much,  and in many cases more, than the trophy that’s raised at the end of the district tournament.

What other players should be recognized for great work this past winter sports season, and which individuals deserve “Shout-outs” for their efforts?  Send us an email with your thoughts and opinions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read some of your comments on our next show, March 12th from 6-7pm.  On this show, we are happy to be joined by District XI Football Chair Jason Zimmerman and PIAA President Dr. Robert Lombardi, to discuss the new “six football classifications” proposal, which could gather momentum later this month and potentially could change the landscape for the sport in both the Lehigh Valley and in Pennsylvania.

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Basketball Playoffs (Part 2)

February 23, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

Recently here at the “SportsTalk Shop,” we brought you highlights and insights on the larger Lehigh Valley basketball teams in this winter’s playoffs.  This week we look at some of the smaller schools, and a few of the girls teams that I had a chance to catch-up with over the last few weeks.

Like most basketball seasons, Allentown Central Catholic boys team is a favorite to compete for a District XI 3A title.  The Vikings are in search of their fifth straight championship, and may present the best chance of any team in the RCN area to win it.  The #1 seed is Pottsville–a team that also appears quite regularly in the playoffs.  Some winters, the Crimson Tide come into the playoffs with overwhelmingly impressive records…but that doesn’t always translate to postseason success.  Some years their quality of competition is not nearly what teams in the Lehigh Valley face, and the result is a quick exit from districts.  This is NOT one of those years, as Pottsville not only has played some very good teams, but also boasts some outstanding, multi-talented players.  These players also are great all-around athletes who excel at other sports.  Tamaqua is also having an outstanding year, but is in the “upper bracket,” meaning they’ll have to face the Tide in the district semifinal.  A loss to Pottsville means they would have to fight for the remaining playoff berth in the consolation game (FYI: District XI 3A has three teams that can qualify for the state playoff).

Speaking of “brackets,” it’s a shame that so many quality teams from the Lehigh Valley were all grouped together in the same (lower) 3A bracket, which limits the number of teams in the RCN viewing area teams to advance.  Central Catholic will face Salisbury in this Tuesday’s semifinal matchup.  The loser of that ball game will have to win the consolation game Friday in order to qualify for the PIAAs.

In the girls Colonial League championship, Notre Dame really impressed me with it’s lights-out defense and smart play.

The Crusaders held a very talented Northwestern offense to 15 first half points, while having five different players scoring eight or more points themselves.  Notre Dame featured outstanding balance on this year’s team.  Seniors Gabby Altmire, Sam Cabone and Julie Romich are outstanding leaders on and off the court.  Despite having a very young team (six of their nine regulation rotation players are underclassmen), they have many battle-tested players who’ve played in a number of close games against great competition throughout the past year.

Northwestern is also a very fun team to watch and showed lots of determination in the title game by coming back and not quitting, despite facing a 15-point deficit midway through the third quarter.  Seniors Sabrina Mertz and Sarah Segan are both capable of big scoring nights and leading a team that can also play great defense.  They are part of a 3A group loaded with talent. The Tigers figure to be viewed as underdogs heading into their semifinal game.

This brings us to the two best girls teams in the RCN viewing area–Bethlehem Catholic and Central Catholic–that met in the EPC championship this past Friday.

The Golden Hawks earned a hard-fought title, led by perhaps the best player in the state, Kalista Walters, who has scored 2,202 career points heading into the district playoffs.  Very few teams have been able to contain her in her scholastic career, and when they do she’s been amazing at finding the open teammate on the floor and dishing out assists.  Central Catholic might actually have more high-quality players and feature one of the premiere all-around athletes in the area (Darcy Wolf).  Becahi Head Coach Jose Medina has done a great job keeping the rhythm going after taking over the program very late in the process and Central Head Coach Mike Kopp is as good as it gets.  I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if these teams square-off against each other in districts, and make for another great battle.

You can watch the Becahi/Central championship and all of the local leagues’ girls and boys title games on RCN OnDemand.

Be sure to bookmark our RCN-TV website and check back often for updates on our playoff broadcast schedule as we cover the teams in the RCN viewing area over the next several weeks.  Also, we’d love to hear your comments on our local teams and athletes and want to spotlight great on-the-court performances on our “RCN SportsTalk: District Championship Preview Show” with guests Megan Dellegrotti and Joe Stellato, coming up this Thursday, February 26, from 6-7 pm.  Email your thoughts to rcnsportstalk@rcn.com and we may read and respond to your emails on this program.

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Hoops Playoff Primer

February 9, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

The Pennsylvania high school boys basketball playoffs have begun, with tons of talented teams ready to square off against each other over the next five weeks.

As we begin the road to state gold in Hershey, here are notes and highlights on some of the 4A teams that I’ve covered this winter for RCN Sports, along with a few predictions on what we might be able to expect from these teams this post-season.

PARKLAND
We’ve spend a few blog entries talking about just how good this year’s Trojan team is, and they have not disappointed, entering the playoffs with an undefeated EPC record. Quite frankly, Parkland was rarely tested in any of their league games and appeared to “turn on the switch” whenever they wanted to, to put games away and win contests by significant margins.

One aspect of the team that we have not addressed in previous blog entries is the Parkland “role” players.  Jack Dreisbach, Kenny Yeboah, Justin Jones and Kevin Dulorie are four players who haven’t gotten much attention in the media this basketball season.  Yet, when opponents try to stop some of the other top players, these four guys have stepped up and led the team to sound wins.  Dreisbach recently scored in double figures when Nazareth tried to double-down on other players.  Yeboah is a force in the paint, averaging seven points and nine rebounds per game.  Jones recently fueled a “put-away” run with seven points in limited action against a very good Emmaus team. Dulorie is a player with moves that would probably make him the go-to-guy if he was on at least half of the other teams’ rosters in the Lehigh Valley area.

It’ll be hard enough for many of the Trojans’ upcoming opponents to try to contain Kyle Stout, Sam Iorio, and DeVante Cross…but when these role players step up, as they have been doing of late, it might just be the icing on Parkland’s cake for a serious run in the state playoffs.

LIBERTY
The Hurricanes are probably one of two teams in the Lehigh Valley that have a legitimate shot at beating the Trojans on a given night.  Armed with an outstanding coaching staff, they have great balance  led by senior wingman Ludwin Gonzalez, and have the depth enabling them to attempt to beat Parkland with an up-tempo game.  They have an outstanding–and incredibly young–backcourt that would make for an exciting challenge for Cross to deal with.  Through no fault of their own, they haven’t been as battle-tested against the elite squads as other teams, thanks to their placement in the “Steel” division and the random selection of their non-division opponents.   However, they’ve proven themselves with dramatic victories over Allen, Freedom and Becahi, to name a few.

ALLEN
The Canaries might be the most athletic team in the area–period.  Although they didn’t face Parkland or Central Catholic, they have recorded more than their share of big wins.  They’ve also lost to Liberty twice, plus Nazareth and a few other teams that don’t have Allen’s solid winning percentage.  They have several scoring options in guards Bryson Walton, Koi Kostic and Talek Williams and from big men Isiah Hinton Gray, Jamiere Myers and Naequan Feliciano.  I don’t know if they have the consistency to be considered the leading candidates to win a league or district title.  That being said, they have the personnel to do it.  If they can channel the way I saw them play in the summer leagues, the Canaries might just win a winter title after all.

EASTON
I have not seen the Rovers in person, but watching them on RCN On-Demand made me think they can definitely win a few playoff games.  They enter the post-season as one of the hottest teams in the EPC.  Following their loss to Wilson in the Rotary Classic over the Christmas holidays, many thought Easton would have trouble making the District XI playoffs, let alone the league’s.  The Rovers have very good balance and nice size up front.  If they can continue the momentum they maintained in January, I think the die-hard Easton fans will be happy with their team in the playoffs.

WHITEHALL
Besides Parkland, no team played better on their home court than the Zephyrs.  They provided just enough offense and showcased a very impressive “match-up” defense to qualify for both the league and district post-season. Brett Radocha is the team’s only player scoring in double figures and Mikey Esquilin is one of the most exciting freshmen in Eastern Pennsylvania this winter.  However, Whitehall didn’t finish the season as strongly as many fans of the maroon-and-gold would have liked, and the Zephs never did seem to have the level of success away from the newly christened “Coach Tracy Court.”  On the positive side, they recorded very impressive wins over Liberty and Emmaus and will need similar efforts to have playoff success.

EMMAUS
The Hornets’ non-conference schedule might have been one of the most challenging of any team in the state.  The hope was that the high quality of competition they faced–and their wins in a few of them–would help Emmaus when they came home to play EPC teams.  They’ve had to withstand injuries to their top two players–twin brothers David and Matt Kachelries–who have both returned and picked up right where they were last season.  Junior center Joe Polczyski is one of the more underrated players in the league, but Emmaus fell short in several big divisional games in the season’s second half.  Head Coach Steve Yoder has done a remarkable job of rebuilding this program, I think, and his bench might be as deep as any in District XI.  I personally have yet to see the consistency in this team to put them in the “favorites” category to win a championship–this year, anyway.  I do think the team’s winning ways will continue even if they don’t win a title this season.

NAZARETH/NORTHAMPTON
Both of these teams’ head coaches, Joe Arndt and Coy Stampone, are two of the nicest guys in the area.  Both the Eagles and the K-Kids posted several big wins during the season.  Northampton is the “feel good” story of the winter with their dramatic turnaround from a sub-.500 season last year.  They could use their disappointment of missing out on the league playoffs (the “power point tiebreaker” kept them out of the playoffs by a couple one-thousands of a percentage point) to use as motivation in districts.  Nazareth defeated Northampton twice during the regular season and scored an impressive win over Allen as one of their highlights during the season.  Nazareth and Northampton both played a thrilling game against each other in the regular season finale and both teams could come back stronger than ever in 2016.  I don’t know if either team will have the firepower to contend this season, but they should be very proud of how well they played and how far they’ve come this winter.

SOUTHERN LEHIGH
Basketball fans may not realize that the Spartans are a 4A team this year, but the way they finished the regular season (wins over Saucon and Salisbury) has certainly given them a ton of momentum heading into the playoffs.  Currently, Southern Lehigh is ranked at the very bottom of the District XI standings, meaning they could face the toughest competition in the playoffs.  However, a Colonial League title win later this week would boost them up to a #2 seed and keep them away from facing Parkland as long as possible.  I like the job that Ben Tannous has done in just his second year, and he told me a few weeks ago that he would not count this season as a “success” until they posted wins over elite teams.  I think with their recent wins that they now have achieved that level and feel that there will be many more reasons to cheer this team going forward.

What are your thoughts on the top EPC teams and which players will shine during the league playoff season?  Join RCN Sports Director Gary Laubach, Joe Craig and myself on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show live from 6-7 pm as we preview the EPC and Colonial League girls and boys championship series and preview the next round of the playoffs for all classifications within the RCN viewing area.

The SportsTalk Shop: Three Wrestling Season Surprises

February 4, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

While many things unfolded the way most Lehigh Valley HS wrestling experts thought the season would, there were still several big surprises during this year’s District XI team wrestling season.  Here are a few of the highlights:

Becahi’s Level of Dominance
The fact that the Golden Hawks ran through its 3A district competitors in this, its first year moving up from being a “Class 2-A”  team, is not really a surprise.  They have been scoring victories over many local wrestlers from larger schools for some time during their competition in the now-defunct Lehigh Valley Conference.  What was shocking was by HOW MUCH Becahi beat up on other Lehigh Valley powers Easton, Parkland, Nazareth & company.  Here’s a look at three of their biggest wins over conference opponents—all by healthy margins – this winter.

Expect the Hawks’ success to continue in the state tournament this weekend and once the “individual” playoffs get underway in a few weeks.

Freedom’s Amazing Season
Last year we had Patriots’ Head Coach Brandon Hall on our “RCN SportsTalk” show and he told us some great stories about what he, his coaches and players have had to overcome in trying to build up the program —a task especially difficult with the high level of competition in the Lehigh Valley.  His team took the next step in a big way—entering the playoffs with an amazing 24-0 record and an impressive win in the “American” Division of the highly competitive Virginia Duals tournament.  Freedom’s next step will be to continue this high level of success for the next few years against the powerhouse teams in the Eastern Pennsylvania region.  However, you have to give a huge congratulations to Coach Hall and his team for all of their success this year—and putting together a season that no one outside of the northern half of Bethlehem saw coming.

Aside from any match involving Becahi, Freedom and most of the other teams in the newly formed Eastern Pennsylvania Conference made for entertaining team competition this winter.  Here are a few of the best matches, including this past weekend’s “Ultimate Qualifier”:

Northern Lehigh’s 2A Championship
Becahi no longer competing in the 2A bracket left a wide-open district tournament for some team to come up and win this year’s crown—a title the Hawks have dominated over the last few seasons.  Saucon Valley headed a field of impressive smaller schools that had multiple talented wrestlers this season.  Head Coach Chad Spirk has done an amazing job over his career of building his program—which sometimes in the past was overshadowed by other teams’ performances from the LVC.  However, it was Northern Lehigh’s Steve Hluschak and his Bulldogs that pulled off the win over the Colonial League Champion Panthers to advance into this weekend’s PIAA tourney as the #1 2A representative from District XI.  Northern Lehigh was one of several teams that made for a great season, along with Northwestern, Notre Dame and Bangor.  Most of these head coaches were on “SportsTalk” recently—you can hear more about their teams and their thoughts on local wrestling by watching the show for free through RCN On-Demand.

Speaking of “SportsTalk,” this Thursday (Feb. 5th) at 6pm, we’ll have our “Ultimate” wrestling panel with local legends Gene Waas and Sam Burgio joining Jack Logic, Joe Craig and myself as we preview this weekend’s State Finals, the upcoming District XI Individual Wrestling Tournament and give our thoughts on some controversial decisions that were made in terms of forming the new playoff system.  We’ll also have wrestling experts Brad Wilson and Scott Barr on our February 19th live show to preview RCN’s coverage of that weekend’s “Individuals Championships” and also give their takes on local wrestling issues.

We’d love to hear your comments & questions about Lehigh Valley HS wrestling!  Who stood out in your mind as the top individual wrestlers…and which other team’s exceeded expectations?  Email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and we’ll read and respond to your emails on our upcoming live shows!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: College Basketball Updates

January 27, 2015 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

In the last several blog entries, we’ve examined a plethora of winter sports news in the RCN-TV coverage areas dealing with professional and scholastic sports.  This week, I’d like to highlight some exciting accomplishments among the collegiate teams in action right now.

First, I had a chance to talk with American University’s Head Basketball Coach Mike Brennan about a series of standout moments in his current season—from several last-second, game-winning contests, both in and out of the Patriot League, to his team meeting baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. as well as other highlights in his current season.

Some of American’s highlights this year include Pee Wee Gardner scoring two last second, game-winning baskets in consecutive games.  Gardner’s late-game heroics earned him Patriot League Player of the Week honors this past week.   The Eagles also posted several non-conference wins including an overtime defeat against La Salle, and nearly beating my alma mater, Temple, in its opening game of the season.  It won’t be an easy week as the defending Patriot League champ has to play four of its next five games on the road, including tough ones against Navy,  Holy Cross, and the team currently in first place in the league, Colgate.   The Raiders jumped out to their best start in decades this season and have been very tough playing at home this winter.

Currently Brennan’s squad finds itself just one game out of first place, and just ahead of two other teams in our viewing area, Lehigh and Lafayette.  Speaking of the Mountain Hawks and Leopards, they also have some impressive wins this year.  Lafayette has posted wins against Princeton, Penn, NJIT, Loyola Maryland and Boston—a team that lost to American in last year’s league championship.  Lehigh barely squeaked by the Leopards when the two teams met last weekend and has tough opponents coming up against Bucknell and Army over the next week.

On the women’s side, Lafayette’s Emily Homan was recently selected as one of 30 women’s basketball candidates for the Senior CLASS Award. The senior forward leads the Leopards and is second in the Patriot League in scoring, averaging nearly 18 points per game.  Lehigh’s Kerry Kinek, who had an outstanding scholastic career at Allentown Central Catholic, continues to have an outstanding junior campaign, and is among her team’s leaders in points, three-points, blocks, three-point and free throw shooting percentages and rebounding.

I had the tremendous honor of watching another player in high school, Darrun Hilliard, who continues to lead a Villanova team that’s currently ranked fourth in the nation.  Hilliard leads the team in points and three-pointers and is second in a bunch of other statistical categories.  Nova is coming off a tough loss to another team in the RCN viewing area, Georgetown, 78-58.  The win puts the Hoyas one win ahead of the Wildcats in the Big East Standings, and should make for an interesting rematch when the two teams square off against each other once again in early February in Philadelphia.

Kara Bonenberger, another outstanding athlete RCN viewers had a chance to see play at Northampton HS, has gone on to a stellar career at Penn (currently 9-5 in the Ivy League).  She’s been part of an “Iron-5” that has started every game so far this year and is among her team’s leaders in points, rebounds and field goal percentage.  Bonenberger, a senior co-captain who has earned many rewards during her collegiate career, leads a team that’s looking to defend its Ivy League title.  Penn’s recent highlights include wins over Temple, NJIT and Richmond but still have more than half its league schedule still to play.

Other Big 5 notes include my Owls pulling off a big win against a Kansas team ranked tenth in the nation at the time they played.  Following three consecutive league losses, Temple has bounced back with a win over USF and has several big contests coming up over the next several weeks if they want to improve their seeding for the American Conference playoffs.  The Owls will face all the teams currently in front of them in the standings, with UConn and Cincinnati coming to the Liacouras Center and Temple having to travel to play SMU and Memphis on the road.

St. Joe’s and LaSalle have struggled to stay above .500 and find themselves several games back of the top spot in the Atlantic-10.  However, another team in our area, George Washington, has jumped out to an amazing start and finds itself with just one league loss entering a big ball game against VCU.   The Colonials are led by Patricio Garino, Kethan Savage and Kevin Larsen—all scoring in double figures for GW this season.

What other college teams in the RCN-TV viewing area would you like to see us highlight here on the “SportsTalk Shop” or on our live Thursday night “SportsTalk” show?  Which players in our coverage area deserve some extra mention or should receive a shout-out?  We always welcome your comments, suggestions and opinions!  Email us at any time at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and check back for more updates on teams and athletes in the RCN viewing area!

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.

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