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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.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies’ Off-Season Countdown Clock is Ticking

October 28, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

The Phillies organization is at a crossroads. After seeing the team steadily decline each year since their 2008 World Championship, the team hit rock bottom this summer. Finishing last in their division and wincing from a sharp drop-off in attendance, the Phillies must swing into action to recapture the city’s interest. They need to give fans reason to think the Sixers won’t be relevant more quickly than the Phillies, and I’m not buying in to Acting CEO Pat Gillick’s suggestion that the team is content to wait until 2017 to make a playoff run. With the Delaware Valley nearly universally disappointed that Ruben Amaro, Jr. is coming back as the General Manager, the focus on off-season moves will be even more scrutinized than ever, and Amaro’s future is clearly resting on what he does over the next few months.

With that in mind, here’s an itinerary of issues that must be addressed before we (hopefully) see many dominos fall this winter. Or, if they don’t make major moves, here’s why.

1) A. J. Burnett – One of the biggest underperformers of the 2014 season is going to have a huge effect on what the Phillies can do this offseason. He is contemplating retirement and, five days after the World Series concludes, he must decide if he is going to return or not. If he does, he’s guaranteed $12.75-million (more with incentives) and his decision will largely affect what else the team does this winter.

If he does return, the Phillies’ available cap space would be slashed from over $30-million to around $17-mil, which will drastically change who the team tries to target via the free agent market, or if they can somehow swing a deal for a big-name player. If Burnett does NOT return, they’ll need to find a new “#3 pitcher”…although replacing Burnett’s numbers from this past season shouldn’t be too difficult. There’s a handful of players (Ervin Santana, Ryan Vogelsong, Brandon McCarthy and others) that should bring you better quality at a lower per-year cost. The downside is that it will detract from what should be the team’s top priority (and should have been for the last several winters), which is improving the lineup. From my sources, I would lead towards Burnett’s return, which is why they already spent money re-signing Jerome Williams to bolster the back end of the rotation (see more below on him).

2) Ryan Howard – The Phillies have already decided what they’d “like” to do with their former All-Star slugger. It’s a question of ‘can the team unload him in the “right” deal?’ They’re willing to each money, and they’d like to get at least something in return for him, but other teams are well aware of their strategy. It will be difficult to swing any deal in which other franchises don’t try to take the Phillies to the cleaners. Whether or not Howard returns is also a major factor in the team’s offseason priorities…dealing him increases their long-term salary relief, plus they’ll have to find another #4 hitter (Yasmany Tomas?) and figure out who will take over first base (Maikel Franco, Darin Ruf, Chase Utley?) BTW: If the Phillies don’t get Yomas but do unload Howard somehow, don’t be surprised if Pablo Sandoval becomes a target. Not likely to happen, but he would be your next, best offensive upgrade.

3) Dominic Brown/Antonio Bastardo – Two former golden boys with the organization that turned in a less-than-stellar 2014 campaign. Both have members of the Phillies’ front office championing their cause, fighting to give them one more chance in 2015, but both could also use a change of scenery. The problem in trading them is similar to Howard’s situation: you’re not going to get much in return, and they’re both young enough that they could one day hit their stride (raise your hand if you’re tired of seeing ex-Phillies players making contributions on playoff teams!) It might just be in the organization’s best interest to hold onto both of them, especially Brown. However, doing so means you’re giving up a roster spot to a potential improvement and cutting into your team salary by about $3-million per player.

4) The Bench – Another glaring weakness of the ’14 team that needs a major boost—seeing the declining ability of aging vets like Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd as the season wore on only heightens their need for improvement. Following the re-signing of Grady Sizemore, the decisions on Howard and Brown will affect which direction the team goes for the remaining reserve spots this offseason, and what positions they’ll need to target in acquiring players. Personally, filling in bench personnel has been almost as under-executed as developing pitching through their farm system. Cesar Hernandez and Freddy Galvis might be decent “day-off” players when spelling Utley or Rollins, but having to force John Mayberry or Carlos Ruiz into the heart of the batting order shows a serious lack of depth in the power department…and there are very few free agent options available. Also, and this will be even more necessary if one of the relievers is moved, the team could use another veteran with experience for the bullpen to add stability in case one of the younger pitchers takes a step backwards in 2015.

5) Pap – Jonathon Papelbon continues to be a wild card—in more ways than one—to the Philllies’ future plans. On the one hand, he’s been a steady mentor to the younger players both on and off the field, he’s still one of the game’s top closers and has been a hallmark of consistency and has remained injury-free during his time in Philadelphia. On the other hand, he commands a ridiculously outrageous salary, he’s seen as blocking the development of Ken Giles and Jake Diekman and also has shown a propensity to act like a horse’s…uh, rear end. Detroit is probably lamenting declining the Phillies’ offer to ship him to the Motor City, since the Tigers’ faulty bullpen leads directly to the team’s undoing in the playoffs. The fact that Detroit was afraid he’d be a clubhouse disruption shows to what extent other teams will go to NOT acquire Pap. And perhaps, with everything considered, it’s not the worst thing in the world to have him return.

Right now, this is how your 2015 Phillies pitching staff is shaping up.

SP – Cole Hamels
SP – Cliff Lee (if healthy)
SP – A. J. Burnett (or another free agent if he declines his option)
SP – David Buchanan
SP – Jerome Williams
SP/RP – Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez
RP – Antonio Bastardo (if not dealt)
RP – Luis Garcia (or an low-risk/high reward veteran?)
RP (2nd lefty) – Mario Hollands
RP (7th innnng) – Justin DeFratus
RP (Lefty Specialist) – Jake Diekman
RP (Set-up Man) – Ken Giles
RP (Closer) – Jonathan Papelbon

Keeping Papelbon, whether they really have a choice or not, adds stability to the overall staff. Also, I do like the signing of Jerome Williams which took place last week (one-year, $2.5-million). I know a few people complained to me that they spent money on a pitcher who only had a good two-month stretch with the Philllies (and a horrific first four months with other teams). However, for his “small cost” (by modern day pitchers’ salary numbers) he gives you someone that you can count on to fill out the rotation and also has versatility to help out in the bullpen. Think a younger, cheaper version of last year’s Roberto Hernandez, who actually pitched pretty well during his time in Philly last year. Assuming everyone is healthy, you now have a decent-enough pitching staff and can devote the rest of your offseason to tweaking the offense.

One more thing…Cole Hamels. It would definitely be a game-changer if they trade him this winter. I wouldn’t think—if it happens at all—that this is likely to happen early in the hot stove season as the loser(s) in the Max Scherzer/James Shields/Jon Lester free agency races will be more desperate (and willing to ante-up more) for a top quality, #1 pitcher like Hamels. Of course, the Phillies could still enter the “buy-an-ace” sweepstakes  as I had suggested during the season.

OK. Wind your clocks and start watching the transaction roll-in. But remember to keep an eye on the items mentioned above if you start scratching your head wondering when the ‘what-the-heck-are-they-doing’ moves start to take place.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Analyzing the “Big East”

October 22, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference’s first football regular season is heading down the home-stretch with several “big” (Class 4A) schools all looking impressive and making a run for the District XI playoffs. Here we take a look at some of the top teams in this category so far this season (we’ll take a look at the smaller schools in an upcoming blog post).

STROUDSBURG
The Mountaineers proved their mettle with a hard-fought win in an “interesting” back-and-forth contest with previously undefeated, league-favorite Bethlehem Catholic last weekend.

S’burg rode the back of Gerald Douglas for a large part of the Becahi game and he responded, showing why he’s one of the top tail backs in the district. John Jakobsen delivered some clutch passes to Joel Ozoemena, Marcello Riccardi and other receivers when his team needed him to, and the defense led by Quintin Small stepped up and made some big-time plays in keeping the team undefeated. Riccardi also proved to be a key weapon and changed field position with his returns, and Nico Ruiz displayed one of the most powerful legs in the region. The Mounties have already taken a huge step in proving themselves in the new EPC (on our fall preview show in August, I promised they would) and, depending on who they match up against in the first round of the playoffs, the Mountaineers could advance past the first round this fall.

FREEDOM
Patriot fans may not want to hear this, but regardless of what happens the rest of the season, you already have to count the 2014 season as a success for their tremendous turnaround. If you take an absolute worse-case scenario the rest of the season, the Pats finish 7-3 with a District XI playoff appearance. Objectively, to go from 2-8 a year ago and make that kind of about-face in the EPC 4-A classification is nothing short of remarkable. In my opinion, Jason Roeder deserves to be named “Coach of the Year” right now. I think they match up very well and can beat Liberty next weekend and could beat more than half of the teams that they could face the following week. They will miss quarterback Joe Young, but they have enough young talent still available (and many will return for 2015), and have shown me enough to buy in to this year’s team. Their highlights include a close contest versus Parkland, but their signature win so far this year was their overtime victory at Whitehall.

WHITEHALL
The Zephyrs impressed the entire area with their win over Parkland, and followed that effort up with one of the wildest games in recent memory against Easton. With two losses, people will forget about Whitehall come playoff time—which is a very dangerous proposition. Don’t forget, this was a team that featured perhaps the best back in the area, numerous explosive weapons on offense, and a big, fundamentally sound line that people were raving about two weeks ago. They should win their final two regular season games and clinch a district playoff berth. Once in the postseason, I think the Zephs will make the adjustments necessary to have a run at advancing in the tournament.

PARKLAND
I have not had a chance to see a Parkland game in person so far this season, but RCN’s Tony Cocca has, and on our most recent “SportsTalk” show, he felt that the team was just not jelling the way Parkland teams normally do by this time of year. Their track record has been to lose to a team or two early, and then storm back and win when the games matter most. That could play out again as, on paper, they could be the best team in the area. The Trojans should defeat both Nazareth and Emmaus to finish the regular season with just two losses, which would put them directly behind Easton and Stroudsburg in the district rankings and could pave the way for an eventual rematch from their tight-fisted affair against the Rovers.

EASTON
The Rovers will be able to talk about their successful season for themselves as they will be our guests on the October 30th edition of “RCN SportsTalk” (live from 6-7pm). We invite you to tune in to get their opinions on the 2014 season and their thoughts on the upcoming playoff picture. Plus you can contact us during the show with your comments and questions and perhaps win a nice prize. In the meantime, here’s a look at some of the highlights from their record-setting game against Whitehall.

While we invite you to keep watching the football playoff games the next two weeks as the teams jockey for playoff positioning, don’t forget to check out RCN’s special Halloween programming. It starts on Thursday, October 30th at 11:30 pm and runs through early Saturday morning (with a break for Friday night’s high school football games) featuring some of the greatest and most terrifying horror classics of all-time. And there’s a special surprise for this year’s movie marathon. You’ll have to tune in for yourself to find out what it is…if you dare!

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies “September Call-Ups” Recap

October 14, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

With the “Montgomery-out, Middleton-in” rumors subsiding—at least for the short term–it’s time to take a look back at the final weeks of the Phillies baseball season as they begin the daunting task of “retooling” with many weighty contracts remaining on the books. When a team like the Phillies find themselves wallowing in the basement for most of the Major League Baseball season, die-hard fans hold out hope for the September call-up season. This is the time when rosters expand and organizations can bring up a few of its younger players, hopefully to show some glimpses of hope that next season will be different. Here we take a look at the Phillies players recalled later in the season, and an analysis of how things played out for them this past month.

Maikel Franco
He may have won over a spot on the 2015 roster just by his defense alone. While one of the knocks against him was his slow foot speed and an assumed lack of range at third base, Franco made some of the most spectacular plays no one saw this year (the Phillies were practically eliminated from the postseason before Franco got a chance to play on a regular basis). While incredibly streaky for the first several months at Triple-A (he told me he HATES the cold weather with a passion), his bat warmed up enough over the summer that the Phillies tried playing him at the major-league level against mostly left-handed pitching. Unfortunately, Franco never really hit his stride offensively and further clouded the issue of what the Phillies should do with their corner infield situation (Franco also looked adequate playing first base). One may pencil him in as a platoon-option to start next year, but don’t be surprised if he continues to struggle for the first two months of the 2015 season.

Cameron Rupp
It was a curious season overall for Rupp—a guy who appears to be about as ‘old school’ as they now come when talking about playing baseball the way it should be played. He impressed the Phillies brass with his defensive ability and surprised them a bit with his strong arm and knack for throwing out base runners. However, Rup took a major step backwards in terms of his offense. Triple-A Manager Dave Brundage would often speak of Rup’s ability to hit in clutch situations—unfortunately he did get many chances to hit with men on base, and batted a pitiful .165 (.555 OPS). In limited latter season opportunities, his major league numbers weren’t much better, calling into question his ability to be a capable MLB backup catcher. He’s an incredibly good guy who calls a nice game behind the dish. I hope he can turn things around in 2015, but don’t be surprised if the Phillies look to add more upper-level organization depth at this position this winter.

Cesar Hernandez/Freddy Galvis
Both of these players have very similar skill-sets: Hernandez is a better offensive threat while Galvis has the defensive edge. Galvis got more playing time in September and looked to be swinging the bat well enough to earn him the inside track between these two players for what now looks to the utility infield position for next year. Hernandez, who hits fastballs well, which is usually a good characteristic of a pinch-hitter, really didn’t overwhelm anyone in his limited at-bats in the season’s final month. Both of these players are out of options, which means whoever doesn’t make the Opening Day ’15 roster could be lost to another team. One of the many question marks for this offseason will be if the Phillies can trade Ryan Howard, possibly allowing Chase Utley to be moved to first base, which would save him some wear-and-tear. If that occurs, Hernandez and Galvis (along with possibly Cody Asche) would probably compete for the second base position, with the loser having a chance to stick around as the extra infielder.

Mike Adams
Signed as a guy to add stability to the back end of the bullpen, Adams never stayed healthy long enough in his two-year stint to make a difference in Philadelphia. The Phillies will certainly not pick up his $6-million team option for 2015 and even though he returned to the parent club in September, he fell well short of the 60-inning qualifier that would allow his third-year extension to kick in. He was overheard saying that he felt guilty signing a 2-year, $12-million contract yet barely saw extending time due to injuries. If Adams truly does feel bad about not helping the team, he might be brought back in an incentive-heavy contract to give some experience and mentoring skills to what will be a young pen next year, especially if they find a way to unload Jonathan Papelbon this offseason.

Tony Gwynn Jr.
It was a tough year for one of the nicest guys in the Philadelphia clubhouse this season. Gwynn started the year on the Opening Day roster, but eventually lost his job to Ben Revere. Tony then lost his Hall of Fame father, and one of the classiest athletes ever, Tony Sr., followed by a demotion to the minor leagues. This one-time prospect’s future is probably not with the Phillies, unless Revere is moved. One of the primary jobs for the front office is to upgrade the offense in the outfield, and Gwynn’s roster spot is one of the most likely ones to be replaced by whatever additions take place.

Luis Garcia/Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez
Two guys with electric stuff who came into the organization from very different situations. Garcia was out of baseball a few years ago but worked his way back to become the top pitcher in the Phillies farm system (as evidence by his winning of the Paul Owens Award). I talked with Luis a few times this year and he is loving every minute of his second chance with the organization and, when he has command of his pitches, is incredibly tough to hit against. Gonzalez, like Garcia, has been erratic this September, and neither pitched well enough on a consistent basis to lock in a spot for 2015. The hope was the Gonzalez, highly touted when initially signed, would show enough to give you reason to think he could slide into one of the open starting pitchers’ slots for next year. However, even when he had success in Triple-A he didn’t always show the aggressiveness needed and seemed too fine with his pitchers, to give you reason that he could be counted on going forward as anything more than a long-man. Gonzalez is owed two more years on his $12-million deal, forcing the Phillies to be patient with him. At the same time, it will be hard for the team to justify keeping two roster spots for right-handed relief pitchers with control issues when they are so many other issues to address.

It will definitely be an intriguing offseason for the Phillies, who have many holes to fill if they have any hope of competing for a playoff spot next year. The members of the front office claim they are ready to move in a new direction, but I remember Ruben Amaro Jr. making similar suggestions after the 2012 season, only to have the team remain mostly status quo. Trading big-money contracts like Howard and Papelbon will not be easy. The Phillies must upgrade their offense, bench and starting pitching with very few bargaining chips to use in trades (save Cole Hamels and Chase Utley) and very few quality options in the free agent market. Unfortunately, the team got very limited reasons for optimism from what they saw from their September roster additions and very few questions resolved about many of the team’s current players. Once the MLB postseason concludes, watch for the Phillies to start laying the groundwork to hopefully revamp the team to be more competitive for 2015.

 

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