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The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Minor League Outlook

April 7, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

Much has been made about the “advanced” age of the Phillies as the 2014 season commences. Regardless of the degree of success of the parent club, it is essential for the long-term success of the organization that the team produces major league talent through its farm system.

Here are some thoughts and expectations from some of the Phillies minor leagues players themselves and then more insights on players within the Phillies organization to watch this summer.

Here are more opinions on the Phillies’ prospects…

1) Maikel Franco has spoken often about working hard and doing what’s necessary to improve and become a major league ball player. While he is the most advanced, top prospect within the Phillies organization, he is very focused on trying to improve his overall game. He showed no preference to which position he will ultimately play and said he feels comfortable at playing both first and third base, stating that footwork and improving his mechanicals for the pitchers’ throw-overs are his main defensive goals to work on this season. I was impressed by the lack-of-ego persona he’s exhibited in our conversations this spring and he is a very likeable future star that Phillies fans can easily root for.

2) There is now a sign in the Philadelphia Phillies’ clubhouse that says “Respect the Game”, and that message is being echoed by the players throughout the team’s farm system. Cameron Rupp, Steve Susdorf and Andres Blanco have all repetitively made mentions to me about playing the game the “right way” and the need to make good decisions and to play hard at all times.

3) Barry Enright is one of the “older players” (28) that the Phillies brought in to add starting pitching depth. While his numbers last year were not impressive (a ERA north of 7.00 with the Angels’ Triple-A team last season), I was struck by how much he talked about a young pitcher’s ability to pitch when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Instead of complaining or using that as an excuse, he stressed (and I have a feeling new pitching coach Bob McClure has emphasized) the need to try to throw strikes consistently even when you don’t have good stuff on the mound. Eliminating walks is a major need for this organization’s pitchers, and it’s important that the players seemed to be getting that message.

4) The Phillies look to be in good shape behind the dish. At many levels of the organization, the Phillies can boast two solid catching options. Rupp heads the list of catchers and spoke about the importance of having competition to make everyone better. He also identified some solid goals to work on defensively this season, to go along with his impressive offensive potential. Veteran Koyie Hill also started the year at Triple-A and has major league experience with several teams. Two former blue-chip prospects, Tommy Joseph and Sabastian Valle, still have potential and will share time at Double-A. Andrew Knapp has perhaps the highest ceiling of all the young backstops in the organization and Deivi Grullon is looking to build on a solid season in the Gulf Coast League last summer.

5) I continue to have the same opinion of Jesse Biddle as I did midway through last season. Like in the limited times I saw him pitch at Reading last season, he needs to develop that consistency (there’s that word again) in throwing strikes to reach the parent club. I don’t believe he will be the next Cole Hamels, as I’ve heard some fans assume, and I think he’ll be more of a #3 or a #4-type of pitcher in the major leagues. I would love to be proven wrong as the lefty does have impressive stuff.

Which players do you think can be future stars with the Phillies? Which players would you like to see playing at the Big League level right now? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com with your opinions and baseball observations.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies 2014 Season Outlook (part 1)

March 31, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

The expectations are not nearly as high for this Phillies this season as they’ve been in recent springs, but ready or not, Opening Day (and the unofficial end to this miserable winter) is here!

In preparation for the new baseball season, we recapped the action from this year’s spring training down in Florida on last week’s “RCN SportsTalk” show, and coming up this Thursday, we’ll provide an overview of the Phillies and other teams’ major and minor league systems (our special guests will be ESPN’s Eric Longenhagen & PhillyBaseball.com ‘s Chuck Hixson).

First, here’s a sample of the insights we discussed about the Phillies, their prospects from the exhibition season and thoughts on the new season from inside the Phillies organization:

Here are a few more comments and observations from this year’s spring training season and elements to watch as the 2014 season unfolds.

1) Pray for good health. Ryne Sandberg has been much more adept at resting his older players to keep them fresh. While Charlie Manual would often speak of doing this in the preseason, he would quickly resort to playing his veteran ball players heavily which certainly wouldn’t help the established players deal with injuries as the season would unfold. Still, with an aging core, there’s no question that most of the starting players will have to stay healthy for the entire year for the team to have any shot at the playoffs.

2) The bullpen looks good. In talking with a writer who covered the team this spring, I ask which relievers really impressed him and he rattled off five or six different names. In fact, his biggest question mark was with the team’s closer, Jonathan Papelbon, and his velocity and mental approach to the season. If the young relievers can truly develop this season (Jake Diekman might be the stopper before the year is out), this will be a positive for the organization going forward regardless of the outcome of this year’s campaign.

3) The lack of bench power. For various reasons, the team lost potential bench pieces Freddy Galvis, Darin Ruf, Bobby Abreu, Kevin Frandsen and Ronnie Cedeno before the final exhibition game in Clearwater. John Mayberry, Jr. will start the season (barring a waiver-wire addition) as the team’s sole source of power off the bench. Although I was impressed by Tony Gwynn, Jr. and Cesar Hernandez’s preseason, the team starts 2014 with a huge collection of singles-hitters as pinch-hitting options. Plus, there’s SERIOUS depth issues among the organization’s position players. If you lose any combination of Chase Ultey, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cody Asche for any length of time, you’re not just talking about the season being over, you are looking at players who potentially open the season at Double-A needing to step up and play in the big leagues.

We’ll have more on the Phillies, as well as insights on other major and minor league teams on this Thursday’s “SportsTalk” show. And in next week’s post, we’ll hear from some of the Phillies prospects themselves and their outlook on the 2014 season. In the meantime, post a comment below or email us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com with your thoughts on spring training and predictions for the Phillies in 2014!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The Art of the Tank

March 24, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

It’s been a curious season for the Philadelphia 76ers. New General Manager Sam Hinkie initially drew sharp criticism because of his limited amount of “media time” he presented fans when he first came to the City of Brotherly Love. That bitterness soon turned to optimism once he started his plan for the future for his NBA team, which brings us to today’s topic.

Tanking.

First of all, let me be clear about this. On a recent “RCN SportsTalk” show, a fellow disagreed with me in stating the 76ers were tanking. I don’t think the players are trying to lose, nor are they doing anything on purpose to keep the 76ers from winning games. This is not a point-shaving issue. This is about Hinkie putting the Sixers in a situation when they have very little hope of winning games, so that they improve their chances of getting a higher pick—and better players—in the draft for the next few seasons.

Hinkie unleashed his strategy with a vengeance when he traded his only All-Star caliber player, Jrue Holiday, on Draft Day 2013. He has continued his game plan by trading nearly every player making significant dollars, which not only enhances the team’s propensity to lose, but also clears cap space so that the team will be able to —one day—sign quality free agency to compliment the players the team selects in the draft.

The 76ers also seem to have handled the marketing nightmare of trying to attract fans and season ticket holders during a period in which they are unabashedly trying to lose—and lose royally. They adopted the slogan, “Together We Build”, and even the team’s announcers have done an admirable job of dismissing the monstrosity of what is happening on the court, with promoting what the future may hold DURING their game broadcasts.

This artistic strategy to reboot the franchise was fully embraced by the Delaware Valley area. Every few years, whether it’s the Sixers, Phillies, Eagles, or, to a much lesser extent, the Flyers, the call inevitably rises for a team to “blow themselves up” and start over. Phillies fans have been asking/hoping/praying/demanding for this for some time, and unless the Spring Training results are a complete aberration of what’s to come, they’ll probably be correct in assessing there will not be any postseason games played in Philly this fall. From time to time, a team–if they’ve failed miserably in their retooling effort—must start anew. Last summer, and even through the majority of the 76ers season, the fan base has celebrated this strategic approach to completely gut the team, in an effort to be good three, four, or even five years from now.

Alas, all is not cozy among basketball fans in the Delaware Valley.

Apparently, the 76ers have been too successful—at losing.

There’s now a growing minority of fans that have now seen enough of the horrific defeats. The Sixers have failed to cover even the most gargantuan of line spreads to some of the other weaker teams in the NBA. Plus, the fact that this team is setting all-time records in futility is now starting to irritate die-hard basketball fans. This past week, the team shattered a franchise record for consecutive losses and few would dispute the team has an excellent chance of breaking the league’s consecutive-loss record of 26 set by the Cavaliers in 2011.

There also seems to be some surprise when we as journalists are asked by fans if we expect the team to make the playoffs in the next two years and I, and others, say “no way.” The art of “tanking” is not a guaranteed process, and it will take time—AT LEAST three years, minimum. And even then, you need the team to draft wisely—for every draft pick. Plus, you need to find a way to entice quality free agents to come to a situation that requires a player, who only has a handful of seasons to play this game, to show patience. You need to avoid injuries, you need chemistry to magically develop among the new players, and a little bit of luck is also a requirement. And even then, there’s no guarantees the team will win a championship.

Meanwhile, blogs, websites, tweets and columnists are all having fun with the plight of the lowly Sixers, and “#Winless for Wiggins,” and “#LowSeedForEmbiid” have been trending anytime the team is in the news. Talk show hosts are beginning to hear their audience saying “enough is enough” of all the lackadaisical play, and I’ve heard more than one fan echo, “We really don’t have to be THIS bad, do we?”

My response to these people…isn’t this want you wanted? In fact, Philadelphia fans have been begging for a demolition of your sports teams for years. As soon as a team peaks, or shows very little promise for the next season, the fan base’s instinct is to call for a complete overall of the franchise. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, nor the level of recent success a general manager has had. The call for a MAJOR overall of the 76ers has been requested…and granted, and the Sixers organization has brilliantly executed that strategy. Fans, like it or not, have gotten exactly what they asked for.

Remember this, when the Phillies are eight games under .500 in mid-May.

Are you on-board with the Sixers’ “tanking” this season? Which players would you like the team to obtain via the draft and free agency? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us Thursdays live at 6pm on RCN-TV as we discuss local, regional and national sports issues each week.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: State Playoff Recaps

March 17, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

It was another exciting high school playoff season on RCN-TV, filled with outstanding teams and athletes, and a few surprises along the way. Before we transition to the spring sports season, I wanted to highlight some of the top moments during this year’s PIAA state basketball playoffs. Keep in mind, these observations are based on the teams I had a chance to see and didn’t include the teams from the western part of Pennsylvania.

BEST TEAM I SAW—BOYS
Neumann-Goretti was not just an athletic and talented team, they were QUICK! Quick when passing, playing defense, leaping ability…even on the break. Central Catholic played a great game and is loaded with fast players themselves, but I really don’t know if there’s another team in the state that could play with Neumann-Goretti in an up-tempo style game.

http://youtu.be/hGcZqNHZAj0

Central Catholic also had a great playoff run, and I can shamelessly mention that my early January prediction that the Vikings would make it to the state quarterfinals proved correct. (RCN basketball experts Tom Stoudt and Joe Craig said I was crazy for saying that, but you can see for yourself by checking out “RCN SportsTalk” for free On-Demand). Central posted two solid wins in states before seeing their season come to an end and have a lot of to be proud of what they accomplished in 2014.

BEST TEAM I SAW—GIRLS
North Penn not only had the best overall defensive team I saw all year, but they had multiple players who could score. Against Northampton, they were the only team I saw—boys or girls—that had FOUR players score 11 or more points in a game. They also brought in players off the bench that could play with most teams in the state. They have an excellent Head Coach in Mary DeMarteleire and have a ton of talent coming back next year, so I would expect their dominance in the state playoffs to continue for at least the next several years.

BIGGEST SURPRISE—GIRLS
Bethlehem Catholic’s loss to Scranton Prep in the PIAA’s 2nd round. There’s no question that the “upper bracket” of the 3A girls state playoff tournament had some incredibly good teams playing each other before you even got to the state semifinals. Becahi, Scranton Prep, Villa Maria, Archbishop Wood, Abington Heights, West Perry and Holy Redeemer all had legitimate chances go to deep, if not win, the championship—and all of those teams faced off against each other in the first three rounds. The fact that Scranton Prep completely held one of the top players in the state, Kalista Walters, in check for three-and-a-half quarters before fouling out while holding the high-powered Hawks offense (who came in averaging 59 ppg) to 21 points was a major, if not shocking, accomplishment.

Becahi returns nearly everyone for 2015 and should be one of the top teams again in the state a year from now and had an impressive showing in an earlier round game against Bonner-Predergast.

BIGGEST SURPRISE—BOYS
Delaware Valley Charter is also one of the top teams in the state, but I was impressed by how Notre Dame stayed with this team for almost a full half. The Crusaders had some tough shots bounce out that would have kept it closer, but Del Val is just loaded with talent and kept Notre Dame at arms’ length the entire second half. Dashon Giddings, Shahid Adams and CJ Wolfe are all great ball players who look to continue playing at the next level and they were a fun team to watch.

http://youtu.be/jJ00yqOr2fo

TEAMS TO WATCH FOR 2015
Two teams on the rise this year that will continue to get better next year are Emmaus and Abington. Both teams battled each other in the opening round and have a number of returning underclassmen, and should be back in states a year from now.

THE “TROJAN TAKEOVER”
Both the Parkland boys’ and girls’ basketball teams won the 4A District XI final and entered the state playoffs as #1 seeds (they’re one of only six schools to accomplish this in the same season since 1985). Both the boys’ and girls’ teams will be guests on this Thursday’s “RCN SportsTalk” show live at 6pm to talk about their successes in the state playoffs. To tease the appetites of the “Trojan Takeover” fans in the meantime, here’s some of Parkland’s highlights in the PIAAs.

Which teams do you think were the best in the state this season? Which players stuck out in your mind and which teams will be back for the 2015 state tourney? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us this Thursday as we read and respond to your questions and comments on our final “winter sports” show of 2014.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Can Ruf Make the Phillies?

March 10, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

One of the most animated Phillies-related discussions this winter continues to be over the team’s power-hitting first baseman/outfielder Darin Ruf. He has solidified a strong fan base in the Delaware Valley region–somewhat surprising since he has never had a full season of success at the Double-A level.

It’s partially because of his ability to rack up home runs as he did in Reading two seasons ago. Or, perhaps it’s because he was not considered a “blue chip” prospect, yet his blue collar approach which we all love a player to have, has forced the Phillies to consider this underdog in their future plans. Although he has been inconsistent in his approach at the plate for the last two years, and he doesn’t really have an available position on the team’s current roster, people have pushed hard for him to be in the ball club.

I pointed out a few weeks ago on our “RCN SportsTalk” show that, at the start of spring training, Ruf would probably not be on their Opening Day roster—not without a key injury to at least one other position player. When I said this, it drew an immediate reaction with our show viewers. Here’s one such email:

“Chris. How can you say that Ruf won’t be on the Opening Day roster this spring? He was the team’s best hitter for the second half
of last year? He showed patience at the plate, and was one of the few players who [showed] the ability to get on base. The Phillies
would be nuts if he wasn’t on the team to start the year, and I don’t know how you can think that he would not???” Dave, Allentown

Again, there are no current starting positions open (first base or corner outfield) in which Ruf could play, nor can he take over the “backup center field” spot on the roster that the Phillies like to have, because he doesn’t have enough foot speed to play that position. Which, in the Phillies’ minds, would keep him from making the team. The Phillies also desperately need to keep a roster spot open for a left-handed pinch-hitting option, which indicates Bobby Abreu or Tony Gywnn, Jr. will make the team before Ruf. However, for all the “Babe Ruf” fans out there, let’s take a realistic approach of how he could make the Opening Day roster. (Note: This would require the team’s front office to show flexibility and change its’ stance on an issue—which hasn’t occurred in quite some time. So you might have to suspend your belief in realism to read further).

Option #1:
The Phillies do without a designated player with great range and speed that would be their backup center fielder in case Ben Revere gets a minor injury or needs a day off. With the shorter dimensions of Citizens’ Bank Park (and other small stadiums around the league), you might be able to get away with Marlon Byrd or even Dom Brown (if your stomach can handle his routes) patrolling the center field for a game or two. This would mean that John Mayberry, Jr.’s role on the team is no longer needed (wouldn’t that kill a second bird with one stone?) and Ruf could make the team as a right-handed pinch hitter, who could spell Ryan Howard at first on occasion, and play a corner outfield spot here and there. If the Phillies do need a long-term center fielder due to a serious injury to Revere (again, like last year), they could bring someone up from Triple-A.

Option #2:
The Phillies could cut another fan favorite, Kevin Frandsen, and go with Freddy Galvis as the lone backup infielder. This might seem the most logical as Frandsen is not a power hitter that the team likes to have coming off the bench (see Abreu, below). Also, Frandsen can only play two or three positions—all of which Galvis and/or Ruf (first base) could man in the case of an slump, double switch or day-to-day injury. However, Ryne Sandberg raved about Frandsen’s pinch-hitting ability a year ago and Frandsen also has a guaranteed contract, so the team would lose arguably their most consistent bat off the bench and be forced to pay him for NOT playing, if they chose this option.

Option #3:
They could keep Gwynn, a player who spent all of last season in the minor leagues, as their primary left-handed pinch hitter. Since Gwynn also has speed and plays center field, it would make either Abreu or Mayberry expendable and clear a spot for Ruf. However, the Phillies love Abreu’s patient approach at the plate (despite his batting average now under .200), and his ability to still hit homers in a pinch–a trait they typically like to have in their first left-handed option (a la Matt Stairs, Lance Nix, Jim Thome, et al). Since Gywnn has minimal power and hasn’t overwhelmed anyone with his bat so far in spring training, this is the least likely option to occur.

Option #4:
Perhaps the most intriguing possibility: infielder Freddy Galvis becomes your “other” center fielder, thus opening up a spot on the bench for Ruf. Galvis, much like Ruf, does not have an available starting spot. While his glove is better than any infielder on the roster, he struggled at the plate in Triple-A (he actually hit better when in the Big Leagues). The team would love to have him start the year in the minors to improve his hitting so that he can become a middle infield starter for the near future. The high payroll, however, dictates the team must play him—and win—now. Having him learn center field would be another way to try to get him more at-bats. (He actually hits better from the right side of the plate and could spell Revere against a tough lefty, if needed). This idea may sound far-fetched, but Ryne Sandberg, who has pretty much guaranteed Galvis a spot on the roster, started him in center over the weekend. Look for that experiment to continue as spring training rolls on.

Are you a fan of Darin Ruf? Do you think he should make the team for Opening Day, and which other players do you think should travel north when the team breaks camp in a few weeks? Hey, Sandberg dropped Howard down to the fifth spot in the batting order for Monday’s game, so maybe anything is possible?! Post a comment below and/or send your comments to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us on Thursdays at 6pm as we discuss the team on future shows!

 

The SportsTalk Shop: State Basketball Preview 2014

March 6, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://youtu.be/g7ESdylhXQs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Basketball Playoff Thoughts

February 24, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTRE DAME
No boys’ basketball team in the Lehigh Valley, with the exception of Central Catholic, comes into the postseason with more consecutive wins. I was promoting Tannor Reed for a Colonial League MVP award when we did their game against Salisbury in January, and he has truly carried this team through their ups-and-downs this year. With the 6’8” Vincent Eze back and doing so many things well at both ends of the floor, this team looks nearly unbeatable against most teams in Eastern Pennsylvania. They also have the momentum following their thrilling buzzer-beating win in the Colonial League championship.
http://youtu.be/AjV6O-yqFS8

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

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

 

The SportsTalk Shop: District Wrestling Individuals Preview

February 17, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

The biggest weekend for high school wrestling fans is nearly upon us and RCN will look to feed its rabid fans’ appetites over the next several days. A full preview of all of the weekend’s weight classes will be on our “RCN SportsTalk” show this Thursday live at 6pm (we’ll also talk a little Penn State football as well). Also, RCN-TV will broadcast the District 3A Championships on February 22. In the meantime, here are a few notes on several of the schools that should do very well in the tournament, along with video highlights of the area’s top wrestlers and teams.

BECAHI
Clearly, the best team in this tournament. The Golden Hawks cruised to their fourth straight 2A district championship and are coming off their fourth straight team state title, beating their four opponents by a whopping 235-18 (they also owned 27 of the first 28 takedowns registered in their dual meets). The program is so much on a roll that Becahi hasn’t lost a dual meet since February 16, 2011 (to Easton). Luke Karam (currently 28-2) and Zeke Moisey (32-0) lead an uber-talented squad that figures to dominate eight or nine of the 14 weight classes. Anything less than seven gold medals this weekend would be a major shock.

http://youtu.be/fdFTxOYaWrs

LIBERTY
The Hurricanes had a banner season under Jody Karam this year. His team beat Easton for the first time since 1991, they won the competitive Virginia Duals American Division, they finished second at the Penn Manor Tournament and battled Parkland before losing by a close margin in the first ever “Ultimate Qualifier” dual meet. Jake Gunning and Orlando Miller, who never wrestled prior to high school, both own 27 wins a piece heading into the tourney. Noah Klingborg and Andrew Gunning both had exceptional years, and K.J. Fenstermacher proved to be one of the most exciting freshman wrestlers in the area. For more on the Hurricanes, check out their recent appearance on “RCN SportsTalk” on free RCN On Demand (the show entitled “Bethlehem Wrestling”).

http://youtu.be/pJZRz1WPRSY

NAZARETH
If not for Becahi, Nazareth would be getting a lot more attention. Sage Karam (if he’s not racing in Daytona) is one of the key wrestlers to watch at 145 lbs. Tyrone Klump (who pinned in a big state semifinal bout at 120 lbs.), Brandon Lane (285 lbs.), Travis Smith (113 lbs.), Josh Golden (220 lbs.) and Tyson Klump (106 lbs.) are just a few of the wrestlers with chances to medal this weekend. The Blue Eagles, fresh off their 3A District XI team title and a bronze finish in the PIAAs, are the tournament’s favorites to capture the most gold medals in individuals if all goes right.

EASTON
First of all, congratulations to Head Coach Steve Powell for earning his 500th coaching victory during the team district tournament this year. Don’t know of a classier wrestling coach in the area, nor do I know of anyone in the state that would ever say a bad word about him.

This wasn’t quite the typical Easton year. Although they had a very good squad, they lacked the one or two dominant standout wrestlers, like a Jordan Oliver-type, that you could almost guarantee a gold medal coming out of the district tournament. Nevertheless, they have several solid wrestlers in the middle-to-heavier weight classes who could contend, and two or three gold medals for the Rovers would not be out of the question.

PARKLAND
After beating Easton early in the season, it looked like the Trojans could be the team to beat in 3A. They battled Nazareth in an exciting District Championship Battle Royale before dropping the meet, but came back strong and had an impressive run in the PIAAs. Their list of candidates to contest for gold this weekend is quite long, including Jacob and Ethan Lizak, Josh Ortman, Marques Sturdivant and Omar and Nezar Haddad. There will be some exciting bouts all throughout the tournament, but it would not surprise me if Parkland comes away with the most medals.

http://youtu.be/y1-t662w04Y

Who else do you feel has a chance to medal at this year’s District XI Individual Wrestling Tournament? What do you think of the dominant run of Bethlehem Catholic, the possibility of them jumping up to 3A and all the other issues surrounding their program? Send an email to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com with your opinions and thoughts and tune in to RCN-TV this Thursday at 6pm to hear your comments read on-air, plus a full preview of this year’s tourney.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Spring Training Preview

February 10, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

As I gaze out my window at the freshly fallen snow for the gazillionth time this winter (and the extra two feet of the white stuff the plow truck deposited in front of my driveway), I realized it’s time to get ready for the opening of Major League Baseball’s spring training this week.

For Phillies fans, it will be a busy, yet not-quite-fulfilling spring session, given the lack of big-name moves during the offseason. In fact, there are more questions than in any of the last seven pre-seasons, which were met with much more optimism when compared to this year. Nevertheless, several key issues stand out as items to focus on for this year’s Spring Training if the “Phightin’ Phils” are going to have any shot at challenging for a post-season berth. Here’s four things that you MUST pay attention to as camp gets rolling.

THE VETS MUST BRING IT–AND STAY HEALTHY.
There’s simply no two ways around this one. Ruben Amaro, Jr. has used this as his excuse, er, reasoning, behind all the moves they’ve made since last summer. Guys like Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and other “over-35” players must defy human nature and play better than they did the past two years, even given their advanced age (in baseball terms, of course). The mantra of “these guys we’re paying $20-million to play baseball have to produce for us” that Amaro and Co. have repeated this winter is the foundation of whatever the team hopes to achieve this year. Any sign of a major injury, continued decline or even just a status-quo performance by any of the established players could mean doom for the ball club before the season even starts.

WILL SANDBERG BE ABLE TO CONNECT TO THE VETERANS — LONG-TERM?
After watching Ryne Sandberg manage ball players for two full seasons at the Triple-A level, I can tell you that his style is completely different from Charlie Manuel. He loves to hit-and-run, have his players hit behind runners, bunt the winning run into scoring position, steal a base–at appropriate times–and really likes the game played the way it should be played. Trying to convince some of his dyed-in-the-wool veterans to do so will be a much more arduous task. Manuel thought he had explained the importance of hustling to Rollins, only to have to bench him on several occasions for simply forgetting to play at 100%. John Mayberry Jr., provided he gets on base, should utilize his God-given speed and try to pilfer a base once-a-season. It will be interesting to see if all the players buy in to his fundamentally sound brand of baseball…and what he’ll do when, inevitably, a player doesn’t follow through.

WHO IS THIS MIGUEL ALFREDO GONZALEZ GUY ANYWAY?
After the initial ESPN-reported signing offer of five years, $48-million fell through, the Phillies signed Gonzalez to a $12-million pact over three seasons. At that time, MAG was unofficially slated to be the number-three pitcher behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Amaro has slowly backed off his expectations so much that is sounds like Gonzalez is not even a guarantee to be in the team’s starting rotation. Sandberg has referred to him as the “mystery man” and almost everyone in the organization admits they have never seen him pitch nor have any idea what to expect from him. Here lies your hopes of a solid pitching staff. Through experience, you cannot expect Kyle Kendrick to be consistently relied on for anything more than a number-four starter. One must dream of a week without snow in Eastern Pennsylvania as a more realistic hope than thinking Roberto Hernandez, Jonathon Pettibone or even Chad Gaudin will be anything remotely close to what the Phillies had in previous year’s “Number-3” guy, Roy Halladay. I will probably be wrong, but I keep holding out hope the Phillies do make a run for A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana or one of the few remaining quality starters available to try to add SOME consistency to this rotation. If they don’t, Gonzalez will be the single most-watched pitcher in camp, and anything short of a performance that solidifies him as a middle-of-the-rotation guy this spring will be a huge disaster for the Phillies.

WHEN WILL ‘PAP’ MELT DOWN?
Notice I did not say “if” Jonathon Papelbon melts down. It’s simply in his track record of sounding off and creating havoc in the clubhouse when things are not going well. If the Phillies gets off to a bad start in spring training, it could happen sooner rather than later. The Phillies themselves were so convinced of this distraction that they tried to give him away to any team with the need/payroll/ space/patience to acquire him…yet found no takers. Remember, with this young, inexperienced core of relievers joining him in the bullpen this year, it will be pivotal for “Pap” to provide some leadership for the young arms…something that will not happen if the Phillies closer is unhappy. Several of the beat writers have told me that he was a major distraction during 2013 (and his famous line “I didn’t come here for this” would only support their claims) and he will continue to be one in the likely event that all of the above things don’t go absolutely right for this team out of the gate.

Am I being too pessimistic about the 2014 Phillies? What are your thoughts on my “big four” items to watch for this spring training? What other players and issues should we be focused on for the next six weeks…and beyond? Post your comments here on our blog or email your comments and questions to RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and keep watching future editions of our Thursday “RCN SportsTalk” program, live each week at 6pm, as we start to focus in on the Phillies as the regular season draws near.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: HS Winter Sports ’14 Highlights

February 3, 2014 By Chris Michael Leave a Comment

 

I know high school wrestling and boys basketball get the lion’s share of fans’ attention in the Lehigh Valley area, but there are tremendous accomplishments being made by a number of scholastic sports programs currently in session.

Here’s a video sample of some of our features on different local sports programs produced recently for our “RCN SportsTalk” show (to see more of these features, they are available for free on RCN On-Demand for the next several weeks), and then we have some additional highlights and accomplishments by local teams and athletes deserving mentions this winter.

Some other local sports highlights include:

 • Bethlehem Catholic girls basketball team. Chosen by many to make it to the PIAA championship game again this year, the Golden Hawks have lost just two games so far this season—both to formidable opponents. Kalista Walters could very well repeat as the Lehigh Valley Conference’s MVP again this season, but among several other talented players on the roster include Janelle Robinson. Robinson is a guard by trade, but I continue to be impressed by what a great all-around contribution she makes to the team (she recently led the team in one game with nine rebounds).

 • Becahi is not the only local girls programs that have a shot at going to the PIAAs. In fact, this might be one of the most competitive LVC and Colonial Leagues playoff races in some time. Nazareth, a team that lost four starters to graduation, is back with a group of tall and athletic young ladies that have been drawing impressive results. Central Catholic is back to being one of the top teams in the state—their only loss thus far was their epic 74-72 double-overtime defeat to Becahi. Parkland is also looking very solid and is coming off a terrific summer basketball season. In the Colonial League, Southern Lehigh, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Salisbury and others all have legitimate shots to qualify for the playoffs. With very few exceptions, these teams playing each during the regular season have resulted other so far in down-to-the-wire finishes.

• Parkland has a long line of dominance in the sport of swimming and diving—for both the girls and boys teams. This year, there’s an abundance of outstanding athletes from many different schools, including Emmaus, Easton, Liberty and Freedom. Their district championships are usually held on two of the busiest Saturdays—local-sports-wise–in the Lehigh Valley, when district and state wrestling and boys and girls basketball games are scheduled, but if you have a chance to check out the local diving and swimming title events, you should have a number of great races to watch on February 22nd and March 1st.

• Pius X has very quietly had an impressive wrestling season. They do not belong to either the LVC or the Colonial League, nor do they have enough wrestlers to compete for team title. They DO have several impressive young athletes led by state candidates Dante Albanese, Michael Comunale and Vinny Vonelli. The Royals, under first year Head Coach Peter Stoelzl, jumped out to two impressive wins over Palisades and Central Catholic to start the season. Despite injuries, they’re still racking up wins and will look to make an impact in the District XI Wrestling Individuals Tournament, which will be broadcast on RCN-TV on Saturday, February 22.

Which other local sports athletes deserve more attention? Which teams, besides boys basketball and wrestling, do you think can bring home league, district, or even state championships this winter? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and tune in Thursdays at 6pm as we continue to spotlight local teams and athletes on our show.

 

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