Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Two of the area’s most successful programs kick off their seasons when Lower Merion High School hosts Neumann-Goretti on Friday night, with plenty of talent ready to take the court dedicated to one of the area’s best-ever.
Though no individual player on the either the Aces or Saints is likely to live up to the standard set by Kobe Bryant, a Lower Merion grad whom the school dedicated their new gym to when it opened in 2010, Neumann-Goretti starts the season with a chance to do something Kobe never did–win four consecutive state titles.
Watching a Saints practice, it’s easy to see why the South Philadelphia powerhouse has won the last three PIAA Class AAA state basketball titles. Led by senior John Davis and junior Ja’Quan Newton, Neumann-Goretti boasts no fewer than five future Division I players on team that’s ranked among the top 25 teams in the country entering the season. Now, after an intense offseason workout regimen, the Saints are itching to get out on the court and show the city what they can do.
“I know they are (ready)–I know they think they are–but we’ll see tomorrow night,” Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale told CoBL before practice on Thursday afternoon. “We’ve been at it for a couple weeks now so they’re dying to play somebody and play another game that means something.”
They won’t have an easy task in Lower Merion, which isn’t short of talent on their own end. The Aces boast the talents of Syracuse-bound wing B.J. Johnson, a 6-foot-7 slasher with a nice jumper who’s continually working on a rapidly-improving game; at this point last year, he was a Patriot League recruit.
“His size is an issue because he plays on the perimeter and he’s a very good shooter, I believe one of the better shooters that we play against this year,” Arrigale said. “We gotta do a pretty good job there because if you don’t get on him and you give him room, with his size he’ll be able to get shots off and if he can get rolling, he’ll be a little more comfortable since he’s at home…he could be a problem for us.”
The one thing that Neumann-Goretti lacks is size, especially on the perimeter. John Davis, a senior forward headed to Towson, is a great interior defender and high-level athlete but might struggle against someone with Johnson’s length and ability; at 6-6, he’s the tallest player on the roster. Tony Toplyn, a 6-5 junior, could also be given the task of guarding Johnson on the defensive end, as could 6-3 Ja’Quan Newton if the Saints play four guards.
“We’ve got a couple different guys that could play him, we’re gonna see how the game goes,” Arrigale said. “We’re long, athletic, we’ve got some quick guys. I could go big, I could go small, to be honest with you I haven’t really made my mind up yet…it could switch as the game goes on, see how it goes.”
While Davis is a force inside for Neumann-Goretti, where they really shine is in the backcourt. LaMarr ‘Fresh’ Kimble, a sophomore, is a future stud who looks poised to have a breakout season after scoring a high of 10 points in one game and averaging under five per game in 2011-12. Newton, a junior, already has 769 career points after averaging 15.9 ppg in his sophomore year; arguably the best player in the city, he’s got offers from all over the Big East and ACC.
“He’s improved a lot, in a lot of areas,” Arrigale said about Newton. “If I could get him to really concentrate on defense he’d be our best defender as well. He enjoys offense a little bit more–and rightly so, if I had his ability I guess I would too.
“He’s just improved in every facet of the game. His decision making’s good, he lets the game come to him, he’s a handful because he can set his teammates up as well as go and get his own.”
Davis will present his own set of challenges for Lower Merion on the Aces’ defensive end, with his unrelenting effort on the boards and ability to finish around the rim.
“We have to put a body on Davis, and be aware of where he is at all times,” Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer said in an email.
“John’s a proven leader and he’s an x-factor in a lot of games because he really plays like he cares,” Arrigale said. “It’s a joy to coach him because he gets it, not a lot of kids get it. John gets it.”
Look for Yohanny Dalembert, younger brother of former Sixers’ center Samuel Dalembert and a potential D-I player if he continues to show improvement in his senior senior, to be tasked with guarding the future Tiger.
Either way, no matter what happens Friday night, there’s still a long season ahead for both squads.
“No matter who wins Friday, I don’t think it’ll determine the kind of year the team is gonna have,” Arrigale said, “but it’s just a good game that you can refer back to later on and hopefully get a team win to get to where you needed to be at the end.”