It’s the heavyweight division. The biggest schools in the state. Quad-A.
And this year, it’s wide open.
There’s Chester, of course, the District 1 champion for the fourth year in a row and PIAA Class AAAA champions in 2011 and 2012. Familiar names like Lower Merion, Bethel Park, Pennsbury and Parkland are also there, along programs like Martin Luther King and Roman Catholic that are just building their state tournament legacies.
(For the full 2014 PIAA Class AAAA Bracket, click here)
One thing is for sure, there are a lot of different schools that could take it home. Last year’s champion, Lower Merion, is now the fifth seed out of District 1, with a tough game against Hershey and a potential matchup with District 12 champs Roman in the second round. King and Pennsbury could meet in the second round as well, as could New Castle and North Allegheny.
Some very good teams are getting sent home early, that’s for sure. But someone’s got to emerge on top.
Here’s a breakdown of the top contenders for the 2014 PIAA Class AAAA crown as well as a few other teams that could make some noise over the next few weeks.
(Special thanks to Craig Meyer (@CraigMeyerPG) of the Post-Gazette for his help with District 7, Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n) of the Harrisburg Patriot-News with District 3 and Toomey Anderson (@LVBballRankings) for his help with District 11)
Record: 22-5 overall, 8-2 Del Val
Recent history: The top dogs in the heavyweight class over the last decade, Chester has four titles in the last 10 years and came one game shy of a fifth last year. This year, they took home the District title–their fourth in a row–with a big comeback victory against Pennsbury.
Key players: Conrad Chambers (Sr., G), Mahir Johnson (Sr., G), Tyrell Sturdivant (Sr., F)
Why they could win it: The Clippers proved definitively at Villanova last Friday that they are still a contender, coming back from 14 down against Pennsbury to capture their fourth straight District 1 crown. Despite losing several big names including current Arizona standout Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Chester still has a good a chance as any team to get back to the state final for the fourth consecutive time. Sturdivant was a monster in that game, with 17 points and 18 rebounds, while the fellow Glasgow (Del.) transfer Johnson has carried the load scoring along with holdover Chambers. With three seniors with a legion of orange and black clad fans that always travel well, Chester is primed for another run.
Record: 22-4, 11-3 Section 3
Recent history: The Talbots have gone 69-15 over the past three seasons, falling in the WPIAL championship three years in a row. They advanced as far as the PIAA semifinals in 2012, then as a Class AAA school.
Key players: Ryan Luther (Sr., F), Collin Luther (Sr., F), David Huber (G, Jr.)
Why they could win it: Ranked as the No. 4 team in the state, Hampton’s record, impressive as it is, can be a little deceiving. Three of its four losses came against New Castle and one of those was played without its star player in Ryan Luther. A Pitt commit with a nice inside-out game, much of the Talbots’ offense begins and ends with Luther, who is averaging a team-high 22.7 points per game this season. Luther’s twin brother, Collin, helps form a strong frontcourt while Huber has proven himself to be a strong outside shooter who can help keep defenses honest and prevent regular double-teams on Ryan Luther.
Martin Luther King (12-2)
Record: 22-5 overall, 7-3 Public League
Recent history: The reigning Public League champs fell to eventual state champ Lower Merion in the second round of states last year, 63-50.
Key players: Greg Bennett (Sr., G/F), Sam Foreman (Jr., G), Jahmir Taylor (Sr., F)
Why they could win it: The Cougars are as deep as any any team in the bracket, bringing size and quickness off the bench in forwards Chase Rodgers, Rasool Samir and point guard Tyheem Harmon. Last Sunday, King downed Constitution for the Public League championship, Sean Colon’s squad will be playing angry after a phantom foul call may have cost them the AAAA city title. With Taylor cleaning the glass, Foreman, Bennett and sophomore guard Jabri McCall will look to get out and run. With a half-dozen contributors returning next year, the King Cougars could start run of AAAA state dominance in 2014.
New Castle (7-1)
Record: 26-0, 14-0 Section 3
Recent history: Perhaps the area’s most dominant program of late, the Red Hurricanes have not lost a regular-season game for the past three seasons. That stretch, however, does not include a PIAA championship. Last season, they fell to Lower Merion in the semifinals.
Key players: Malik Hooker (Sr., G/F), Anthony Richards (Sr., G), Stew Allen (Sr., C)
Why they could win it: New Castle has blown through its competition this season, winning games by an average of more than 25 points. Part of its success has been predicated upon a tough, unrelenting defense, but for as explosive an offensive team as it is, New Castle’s greatest asset may be its balance. Hooker – an Ohio State football signee with otherworldly athleticism and highlight reel dunks – gets much of the attention on the team, but Richards is one of the WPIAL’s best outside shooters and Allen commands a strong presence on the low post, playing bigger than his 6-foot-3 stature. Also, with a Jan. 18 win at Lower Merion, it has proven it can beat top teams from outside the WPIAL.
Recent history: The Lehigh Valley Conference runner-ups ran into a tough Allentown Central Catholic team in the league tournament but bounced back to win their second consecutive District 11 Class AAAA crown.
Key players: Jimmy Hahn (Sr., PG), Nick Rindock (Sr., G/F), Justin Zajko (Sr., G)
Why they could win it: They can win because of experience, versatility, and superior team play. Parkland will not beat themselves–you have to beat them.
Record: 22-5 overall, 12-2 Suburban One
Recent history: The Falcons made it all the way to the District 1 final at Villanova and even went up 21-7 early, before going ice cold and falling to Chester. Now they’re looking for their deepest run into the state tournament since making the semifinals in 2008.
Key players: Mekhi Bryant (Jr., G), Cameron Jones (Jr., G), Derrick Woods (Jr., F)
Why they could win it: Head coach Bill Coleman has his best team in his four years as head coach, led by a pair of future Division I guards in Bryant and Jones. Bryant is the tougher, more muscular slasher, while Jones is the leading 3-point shooter in the Philadelphia area. Woods, a 6-8 forward with a Binghamton offer, has really stepped up his game over the last two months, and is now a force to be reckoned with in the post. Add in senior guard Steve Ciotti, a 3-point specialist and defensive menace, and these Falcons have some serious claws.
Roman Catholic (12-1)
Record: 22-4 overall, 13-0 Catholic League
Recent history: The Cahillites went undefeated in the PCL during the regular season, but were upended by Neumann-Goretti in the Catholic League championship game, 53-48. They were bounced early by Norristown in the first round of last year’s state tournament. They earned the top spot with a 58-55 victory over M.L. King.
Key players: Shep Garner (Sr., G), Rashann London (Sr., G), Manny Taylor (Jr., F)
Why they could win it: For much of the season, Roman Catholic was the top -ranked team in the Philadelphia area and they still remain the top-ranked AAAA team by PennLive.com. A senior, Division I bound backcourt of London and Garner, paired with sophomore Tony Carr, can handle any pressure an opposing defense will bring at them, and can score with any team in the entire state. Sweet-shooting wing Gemil Holbrook and thick big man Taylor will provide the scoring and rebounding punch. If injured big man TreVaughn Wilkerson returns to full form, the Cahillites are the favorites.
Record: 22-6 overall, 10-4 in YAIAA I
Recent history: Troy Sowers’ Bearcats have been making regular stops in the state playoffs, even going as far as the 2009 title game before falling to Penn Wood. Just a couple fellas on this team have tasted state play, but they could figure things out really, really quickly.
Key players: Jahaire Wilson (Jr., F, 14.4 ppg, 11.6 rpg), Trey Shifflett (Soph., G, 12.4 ppg, 43 treys), Kristopher Johnson (Soph., G, 9.3 ppg, 32 treys).
Why they could win it: Since Sowers and his youthful Bearcats bounced into the District 3-AAAA playoffs as the No. 8 seed — and wound up defeating Cedar Crest in the final despite being down 44-30 with 2:40 left in the third quarter — there’s an interesting resolve circulating in the York locker room that doesn’t quite fit a team that starts two juniors and three sophomores. These guys play hard, they play for 32 minutes and they’ve won 14 of their last 15 outings by buying into that philosophy. Also helps to have the long-limbed, huge-hearted Wilson working the interior since he believes every ball that goes up on the glass belongs to him. Dangerous outfit.
The Dark Horses
Record: 22-5 overall, 14-0 Suburban One
Recent history: Abington made the state playoffs last season, but lost to St. Joseph’s Prep in the first round. They were doing well in the District playoffs this season until they ran into Chester in the quarterfinals.
Key players: Amir Hinton (Jr., G/F), Anthony Lee (Sr., F), Matt Penecale (Jr., G)
Why they could win it: The Galloping Ghosts are a tough squad, with a good mix of scorers and players who know their role. Hinton and Penecale are the two who can really create for themselves, and they’ve both got low-major Division I schools tracking their progress. Forwards like Lee and Khari Jefferson are tough but undersized, while stretch-forward Lazaros Mackrides can really knock down the corner 3-pointer. Charles Grasty has this group playing smart and unselfish.
Cedar Crest (3-2)
Record: 25-5 overall, 13-3 in Lancaster-Lebanon Section 1
Recent history: Since the Falcons have not been involved at the state level since the early 1990s — and it was a short stay — everything Tom Smith’s deep, hungry club is able to accomplish carries plenty of historical value in suburban Lebanon.
Key players: Evan Horn (Soph., G, 10.0 ppg), Andrew Eudy (Sr., F, 10.4 ppg), Josh Bucher (Jr., G, 7.9 ppg, 41 treys).
Why they could win it: Although Smith’s Falcons aren’t the prettiest team out there, they do get after opponents from start to finish with some nasty, in-your-grill man defense. Helps explain why Crest regularly runs 10 youngsters in and out of the lineup. Hard defense plus fresh bodies equals worn-down opposition. And the Falcons’ blue-collar approach certainly has paid off handsomely since they collared L-L section and tournament titles for the first time since the Bicentennial — and they reached their first 3-AAAA title game. For those who don’t believe Smith’s club can strike quickly, check out the Laettner-like finish Andrew Eudy provided in the 3-AAAA semis off a lengthy heave from the omnipresent Horn. Quality outfit.
Record: 24-5 overall, 16-3 Central League
Recent history: The Pioneers are back to the state tournament for the first time since 2009, where they lost in the quarterfinals to Parkland. As the top seed in District 1, ‘Stoga made it to the semifinals before falling to Pennsbury.
Key players: Zack Yonda (Sr., G), Andrew Diehl (Jr., G/F), Martin Dorsey (Jr., F)
Why they could win it: The Pioneers share the ball and can spread out a defense with several shooters. Diehl and Yonda stretch the floor for dynamic point guard Darryl Caldwell to drive and kick, or they can create their own shot on the bench. While a bit undersized, Dan Vila and Dorsey aren’t backing down from anyone and use their athleticism to rebound well. The only senior in the starting lineup is Yonda, so next year might be more realistic for a deep run, but there’s no denying that the Pioneers have the talent and balance to make a run in the coming weeks.
Record: 18-8 overall, 11-5 in Mid-Penn Keystone
Recent history: Paul Blackburn’s Trojans are back in Pennsylvania’s hoops spotlight for the first time since 2008, when Hershey competed at the Class AAA level. Plenty of history in this program — especially during the mid-1970s when Hank Kuzma was starching people in the paint — and this club may be poised to add a chapter or two.
Key players: Chase Watkins (Sr., F, 15.7 ppg), Dylan Painter (Soph., F, 11.6 ppg), Jack Gunkel (Sr., G, 12.5 ppg, 54 treys), Ricky Bugg (Sr., G, 10.3 ppg), Taylor Sweeney (Jr., G, 10.5 ppg, 42 treys).
Why they could win it: There’s two valid reasons why Blackburn’s club has a legitimate shot and/or will be a tough out: 1) Hershey can score the basketball and 2) the Trojans can come at people with four Division I athletes. Painter may be the only one who winds up playing at the highest collegiate level, but Watkins (Bucknell football) and 6-6 senior F Tim Edwards (Seton Hall baseball) already are locked up. Reserve G Jordan Wix Rauch, who started earlier in the season, has a soccer future. As for the scoring thing, the Trojans have won six of their last seven, all while banking 70 points or more. So watch out, because those five guys listed above can all fill it up in transition — and while grinding out some half-court sets.
La Salle College HS (12-3)
Record: 19-6 overall, 9-4 Catholic League
Recent history: La Salle makes its way back to the state tournament for the first time since 2011, when they reached the quarterfinals before losing to Chester. The Explorers made it to the Catholic League semifinals this year before falling to Neumann-Goretti; they would beat Chester in the seedings game to qualify for States.
Key players: David Krmpotich (Jr., F), Najee Walls (Jr., G), Shawn Witherspoon (Jr., G)
Why they could win it: Joe Dempsey’s squad plays very disciplined, defense-oriented basketball. Look no further than their Catholic League quarterfinal win over St. Joe’s Prep where they held the Hawks to 33 points to see that this team can grind out wins. Krmpotich does the dirty work down low and can ignite the offense with an athletic finish near the hoop. Backcourt mates Walls and Witherspoon are rock steady, and often penetrate to find shooters Sean Greenberg, Chuck Champion and Dan Corr, who all can stroke it. The Explorers take care of the basketball and are battle-tested.
North Allegheny (7-4)
Record: 21-4, 11-3 Section 3
Recent history: The Tigers have never made the PIAA championship and have not made the WPIAL title game since 1999, but they have won at least 20 games in four of the past five seasons.
Key players: Cole Constantino (Jr., G), Elijah Zeise (Sr., G/F), Joe Mancini (Sr., G)
Why they could win it: The old “live by the three, die by the three” adage wears a little thin, but what makes the Tigers dangerous is that a large part of their offense is based around the 3-point arc. And when they’re making those shots with regularity, there could be a possible upset. In a game earlier this season, Mancini made 11 3s, tying a school single-game record. Also, their losses have come to quality competition – two of them came against New Castle and two came against Hampton.