Karell Watkins (above) and Chester have a big-time matchup against Lower Merion in the District 1 6A quarterfinals. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The district playoffs are heating up.
The southeastern Pennsylvania’s big-school bracket, the District 1 6A tournament, is down to eight teams, each of which has already qualified for the PIAA Class 6A tournament which begins in a couple weeks. Before then, they’ll each play three more games, with the one team who wins all three crowned league title at Temple University on Sat., Feb. 29.
But those eight aren’t the only ones still alive out of the District 1 6A field: the eight second-round losers still have a chance to earn one of the district’s 10 spots in the state tournament through the play-back bracket, where the two teams that win their next two games will also extend their postseason. But all eight of those teams are down to their final shot.
Here’s a look at Friday night’s slate of quarterfinals (all games 7 PM at higher seed):
1) Methacton vs. 8) Pennridge
Even though Methacton (Pioneer Athletic Conference) and Pennridge (Suburban One League) play in different conferences, they’re certainly familiar with one another, having matched up in the state quarterfinals last year, a 50-47 Pennridge win. So aside from a trip to Temple on the line –– Methacton’s never made a district semifinal, while Pennridge lost in the semifinals a year ago –– there’s also a bit of revenge on the top-seeded Warriors’ minds, even if some of the faces on both sides have changed. Pennridge is without last year’s leading scorer and the program’s all-time leading bucket getter, D-I guard Sean Yoder (Navy), but that didn’t stop them from once again capturing the SOL-Continental title and then even bettering last year’s group by winning the overall SOL title.
The Rams (19-6) are powered by do-it all forward Trent Fisher and guard Christian Guldin, with juniors Luke Yoder and Colin Post playing a big role as well in Dean Behren’s well-oiled scheme. But they’ve got their hands full with the three-time-defending PAC champion Warriors (23-2), whose only losses this year came to Catholic League finalist Roman Catholic and District 3 powerhouse Wilson West Lawn. The 6-6 Fisher will have his hands full with 6-10 Jeff Woodward, a Colgate commit, while Guildin and the rest of the Rams’ backcourt will have to deal with a group of Methacton guards led by 6-3 senior Erik Timko, who’s got several D-II schools hot on his trail; fellow seniors Owen Kropp and Brett Eberly are both tough combo guards who can score, pass, and rebound, while sophomore Brett Byrne has been on a 3-point shooting tear of late. Pennridge has good overall team size and athleticism to hang with Methacton, but there isn’t much room for error against a squad that loves to make opponents pay for every missed rebound.
4) Chester vs. 5) Lower Merion
From a program standpoint, this is no-doubt the biggest name match-up in the quarterfinals, between two schools who have done battle at many key points in their illustrious histories. Chester got LM in 1995 in the state tournament before Kobe Bryant and the Aces got them back in the district championship the final year; there was the 2006 matchup in the state playoffs, when Lower Merion won, and the 2013 battles between Rondae Hollis Jefferson’s Clippers and B.J. Johnson’s Aces. And while neither program quite has the star power or drawing power that it had in the heyday of the 80s-00s, there’s no doubt going to be a lot of energy in the Clip Joint with a spot at the Liacouras Center on the line.
The Clippers (20-3), who captured the Del-Val League’s regular-season title (the five-team league doesn’t have a postseason tournament), average more than 72 points per game, with 6-4 forward Karell Watkins (who scored his 1000th point Tuesday night) asserting himself on both ends of the floor. Akeem Taylor, nephew of coach Keith Taylor, has developed into an effective secondary scoring option, while 6-5 Zahmir Carroll and 5-11 point guard Rahmee Gilbert also can go for double-figures. After starting 13-1, Lower Merion (18-6) went 5-4 and dropped from the No. 2 spot in the District 1 power rankings down to the fifth seed in the tournament before beating Central Bucks East comfortably in the second round. Senior James Simples has the experience and sophomore Demetrius Lilley is a talented big man who can control the paint; the Aces do need to replace the shooting ability of freshman Sam Brown, who got hurt late in the season and is out for the playoffs.
Bensalem junior James Ashford IV (above) and the Owls are in the PIAA playoffs after beating Spring-Ford in the second round. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
7) Bensalem vs. 18) Downingtown East
It’s been a breakthrough season for Bensalem under first-year head coach Ron Morris. First, the Owls captured the SOL-National title for the first time since 1992, making it to the SOL’s unified playoffs for the first time. Now, after beating Spring-Ford in their second-round game, the Owls have qualified for the PIAA state playoffs, but they’re not done yet. Thanks to an upset win by Downingtown East (14-10) over No. 2 Garnet Valley, the Owls get to host another home game, one win from advancing to Temple, which would be a major achievement for a program that was ranked No. 23 in the district last year, then shocked the area by opening the season 13-1, the only loss coming to Coatesville.
The Owls (18-6) are led by senior wing forward Jeremiah Alexander, a super-athletic 6-4 wing who can play above the rim. Though Alexander does a lot of his damage on the fast break and around the hoop, he’s got skills and the ability to stretch the floor. Bensalem also relies on 6-3 junior guard James Ashford IV and have an intriguing sophomore in Aaron Sanders, a capable three-level scorer with a potential Division I future. Downingtown East’s offense centers around 6-6 senior forward Andrew King, a wide-bodied forward with great footwork and inside-out abilities, but there’s a good group of wings around him, including seniors Grant Umberger and David Owsik and junior Jayden Rowe for head coach John Goodman.
3) Cheltenham vs. 6) Coatesville
If you like low-scoring, defensive games between two teams that take the air out of the ball in a race to score 40 points...well, this isn’t the game for you. Both Cheltenham (22-3) and Coatesville (18-6) like to get up and down the court, with talented athletes on both sides that should make for an entertaining, uptempo, higher-scoring games between these two programs. The host Panthers, under the direction of Pat Fleury, have been one of the top teams in the district all season long despite the loss of senior point guard and Division I commit Zahree Harrison to a knee injury in the first game of the season. With Harrison serving as a player-coach, mentoring sophomore guards Justin Moore and Saleem Payne, a senior core of Rider-bound wing Jaelen McGlone and forward Sean Emfinger led the Panthers to a SOL-American championship.
But don’t let the No. 6 seed fool you: Coatesville is one of the favorites to win the district title after making it to the championship game last year, and it all starts with the backcourt. Senior Jhamir Brickus surpassed the 2,000-point mark and John Allen’s Coatesville scoring record this season, and whatever D-I program ends up with the 5-11 combo guard will get a true three-level scorer; his cousin, senior DaPree Bryant, is headed to Villanova for football but not after finishing out a hoops career that’s seen him get well over 1,000 points of his own. Another couple of Brickus and Bryant cousins, Jaeden Brickus and John Proctor, bring a little bit more size to the Raiders.
Play-back games (@ higher seed, all games 7 PM)
16) Council Rock South vs. 24) North Penn
12) Central Bucks East vs. 13) Haverford High
2) Garnet Valley vs. 10) Spring-Ford
19) Upper Darby vs. 22) Plymouth-Whitemarsh
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