Rahsool Diggins (above) and Archbishop Wood are the favorites in 5A after losing in the 2019 state championship. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
The three years of the new 5A classification, the second-largest in Pennsylvania, has seen three different teams take home the championship. The first year, in 2017, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and Archbishop Wood earned that program’s first-ever title; the following season, it was Abington Heights out of the Northeast part of the state, and then came Moon out of Western Pennsylvania taking it all last year.
Moon didn’t qualify for the state tournament this time around, and neither did Abington Heights, though Wood once again looms large as the District 12 champs. But there are several other programs that want to make it four different champions in four years, very good arguments as to why they could be the eventual trophy-holders come Friday, March 20.
Here’s a look at the state tournament favorites and some dark horse teams in the running for the 5A bracket, which opens play Friday night at gyms around the state. (Thanks to Eric Epler of PennLive and Brad Everett of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for their help with this preview):
The Favorites (in alphabetical order)
Archbishop Ryan (12-4, 17-8)
Even though Ryan had to win a do-or-die game last week to secure a state playoff bid, there’s plenty of reason to think it could make a deep March run. The Raiders knocked off second-seeded Bishop McDevitt in the Catholic League quarterfinals and even gave eventual PCL champ Neumann-Goretti a run for its money at the Palestra. The biggest reason for that is senior Gediminas Mokseckas, who, in his second season after moving from Lithuania, has turned into a legitimate Division I prospect. Both Mokseckas and sophomore Luke Boyd can really turn it on from distance — they’re going to need to carry the scoring load without star junior Aaron Lemon-Warren, who has been sidelined by a broken foot since January.
Archbishop Wood (12-1; 20-5)
Maybe the most consistent team in southeastern Pennsylvania all season long, the Vikings really took their lumps early — they began the season 2-3, dropping a 7OT thriller to Virginia’s Paul VI as well as neutral-site games in Maryland and Hawaii. But Wood has since gone 18-2 with its only losses at Neumann-Goretti and against Roman Catholic in a Catholic League semifinal. The Vikings’ starting five features all juniors, led by Rahsool Diggins, the No. 56 prospect in the Class of 2021 per 247Sports. Diggins’ game is smooth, and he can easily get his own points while also running the show for Wood. And that opens up space for guys like Marcus Randolph, Jaylen Stinson and Daeshon Shepherd to operate while classmate Muneer Newton, an athletic 6-4 wing/forward, is the man in the middle.
Milton Hershey (3-2; 20-4)
The Spartans entered last weekend with just three losses — two to Class 3A powerhouse Trinity and one against Lower Dauphin. But Milton Hershey begins states with four, after it fell to Muhlenberg in overtime. But the Spartans are a veteran bunch with plenty of size, led by 6-5 senior Josh Parra (16.4 ppg) as well as classmates Avohn Cross and Nate Boyd (both average more than 9.0 ppg). Parra, who had 21 points and 19 rebounds before fouling out against Muhlenberg, became Milton Hershey’s 10th 1,000-point scorer earlier this season and is closing in on 300 rebounds for the year. The Spartans lost to WPIAL champ Mars in last year’s first round but have a relatively favorable path to the semis this time around.
Delaware commit Andrew Carr (above) is a serious inside-out threat at 6-10 with 3-point shooting ability. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
West Chester East (1-1; 26-2)
After missing out on a District 1 title last season, the Vikings made sure that they turned silver into gold this season, rolling through opponents on their way to a championship. As he’s done all season long, senior Andrew Carr turned in another stellar all-around showing with 22 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks as East cruised past Penn Wood. But the Delaware signee isn’t the only senior that makes the Vikings dangerous. Tym Richardson, a 6-foot-4 wing, can get to the bucket with ease and gives East a serious 1-2 punch when paired with the versatile 6-10 Carr, who'll play his college ball at Delaware. Then add in junior Mike Dedda, who will typically lead the Vikings’ offense, and junior Kieran Hefferan, and coach Tom Durant has some serious firepower from the outside. That all goes without mentioning freshman Jack Kushner, a fierce offensive rebounder despite his relatively small (6-0) stature.
Laurel Highlands (7-1; 17-8)
Nobody expected the Mustangs to be here. They went 7-5 in WPIAL Section I play and wound up the No. 8 seed headed into district playoffs. Yet, they stunned Penn Hills in the quarterfinals, edged out Thomas Jefferson in the semis and then upset Mars in the finals for their first district title since 1968. The Planets had a shot to win at the buzzer, but missed a layup that allowed Laurel Hills to escape Pittsburgh with a 52-51 victory. They’ll lean on super-talented freshman Rodney Gallagher, who began his high school career with offers from Rhode Island and Illinois. Mustangs coach Rick Hauger called Gallagher a “freshman phenom,” and it’s certainly an apt descriptor — the 6-foot rookie averages better than 20 points per game.
Mars (7-2; 19-6)
Just when it looked like the Planets were going to secure yet another WPIAL title, things took a dramatic turn. Not only did Mars’ last-gasp layup come up short, but star senior Michael Carmody is now facing a two-game suspension for his actions in that loss to Laurel Highlands. Carmody was whistled for an intentional foul earlier in the game, then got in the face of an official and kicked a ball at the Mustangs while they were celebrating. The Planets are appealing, but the Notre Dame football commit – as well as son of coach Rob Carmody and younger brother of Notre Dame sophomore guard Robby Carmody — may very well be on the sidelines when Mars looks to match its run to the state semis from last season. (Update: Carmody will serve a one-game suspension)
Martin Luther King (12-2; 18-7)
Speaking of the Cougars, they had quite the eventful end to the season. After getting knocked off by Lincoln in a Public League quarterfinal, MLK went nearly two weeks without playing a game before meeting up with the Vikings. But just getting there means the Cougars are back in states after missing out last year. What’s concerning is the fact that MLK has yet to beat a top-tier opponent this season. The Cougars’ seven losses have come against Imhotep, Lincoln (twice), Gratz, MCS, Frankford and Wood. Four of those six teams finished above MLK in the Public League’s ‘A’ Division, but MLK has the experience to get things right in March. Senior Tajmir Hunt runs the point and first-team All-Pub honoree Semaj Oliver, a 6-5 senior small forward, is the Cougars’ go-to scorer.
Muhlenberg (3-1; 21-6)
For the first time, the Muhls can claim a District 3 title — they overcame a 13-0 third-quarter surge from Milton Hershey to take home the crown in overtime, 71-62. Muhlenberg finished fourth in Berks I, behind Wilson and Reading, District 3’s top two seeds in Class 6A, and Governor Mifflin. Although the Muhls’ six losses came against those three teams, they can shoot it like crazy — Muhlenberg set a Berks County record with 282 made 3-pointers, with senior Jake Stoudt leading the way at 12.1 ppg. Coach Tyrone Nesby played several NBA seasons, and his son Tyrone Nesby IV (now at Wagner) helped lead Reading to a state title three years ago with Lonnie Walker IV.
Wallenpaupack (2-1; 23-2)
The Buckhorns are in the state tournament for the second year in a row, having lost to Penncrest in the opening round last year as the third seed out of District 2, but they’ve followed up that 18-8 effort with the best record in school history, surpassing a 20-4 mark picked up back in the 70s. The last time they were in the district tournament before last year (2004), second-year head coach was playing for them, now he’s two-for-two in district appearances, but hoping to lead Wallenpaupack to its first-ever state win, the program having lost the previous six times it made it this far. The No. 5 seed out of District 1 5A, West Chester Rustin (17-8), stands in their way this time. The Buckeyes have several players who’ve been varsity contributors for three or four seasons, including four-year starter and 1,500-point guard Elijah Rosenthal, a 6-0 guard, and 6-7 forward Gabe Springer, a three-year starter and the team’s best defender. Combo guard Izaiah Santiago has been a starter since midway through his sophomore season, and senior Gerard McGrath is new to the lineup this year but brings them some toughness and inside-out scoring ability. For Wallenpaupack to make history, they’ll need to rely on their defensive abilities and establish Springer inside to open up shooting room on the perimeter.
First Round: Friday, March 6
Second Round: Tues., March 10
Quarterfinals: Friday, March 13
Semifinals: Monday, March 16
Championship: Thursday, March 19