Nisine Poplar (above) is back for his junior year at MCS after leading the Mighty Elephants to a state title last year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
CoBL Staff (@hooplove215)
After Sewickley Academy won the first edition of the new 2A tournament in 2017, the trophy has stayed in Philadelphia the last two seasons, with Constitution taking it all home in 2018 and then Math, Civics & Sciences getting it done last year. Though two Philadelphia Public League squads are back in states yet again, though MCS had a much more successful season of the two, winning its first-ever Pub championship.
Around the rest of the state, a couple familiar faces –– and one new program that’s establishing itself as a regular this time of the year –– are also certainly in the mix to make a run deep into March and be playing at the GIANT Center on Friday, March 20 at 2 PM.
Here’s a look at several favorites, and several other programs that could make their way to a championship if things turn out in their favor. (Thanks to Hunter Muro of the Daily American and Brad Everett of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for their help with this preview).
Math, Civics and Sciences (12-1; 22-5)
Public League champions Math Civics and Sciences are heading into the state tournament having dealt with more than enough stress. Lonnie Diggs’ squad, which captured its second-ever state championship last March, downed Simon Gratz in an overtime upset in the regular season finale, nabbed a come from behind, overtime win over reigning champs Imhotep Charter, and finally beat Gratz again in a tight five point contest to earn the Pub championship. Junior wing Nisine Poplar, who only began playing organized basketball last season, scored a game-high 23 points, also crossing 1,000 for his career. Poplar has netted high-major offers thanks to his downhill scoring ability and eye-catching athleticism. Teams have taken to playing box-and-one defense on the first team all-Pub honoree in hopes of blunting his offensive impact. Poplar is joined by a capable scorer in forward Tvon Jones, and a steady point guard in senior Marcus Middleton.
Our Lady of Sacred Heart (7-1; 24-1)
Plenty of teams have dynamic duos, but not many do the damage of sophomore Jake DiMichele and junior Dante Spadafora. DiMichele scored 30 points to help the Chargers go back-to-back with WPIAL titles and he averages better than 28 points per game. Spadafora, OLSH’s point guard, puts up 22-plus points a night and leads the Chargers into the postseason on a 14-game winning streak. OLSH came up a point shy of earning a trip to Hershey last season, losing to DIstrict 6 champ Bishop Guilfoyle in the state semis. There’s a very good chance the Chargers could meet the Marauders at the same stage yet again this year.
Bishop Guilfoyle (6-1; 23-3)
Last year’s runner-ups are in basically the same spot that they were entering the state tournament last year, when they began their run to the finals at 23-2, topping Sto-Rox, Coudersport, Farrell and Our Lady of Sacred Heart before falling just short to MCS, 54-52, in a game in which they held a three-point lead in the final two minutes. Back from that team is senior guard Jessiah Witherspoon, who had 19 points in the state championship, plus fellow starters Michael Montecalvo, a 6-1 guard, and Kyle Ruggery, a 5-11 guard; gone is Luke Ruggery, who’s a freshman at St. Francis (Pa.). Forward Will Helton, a 6-3 senior, is a double-double threat, and they bring 6-8 junior Michael Woolridge off the bench; they are, however, without 6-6 forward Cameron Khoza for the playoffs, due to PIAA transfer regulations. A team that loves to shoot it, they have five players on the roster who’ve made at least 20 3-pointers. This is the fourth district championship team for Chris Drennon, who’s been the head coach at the 100-year-old Altoona Catholic school for the last eight seasons.
Executive Education (11-1; 16-6)
It might be the sixth year of classes at Executive Education, but 2020 was just the second season of basketball for the Raptors. And once again, they are playing in states after winning a District 11 title. Last year, though, perennial contender MCS knocked Executive Education out in the second round, but that came only after the Raptors took down Church Farm, the same team they’ll start with this time around. 6-foot-5 Junior Jevin Muniz averages 19 points a night as the main cog in Executive’s offense, but the Raptors have a pair of seniors — Titus Wilkins, a 6-4 combo guard, and Amari Mills, a 6-foot point guard — that return experience and leadership as well. With former BeCaHi head coach Ray Barbosa at the helm, this is a group that could definitely make it deeper this time around.
Holy Cross (2-1; 22-2)
Established in 2008 as the merger between Bishop O’Hara and Bishop Hannan, Holy Cross has become the 2A powerhouse in Northeastern Pennsylvania under its only head coach, Al Callejas, winning eight district titles in the last decade-plus, including the last four in the new classification system. Gone from last year is Tyler Mozeleski, who had 21 points in last year’s second-round state playoff win against Delco Christian; Holy Cross has won at least one state game each year at 2A, making it to the semifinals in 2018. They return three scorers from last year’s squad, which made it to the state quarterfinals before bowing out to Constitution; senior guard Kieran Burrier, a 6-0 guard, is their leading scorer and all-around team leader, joined by seniors Leahy O’Connor (6-0 guard) and point guard Caleb Callejas. Joining the lineup this year are senior point guard James Calciano and 6-1 junior post Patrick Bennie.
Sto-Rox (7-2; 18-7)
Last year’s postseason couldn’t have gone how the Vikings imagined. They finished the regular season 13-8, won their first-round WPIAL playoff game, then lost in the quarterfinals to Serra and were blown out of states by Bishop Guilfoyle in round 1. But this Sto-Rox team got a first-round bye in District 7 and hadn’t lost in 2020 – until OLSH edged out the Vikings in the WPIAL title game. That means Sto-Rox won’t have to worry about Guilfoyle until the quarterfinals, if at all, and the Vikings have the athletes to make some noise. 6-foot guard Malik Smith leads Sto-Rox at 19.1 points and 10.4 rebounds, and fellow senior A.J. Nelson (14.0 points and 8.5 rebounds) isn’t far behind.
North Star (5-1; 22-3)
Named for U.S. route 2019, formerly known as the North Star Way, North Star High School is located in Somerset County in the southern part of the state, with under 300 students in grades 9-12. Back-to-back district champions from District 5 Class 2A, the Cougars beat Bishop McCort in their opener and then Millville in the second round before losing to eventual champs MCS in the quarterfinal round. Back from last year is senior Andy Zuchelli, who averaged north of 25 points per game this year and who had 22 points in the season-ender last year, but they’re without Noah Pyles, who had 21 and 10 in that game. Zuchelli’s scoring help typically comes from junior guard Hunter Stephens, with 6-3 junior forward Drew Lane stepping up in multiple categories. This year, their state run starts with District 6’s third seed, Homer Center, with either Bloomsburg (4-1; 18-7) or Mountain View (2-2; 13-11) awaiting the winner.
First Round: Sat., March 7
Second Round: Weds., March 11
Quarterfinals: Sat.,, March 14
Semifinals: Tues., March 17
Championship: Fri., March 20