MANHEIM, Pa. — The Hoop Group’s Showcase League (HGSL) is holding its championships this weekend, the Spooky Nook Jam Fest, with all the HGSL programs and quite a few other regional non-shoe sponsored teams coming to the Nook for a weekend-long tournament.
Here’s a notebook from the opening night of the event, which consisted of six game sets across 14 courts:
Nix Varano (above) picked up his first two Division I offers this month, from Army and Navy. (Photo: Matthew Ryan/CoBL)
Nix Varano (2022 | Philly Pride Gold | La Salle HS, Pa.)
A lot has happened for Varano over the past two weeks. On July 5, the 6-2, 173-pound point guard received his first D-I offer from Navy, and just a few days ago he got his second from Army.
“I was in shock,” Varano said of getting his first offer, “because like three years ago I would not expect that. But I just kept working, working, working ‘cause it’s what I wanted, and then it’s true now, so it felt great.”
Varano had been in contact with a Navy assistant, and received the offer during a phone call with head coach Ed DeChellis. As for Army, Varano has been in touch with two assistants and got his offer during a Zoom call with head coach Jimmy Allen. Schools such as Cornell, Colgate, VMI, Princeton, Penn and Holy Cross have been in communication with Varano. Varano is yet to go on any visits but plans on visiting Army and Navy in August.
Both Navy and Army require that their graduates sign up for a certain amount of time serving the country.
“I feel good about it,” Varano said on having to serve once he graduates. “I mean I’m not sure if I want to do that yet, but I’m definitely really interested in ‘cause it’s like setting me up for the rest of my life.”
In front of a ton of college coaches on Friday, Varano had a really strong showing for Philly Pride Gold, scoring 16 points while also registering at least a block and a steal in his squads 59-49 win over SJ Hoops Elite. Over the summer Varano is working on improving his ball handling and defense while still making sure he’s keeping up with his shooting.
Last season on a 9-5 La Salle team, Varano started every game, averaging 12.8 ppg which was second most on the team, 5.2 rpg, a team-high 4.1 apg, and one steal per contest.
With Varano’s senior year quickly approaching, he has high expectations for his squad. The Explorers also return talented rising junior Horace Spencer, who has a number of high-major offers, plus senior guard Sam Brown, a Rutgers football commit, and 6-8 junior forward Caleb Bryant, who recently picked up his first D-I offer.
“I mean I think we’ve got a shot to win it all,” Varano said. “Definitely get to the Palestra, I think. We’ve got a bunch of good players and a really good coach so I think it will all come together and we will be really good.” -- Matthew Ryan
Allen Cieslak (above) has been hearing from a number of colleges after a strong spring and summer. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Allen Cieslak (2022 | East Coast Power | Devon Prep, Pa.)
It’s been a good summer for a number of Devon Prep’s returning players, scattered around their various AAU teams, and Cieslak is no exception.
The rising senior guard was a reserve for the Tide during their breakthrough 2020-21 season, when they finished 9-4 in the Philadelphia Catholic League and made it to the league semifinals in just their third year in the PCL. A transfer from Haverford High, where he spent his first two years, Cieslak averaged 4.0 ppg for Devon Prep and Tide head coach Jason Fisher, good for seventh on the team, giving them a little offensive pop off the bench.
He’s been doing much more than that for East Coast Power’s main group this spring and now into the summer, where he continues to be one of the more productive players on the court for ECP coach JJ Rapczynski. In a 68-67 win over Rhode Island Elite on Friday night, Cieslak finished with 12 points and five assists, going 4-of-8 from the floor and hitting both of his foul shots. An athletic combo guard with range, Cieslak knocked down one deep 3-pointer and also attacked the rim with gusto even against RI Elite’s towering front line, finishing several driving layups including one 3-point play.
“My first two years of high school were of course not my best, I was low on the radar, but I really had a good connection with Jason Fisher and he has a lot of trust in me,” Cieslak said. “Playing with him translates to AAU as well. My confidence is definitely boosting up as the season goes on.”
A 6-1, 160-pound point guard, Cieslak has basketball in his blood: his father, Marcin Cieslak, played professional basketball for KK Włocławek over in his native Poland, while his mother ran track. Allen said he’d gotten to watch some of his father’s tapes from back in the day.
“His game was awesome, we both play a similar way,” he said. “He definitely could shoot off the dribble a lot, definitely a floor general, and he was also really skinny too but that didn’t really affect his game. We both play hard, very aggressive — it doesn’t matter if you’re small, big, you’ve got to compete at any level, you’ve got to have the heart.”
Allen Cieslak isn’t quite as tall as his father’s 6-4 frame, but he’s still come quite a ways from the 5-6 or so he measured at Haverford HS. Still, he mentioned that doctors have told him his growth plates are still open, and he could end up as tall as his dad. It’s something he’s not especially patient for, especially at a key time in his hoops recruiting: “I want it now,” he said. “I want it right now.
It also helps that he’s added about 30 pounds of muscle to his frame, which has enabled him to hang physically at the 17U level of grassroots basketball, as well as on high school courts.
“Definitely with ball-handling, I can push (defenders) off, I can body some kids in the paint,” he said. “I can definitely box bigger kids out, rebound, and overall my game just feels a lot better.”
Colleges have noticed. Cieslak said he’d heard from Virginia Military Institute, and that VMI was supposed to come watch him this weekend. He’s also getting a lot of attention from numerous area Division III programs, including Washington College (Md.), Bryn Athyn, Franklin & Marshall, Widener, and Juniata.
He said he’ll be visiting quite a few schools in August, mentioning F&M and Widener specially as two campuses he wanted to visit, but that’ll also depend on who’s talking to him at the end of the month and beyond.
“I’m really excited to meet with new coaches,” he said. “I’m just excited for the recruiting process.” — Josh Verlin
Mike Loughnane (above) helped the Middlesex Magic 17s overcome NY Lightning Select. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
— Game of the evening was the Middlesex Magic’s main 17U group taking home a 71-70 overtime win over NH Lightning Select, in a game the Magic had almost no business winning. Down three with under 10 seconds left in regular, Middlesex had the ball to inbounds, but the Lightning were attempting to foul and send Middlesex to the line for a 1-and-1. Instead, Mike Loughnane (2022 | Boston College High, Mass.) got his hands on the inbounds pass after it had bounced around a couple times and launched a 30-footer which found nothing but net.
“Dom [Campbell] tipped it, kind of towards the middle of the floor, I saw it in the middle bouncing, I ran towards it, they didn’t get it in time, and I was lucky to get it,” Loughnane said. He’d hit big shots before, he added, but “not too many like that.”
That was part of a 16-point, four-rebound, four-assist night for Loughnane, a 6-4 guard with range and a smooth release. The son of former Northeastern guard Bill Loughnane, Mike’s older brother Jack Loughnane played D-II ball at St. Anselm’s (N.H.), in the powerful NE-10 conference. Mike Loughnane has an offer from Southern New Hampshire, another NE-10 school, with interest from high-level D-IIIs including Williams, Amherst and Babson.
“I’m completely open (to) any level,” he said. “I know how hard it is to play college basketball anywhere.”
— Jersey Force Select knocked off East Coast Power-Cieslak in an opening-round game in one of the 17U brackets, 55-33, behind a strong game from Jon Spatola (2022 | Marlboro, N.J.). A 5-9 point guard, Spatola had 12 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals, controlling the tempo on both ends of the floor. Spatola, who’s got a 3.8 GPA, said he’s hearing from D-IIIs Scranton and Penn State-Harrisburg so far. Also playing well for JF Select was Red Bank Catholic (N.J.) 2022 Cyril Arvanitis; a 6-3 sharpshooter, Arvanitis had a few in-and-out shots early but connected on four out of five triples late to finish with 14 points and a couple boards and steals. Thus far, Arvanitis is hearing from a long list of D-IIIs including Franklin & Marshall, Arcadia, Scranton, Randolph-Macon (Va.), York, Ursinus and D-II Seton Hill (Pa.)
— In a matchup of local programs in a 17U bracket first-round game, Pro Skills Philadelphia took down Mt. Pleasant Bulldogs 60-47. Upper Moreland (Pa.) 2022 forward Matthew Tiernan led the way for PSB with a 20-point, nine-rebound performance; the 6-5, 200-pound forward, who got all of his production from within 12 feet, showing good footwork and touch around the rim, said he’s been hearing from D-IIIs Elizabethtown, Wilkes and Messiah. Also playing well for PSB was Haverford High 2022 wing Nick Colucci, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists. For Mt. Pleasant, Eng. & Sciences 2022 F Denzel Figueroa was productive all game long, finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds (seven offensive).
— Team Takeover Orange beat Team Final Red 67-46 in a showcase game. National Christian (Md.) 6-5 wing Amare Johnson, son of former La Salle assistant Kenny Johnson, lit the nets on fire by hitting his first five 3-pointers, finishing with 15 points in the win; he’s got offers from D-IIs Millersville (Pa.) and Chowan (Va.), with interest from other D-IIs up through mid-major D-Is. Also playing well for TTO Orange was Potomac (Va.) 2022 guard Kyle Honore, a 5-10 point guard, who had 13 points, two assists and two steals. He’s still waiting on his first offer, but has heard from a mix of D-IIs and D-Is, including Mt. St. Mary’s and West Liberty (Va.).
— The best player on the floor in East Coast Power’s 68-67 win over Rhode Island Elite to cap off the night was Westtown (Pa.) 2023 wing guard Matt Mayock. Mayock was an efficient 7-of-9 from the floor (4-6 3PT, 4-4 FT) for his 22 points, adding in six rebounds as well. A deadeye 3-point shooter who knows a good shot from a bad one, Mayock is also a strong finisher with panache, making a few nifty up-and-unders even with the elite shot-blocker Miranda lurking nearby.
— This AAU season, 5-11, 160-pound Zende Hubbard is playing a new position for the L&L Running Rebels, point guard. Hubbard used to play off the ball but this summer told his coach Ray-Maurice Edwards that he wanted to bring the ball up the floor.
“At first I was getting a lot of turnovers and I got way better, stayed calm under pressure, and I bring up the ball,” Hubbard said.
In his squad's 62-60 win over Crown Basketball White, Hubbard had a solid outing, scoring eight points and grabbing two steals. Over the offseason Hubbard is in the gym at his high School, Plymouth Whitemarsh, using the shooting machine trying to improve his jump shot. The soon to be senior has heard from D-IIIs Delaware Valley, Penn State Harrisburg and Gwynedd Mercy and D-II East Stroudsburg.
— Entering his senior season at La Salle High School, Chris Williams is playing his AAU ball Philly Revolution. In his squad's 64-62 loss to Team Crush’ Em Red, Williams showed out scoring nine points, grabbing nine boards and registering three steals. The 6-2, 175-pound point guard has heard from D-III Scranton, Clarks Summit, Arcadia, and Bryn Athens which he says is recruiting him hard.
This offseason Williams is working on game shots and his handle. He came off the bench at La Salle last season and is hoping to be the starting point guard next season. Playing in the Philadelphia Catholic League means you're playing against top tier talent, which is something Williams enjoys.
“It's been great,” Williams said on playing in the PCL. “Like I said, playing great competition, even great competition in practice. Everynight playing division one guys up and down the court. It's great.”
— After spending four years at KIPP NYC College Prep (NY) and a post grad year at Vision Academy, Damir Brooks is still unsure where he will play his college ball next season. The 6-5, 208-pound wing doesn’t have any offers but has interest from D-I programs Hofstra and Quinnipiac, and D-II schools St. Thomas Aquinas, IUP, and ESU. Over the offseason, Brooks is working on his ball-handling, dribble pull up and three-point shot. Brooks plays his AAU ball with Milbank and in their 64-62 loss to Team Final Black, Brooks had a dominant performance, scoring 18 points, and registering at least two blocks and two steals. — Matt Ryan