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PIAA Class 6A Boys Championship Preview: Roman Catholic vs. Archbishop Wood

03/24/2022, 10:45pm EDT
By Jerome Taylor

Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)

While most preschoolers are learning shapes, ABCs, and numbers, Nick Mosco was being exposed to the sarcasm of PCL fans. 

“You wear purple,” a rhythmic taunting chant that opposing fans have used to serenade Roman Catholic for decades caught Mosco’s ear when his father and coach John Mosco was still an assistant coach at Neumann-Goretti. 

John Mosco (above) and Archbishop Wood are in the PIAA Class 6A championship game for the second year in a row. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“When he was four or four, he came to a game, and he loved ‘You wear purple,’” John Mosco, who took the helm at Archbishop Wood in 2013, said. “I still remember the first game I was at Wood and we played Roman — they beat us by 40, and that’s still in my mind.”

Now Nick is an 18-year-old senior, a deep reserve on his dad’s bench, enjoying the chance to be a part of a powerhouse program, even if he doesn’t often see the floor. He and the rest of Wood are now finishing preparing to take on Roman Catholic one last time in his high school playing career. 

Archbishop Wood and Roman Caholic are far from strangers, Catholic Leagues who have been fighting for space at the top of the PCL. Recently, Wood has had the upper hand in the rivalry between the two schools.

The Vikings beat the Cahillites in the 2021 PCL championship. And in this year’s meeting, with many new contributors, Wood once again topped Roman in an early January matchup. 

“Both teams know each other, we only played once back in January, but we all know each other,” John Mosco said. “League play, everyone is watching tape on other teams, so it should be interesting.”

The teams will face off with each other one more time in a battle for the 6A boys championship on Saturday at 7:30 to cap off championship week at the Giant Center in Hershey.  

Roman comes in as the District 12 champs, after finishing first in the PCL play during the regular season before falling in the PCL semifinals. Roman rebounded in the state tournament beating Haverford (59-49), Central Dauphin (59-26), Cheltenham (75-62) and Lower Merion (53-41) to get to Hershey. 

Wood comes in as the District 12 three-seed after falling short in the quarterfinal of the PCL playoffs. They’ve defeated Plymouth Whitemarsh (77-50), Reading (64-58), North Hills (74-47) and Fox Chapel (56-54) en route to the state championship game.

Justin Moore (above) will play his college ball at Drexel in the fall. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

During their January matchup, Wood topped Roman largely on the back of Drexel-commit Justin Moore, the McDevitt transfer dropping 20 points in the nail-biter. And the first-team all-Catholic guard’s offensive output has paced the Vikings for most of the 2021-2022 season, leading the team in points (16 ppg) and assists (6 apg). 

“I think he’s one of the best guards, if not the best guard in the state,” McNesby said. “He’s phenomenal. It is not easy to prepare for a guy like that, so we’ll try and do the best we can.” 

McNesby is competing for the state title in his first year back on the sidelines with Roman and will be pursuing his third state championship. During his time away from the purple and gold (2016-21), the Cahillites won one state championship in 2018 under Matt Griffin

“Being there before you know what to expect, you know what the arena’s about,” McNesby said about being back in the championship game. “Playing the last game, I’m familiar with that, so I’m trying to relay that to the kids… pass them some information so that they can visualize what it might be like.”

And to capture another oversized Hershey bar, Roman will have to prepare for a more complete team than the one they faced in January. 

One player who has undoubtedly ascended opposing coaches’ scouting reports is Wood sophomore Jalil Bethea. Bethea is Wood’s second-leading scorer (13.7 ppg) and is a lethal marksman (45.8% 3PT) who erupted against North Hills in the quarterfinals for 37 points while knocking down 11 of 12 3-pointers. 

“It’s a lot easier for him when teams don’t know you as well… he was able to get free because the state teams weren’t following him as much,” Mosco said. “But he’s matured in the way he handles himself on the court, at practice and taking criticism and just letting the game come to him.”

Bethea and other underclassmen like sophomore Josh Reed and juniors Bahsil Laster, Markus Dixon and Carson Howard have all emerged alongside seniors Moore, Mike Knouse and Tyson Allen

“Our sophomores have grown up a lot, they’re juniors now,” Mosco said. “Jahlil, Josh Reed and Bahsil have gotten a lot more experience, and we’re just more comfortable playing together… so I think the team is a lot more versatile.”

Khalil Farmer (above) is one of two Division I-bound seniors leading the Cahillites. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

In a similar vein, Roman’s two senior stars are now closer to being freshmen at Division I schools as Cincinnati-bound Daniel Skillings and Hofstra-commit Khalil Farmer will lace up their shoes one last time as high school athletes. Both players have been successful in their final year at Broad and Vine; both picked up first-team all Catholic honors, and Skillings was named MVP of the league. 

“We’ve talked about it all year,” McNesby said about his seniors’ last game. “Respect the moment, be together and enjoy it with one another, these guys have known each other for a while, and they deserve the opportunity.”

Roman only lost twice this year in conference play, first to Wood in January, and their second loss came in the PCL semifinals to Neumann-Goretti, who won the league crown. 

“We know how good Roman is… after we beat them, they didn’t lose to anybody else, we didn’t finish first, they did,” Mosco said. “They got knocked out [of the PCL playoffs] a round after we did, so they’re looking for redemption also.”

“I think anytime you lose you look back at it closer than wins, but they’re a good team, so I didn’t see it as a wake-up call,” McNesby said. “You have to learn to figure out how to play better.” 

Outside of those two losses, the Cahillites were dominant, as Skillings’ 18.7 ppg and 8 rpg led the squad, and Farmer’s 16 ppg and 6.2 rpg were second on the team. The third leg in Roman’s big three is junior guard Xzayvier Brown, who was also first-team all-Catholic. Brown’s 14 ppg and distribution (6.4 apg) make the Cahillites’ trio one of the most fearsome in the state. 

And though the Cahillites may be more reliant on the top half of their rotation than Wood, Roman’s complementary pieces will also be a factor, as they have been all season.

Freshman Shareef Jackson was impressive against Penn State-bound big man Demetrius Lilley in the state semifinal matchup. And senior Quadir Brown’s first half against Lower Merion buoyed Roman’s offense early on. Sophomore Toby Ojukwu gives the Cahillites one more ball-handler, and his eight second-half points helped close out the Aces in the last round. 

One thing is certain on Saturday, whether Wood avenges their 58-57 loss to Reading in last year’s title game or if Roman gets some get-back from their early-season loss: the PIAA 6A state champion will be coming from the Philadelphia Catholic League. By the end of the weekend, six state champions from the Catholic League could be returning to the Philadelphia area. 

“It is the last game of their high school career for guys. It’s the last game of the high school season we play at 7:30 there’s no more games at that point,” Mosco said. “It’ll be a great game, two local teams. 

“We’ll have to see how the PIAA handles handing out the trophies. They get tired of the Philadelphia teams winning every one."

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