By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
(Ed. Note: This story is part of CoBL’s “Prepping for Preps” series, which will take a look at many of the top high school programs in the region as part of our 2022-23 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
The goal is simple: Winning the Philadelphia Catholic League championship at the Palestra. Getting there will be the tough part. Cardinal O’Hara coach Ryan Nemetz, who’s entering his fifth season, has a star player in 6-5 senior guard and Iona commit Izaiah Pasha and a surrounding cast of experienced players that could make that push this season.
Pasha is one of three starters returning with 6-foot senior guard Josh Coulanges and 6-8 junior forward Pearse McGuinn, in addition to Aasim “Flash” Burton, a 6-2 junior guard transfer who was an all-Philadelphia Public League choice playing for Math, Civics and Science.
The Lions finished 14-11 overall last season and 6-7 in the Catholic League, beating Bonner-Prendergast in the PCL playoffs before losing to eventual PIAA Class 6A state champion Roman Catholic in the Catholic League semifinals. The Lions lost to Dallas (54-46) in the second round of the PIAA Class 4A state playoffs.
“I would say we have a lot of talent this year individually,” Nemetz said. “We have three Division I recruits, so combining the talent we have and sticking to the principles of hard work, team, and toughness, we have an older team now, as opposed to last year when we had a lot of sophomores and juniors.
Junior forward Pearse McGuinn is one of the returning starters for O'Hara this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“That’s going to pay off. It’s a lot easier because guys know what we do. We’re able to build off a foundation with players like Izaiah, who come back more mature, stronger, who have added more skills over the summertime. That puts us in a good spot this year in the PCL. We’ve always played up-tempo, but we don’t have a true center, per se. We’ll be a team that plays up-tempo and gets after it on the defensive end with the bigger focus on halfcourt.
“Against bigger, tougher teams, you have to execute in the halfcourt.”
That offense will run through Pasha, a versatile combo guard who averaged 17 points a game last season.
“All of our guys want to get to the Palestra and want to get to the top tier in the PCL,” Nemetz said. “That’s the goal all our guys want. You know once you get to the top tier of the PCL, you’re in the top tier of the state. My goal is to see these guys get opportunities and grow. I saw that in Izaiah last year. He is a really talented player who caught a lot of guys off guard. He was first team All-Catholic for a reason. He comes back this year more determined to be better. Our guys will look up to him and his success will dictate what kind of year we have.”
Pasha is ready for the challenge.
“I want to prove where I am is not just talk; I want to bring my best every game,” Pasha said. “I would say we could be the best in the PCL. We brought in key guys. We’re really starting to jell. We need to continue to work on trying to get better. We’re working on sets, chemistry, confidence, we do it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
“Personally, I love big moments. There will always be the times when I want to be respected on the court. I think we can go to the Palestra. I feel like the PCL has evened out. Last year, Roman Catholic, West Catholic, they had a lot back. I know Roman and West lost a lot. We have a lot back. I feel really confident. If we put in the work, stay true to ourselves and everyone performs their role, we could be PCL champions.”
Supporting that drive will be 6-3 senior forward Christian Cervellero, 6-5 junior forward Noah McIntosh, 6-1 junior guard Carey Cunningham and 6-foot junior guard Zuri Harris.
Cardinal O'Hara star senior Izaiah Pasha is headed to Iona next season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
O’Hara’s biggest strength will be its versatility. The Lions’ top seven players can all handle the ball. They all possess play-making ability. What they lack is the overall size many PCL teams have. Nemetz is looking for pressure to compensate for the size difference the Lions may be up against some nights.
“Getting consistent stops will be a challenge,” Nemetz said. “Overall, I feel good. I’m not really worried about scoring the ball. My biggest worries are defensive stops.”
Nemetz likes the offseason jumps McGuinn, Coulanges and Harris made. Harris was among the top players in the PCL last season in assist/turnover ratio. He’ll be the Lions’ calming influence after being thrown into the fire as a sophomore. Nemetz will use him defensively to man up on opponents’ best guards. McGuinn has added new pieces to his game and a consistent shot. Colleges are beginning to show him some attention based on his size and shooting ability.
Coulanges gives Nemetz another voice on the floor, with the ability to run the offense.
And as for Burton, Nemetz says, “Flash is another talented guy who is getting D-I offers and he plays to his pace and complements the guys we have. He can play at all three levels and fits into what we do well.”
It’s a matter of the pieces fitting together.
“I think we have the talent and ability to win the PCL,” Coulanges said. “I say that because of the chemistry we have and with Aasim coming in, we’ll be good in transition and the offensive area because we have a lot of skilled guards. We’ll need to work on our toughness and have an open mind for everyone coming together.”
But the goal is simple.
“We won big games against rivals like (Archbishop) Carroll and Bonner-Prendergast; we’re a program that’s learning how to win bigger games,” Nemetz said. “Given the foundation we have back, now it’s about how do we take the next jump and get to the Palestra and finish with a top four or five seed in the playoffs? That’s what we want to build towards. I don’t really look at this year as a step-up year. Last year, we accomplished getting to the PCL playoffs again. We got to the state tournament. We look at this year more as solidifying the program as one of the best in the city.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here .