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 2023-24 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed thus far can be found here.)
Practice was about to begin recently in the ancient bandbox Neumann-Goretti gym, and amid the cacophony of bouncing balls and whistles, legendary boys basketball head coach Carl Arrigale had to make a point: “We’re Neumann-Goretti, so the standard is the standard. No matter who is here, the standard is the standard.”
For once in more than a decade, Neumann-Goretti is not one of the teams to beat in the rigorous Philadelphia Catholic League. That weight this season belongs to Archbishop Ryan and Georgetown-bound Thomas Sorber, and Archbishop Wood and Miami-bound Jalil Bethea.
Point guard Stephon Ashley-Wright is looking to lead Neumann-Goretti back to a PIAA Class 4A championship. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
But the Saints are right where Arrigale, who is about to enter his 27th season with 577 career victories, likes to be, hanging on the periphery just beyond the target.
This is a team that enters the season looking to avenge the loss to Roman Catholic in last year’s Catholic League championship, when the Saints (26-4, 12-1 Catholic League) blew a seven-point lead with 35 seconds left in regulation to lose in overtime 57-52 at the Palestra.
That was followed by its first-ever loss in the state finals, 62-58 to 30-1 District 7 champion Lincoln Park in the PIAA Class 4A championship.
Senior Khaafiq Myers is motivated by the Catholic League championship loss, which ended with him in the hospital until 2 a.m., he said. He battled an ankle injury last season and missed 14 games combined during his sophomore and junior seasons, but he said he’s the healthiest he’s been and has added five pounds.
“This is a big step for me this year, and my expectations are to lead the young guys and get back and win the Catholic League championship,” Myers said. “I remember walking off the Palestra last year. That was a sad loss at the Palestra. I’m not going out sad this year. Wood and Ryan will be good. We’ll be good, too. My message to this team is, ‘Win every day.’ We will do that by pushing each other.”
Stephon “Munchie” Ashley-Wright, the younger brother of Baylor commit Robert Wright III, was thrust into a significant role as a freshman and held up well. He still carries the Roman loss at the Palestra with him, too.
“It humbled me, seeing my brother lose like that, and I wanted to do anything to change it,” he said. “I think the last time I cried after a basketball game came when I was a young kid. I cried twice last year, after the Roman loss and in the state championship. I don’t want to leave a court like that again. I need to do more. It’s why this whole team is hungry.”
But the nine-time PIAA state champions also enter this season without their leader the past two years, Wright III, who is playing his senior year at prep school Montverde Academy, in Montverde, Florida.
Neumann-Goretti Hall of Famer Aaron Abbott has rejoined Arrigale’s coaching staff after longtime assistant John Brennan Jr. left for Rowan University to join his brother, Eric, the Profs’ interim head coach.
And another major loss is the presence of 6-foot-7 power forward Sultan Adewale, now at Iona.
Neumann-Goretti forward Amir Williams (right) is committed to Hofstra. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“This will be a different year,” Arrigale said. “We have to overcome some major losses, and we have a hungry, young group that is a year older and a year wiser. I wish we had a little more size, but I like this team and they like each other. There will be some growing pains. As long as we compete, we play hard and play to the Neumann-Goretti standard, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Saints do return two starters in St. Joseph’s-bound, 5-10 point guard Myers and Hofstra-bound 6-6 senior forward Amir Williams. Joining them will be highly motivated 6-6 senior forward Larenzo Jerkins, who was forced to sit out last season after transferring in from Chester; Ashley-Wright, a 6-foot sophomore guard; 6-4 senior forward Matt Guokas; and newcomers 6-1 junior guard Keon Long, 5-11 sophomore guard Torrey Brooks and 5-9 sophomore guard DeShaun Yates.
“We have some secret weapons here, players like Larenzo, who bring a lot of energy and talent,” Ashley-Wright said. “I’m a lot more confident and can share the knowledge I gained. If we play together, and play hard, we can definitely win everything this year.”
If the Saints possess a secret weapon, it could be Jerkins. He wants “to set an example” and has been the first player at every Saints’ practice in his shorts and shirt running line drills.
“I never watched a season before from the bench, and things did not pan out to be how I thought they would be last year,” Jerkins said. “Being out, I learned a lot and appreciate more. I learned by watching and seeing different aspects of the game. It was a lot. There is a lot of energy in me, and I’ll admit, there is some anger. But I want to use that in a good way, to help this team win a championship. It hurt a lot.”
But size will be an issue. Arrigale said it’s “one of the smaller teams that I’ve had here.” The Saints need to be balanced and defend well to return to the championship status they expect of themselves.
“We need to play a certain way, and we’re going to have to be scrappy, defend, play fast and be a hungry group,” Arrigale said. “We are going to have to play like we want it a little more than everyone else.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, 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.