Matt Faw (above) and Upper Merion are one of the favorites in their new league. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Anthony Dabbundo (@AnthonyDabbundo)
(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 2016-17 season preview coverage. The complete list of schools previewed so far can be found here.)
The Pioneer Athletic Conference’s 2015-16 season came to as an exciting conclusion as any, with Perkiomen Valley and Spring-Ford doing battle in a game that Spring-Ford won only after a controversial technical foul on the Perk Valley student section for rushing the court with a second remaining on the clock.
Now, the two-division league has been bolstered by the addition of two noteworthy programs from the Suburban One Conference, and both Upper Merion and Norristown look to factor into the races of the Frontier and Pioneer divisions, respectively. Perkiomen Valley star Justin Jaworski and Upper Merion’s Matt Faw (Holy Cross) are the star power at the top of the league, and there is plenty of talent across the league this season.
And then there’s Phoenixville, which lost do-everything star Christian Kelly (Kutztown) but returns several talented seniors, as well as Methacton, with perhaps the most promising underclassmen in the entire league.
Here’s an in-depth look at the first year of the new-and-improved Pioneer Athletic Conference:
With Upper Merion joining the Frontier Division from the Suburban One League, they are instant favorites to win it going away. The Vikings have a ton of size and experience, with a lineup full of seniors, led by Faw and Ethan Miller. Faw was all-Suburban One first team last season, with Miller earning second team honors. They may be new to the PAC, but they are certainly the league’s most talented team. Along with the size, the Vikings can shoot it too, through guards Aidan Newell and Andrew Persaud. It may take a few games to adjust to playing all new teams, but the Vikings talent will make them the favorites prevail over Phoenixville for the division.
Avery Close (above) and Phoenixville have to replace do-everything wing Christian Kelly. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Phoenixville looks to recreate last season’s undefeated 13-0 regular season league record. The only problem is the Phantoms will be without Christian Kelly, the school’s second all-time leading scorer. Kelly really did do it all for his team, scoring 24.4 points per game last year en route to a top 10 district seed. The Phantoms will turn to 6-foot-5 wing and sharpshooter Avery Close to help fill the void left by Kelly’s graduation. They also return senior guards Hunter Herschell, Shyheim Abernathy and Nasir Green, who all received plenty of varsity experience last year both starting and off the bench. A team with a starting lineup full of seniors, Phoenixville is the team that has the best chance to challenge the Vikings for the division title.
After coming within a minute of the last year’s league playoffs, before falling to Pope John Paul II, Pottstown could be a team to watch in the Frontier Division. The Trojans, led by senior wing Larry Wingo (13.0 ppg), play tough, physical defense, like to run the floor, and will be competitive in a lot of games. Don’t be surprised if Pottstown is in a similar position as last season, needing a win or two to make the league playoffs. Pottsgrove faded down the stretch last season, but with former Pope John Paul II head coach Jack Flanagan now at the helm for his first season, the Falcons could also make a run at the PAC’s inaugural ‘Final Five’.
Players to Watch
The Pioneer Athletic Conference doesn’t produce many Division 1 recruits. With Upper Merion’s Matt Faw entering as a committed prospect, all eyes will be on him to produce what he is capable of and lead the Vikings to a division title. He’ll have plenty of help, especially from Ethan Miller, a wide-shouldered forward who can really shoot it. ...Phoenixville will look to replace Christian Kelly by committee, but Avery Close will be counted on most to score consistently every night. Close averaged 11 points a game last season, but that will have to increase for the Phantoms to challenge Upper Merion. ...If Pottstown is to make a surprise run into the Final Five, it will run through junior wing Larry Wingo. ...Upper Perk may not have won any games in league play last season, but they return their leading scorer, Ryan Kendra, who was seventh in the league last year with 14.9 points a game.
Predicted Top 3
1. Upper Merion
Two-sport standout Justin Jaworski (above) and Perkiomen Valley came oh-so-close to a league championship last year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
For the second consecutive year, Spring-Ford and Perkiomen Valley enter as the favorites in the Liberty Division. The Vikings are a very guard heavy team that return their two top scorers, sharpshooters Justin Jaworski and Sean Owens, who averaged 29.8 points per game combined last season. Sophomore Tyler Stretchay will be asked to play big minutes in the backcourt, a 6-foot scorer who played well down the stretch last season.
Meanwhile, Spring-Ford has to find a way to replace their three top scorers, Nigel Cooke, Cam Reid, and Matt Gnias, from last season, who averaged a combined 37.6 points. The Rams will turn to Chucky Drummond, a flashy guard who can score from all over the court. Drummond, along with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Adam Geremski, all seniors, will have to step up into bigger scoring roles as the Rams look to recreate last year’s historic season. The two teams’ first meeting will be December 22 at Spring-Ford, the site of last year’s championship. Neither team has a lot of size, which could hurt them when either team runs into Upper Merion in the playoffs.
Methacton enters this season off a disappointing 6-16 record last year, but the Warriors have a good mix of both youth and experience. The Warriors unquestioned leader is senior guard Patrick O’Neill, who is the only varsity player left from the historic 2014-2015 season. Methacton will also look to fellow seniors Noah Kitaw and Crandall Jones, who saw plenty of minutes last year. Joining the seniors is a trio of underclassmen, highlighted by freshman forward Jeff Woodward. At 6-foot-8 and a solid 225 pounds, Woodward is already the division’s biggest player and looks to make an immediate impact. The Warriors also feature two sophomores, David Duda, a lights-out 3-point shooter, and Marcus Girardo, a speedy point guard. With all of this young talent, combined with some senior leadership, and the steady hand of head coach Jeff Derstine, don’t be surprised to see Methacton threatening for the division and league title.
Chucky Drummond (above) and his fellow Spring-Ford seniors have big shoes to fill after a 23-win season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Players to Watch
After breaking the PAC record for receiving yards on the gridiron, Perk Valley guard Justin Jaworski is back on the court, looking to pick up a division 1 offer, and improve upon his 19.7 points per game. A lights out shooter, who hit what should have been the game winning shot in last year’s championship game, Jaworski will be a tough cover for everyone in the league. Joining him in the backcourt is fellow football player and basketball standout Sean Owens, who will have to improve his scoring to make up for lost seniors. ...For the rival Rams, all eyes are on Chucky Drummond, who will have to prove he can consistently score in double figures with defenses keying in on him. ...Everyone will be watching to see Methacton’s can’t-miss big man Jeff Woodward (6-8), who will look to be one of the only freshmen playing big minutes across the PAC. Sophomore guard David Duda (6-3), son of the St. Joe’s assistant, is a talented underclassman as well. ...Owen J. Roberts senior Robert Walker, a 5-10 guard, is one of the league’s top returning 3-point shooters, but he can also put it on the floor and get to the rim.
Predicted Top 3
1. Perkiomen Valley
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