UPPER DARBY — With the way some pundits talked about the Central League last year, you could have sworn it was the redheaded stepchild of District One. People were quick to bury the league for having its teams beat up on each other night-in and night-out, saying it was a sign of weakness.
Funny thing about that, though. Not many leagues were able to place three teams in the PIAA Class AAAA tournament and come out with a champion. And guess what? It's likely to be more of the same this year.
Everyone is chasing newly-minted state champ Lower Merion, and Conestoga is the consensus favorite to challenge the Aces, but there's a heck of a lot of depth in the league this year. Gimmes are few and far between, so you'd better bring your best.
Beni Toure knows a little bit about that. The Upper Darby senior forward went through the battles last year when the Royals advanced to the second round of the state tournament, so he knows that are expectations are high.
"That does raise our expectations,' said Toure, who averaged 7.8 points per contest last year. "We've been there last year, we feel like we're better this year and we don't want to just get to the same place again this year. We want to go farther. I'm sure you've heard about our football team putting on a good show this year, so there are high expectations. Gotta keep up.'
"I think we've got more confidence this year,' fellow senior forward Quadir Rice added. "I think we're ready.'
West Catholic transfer Torey Green and senior guard Demetrius "Meech' Timmons will also be relied on heavily for the Royals, as will sophomore forward Isheem Adams.
Ridley lost its top four scorers from a team that made it to the state tournament, and yet there's a buzz around the league about the Green Raiders that's impossible to shake. Ridley coach Mike Snyder will point out his team's lack of size — the Green Raiders will be tiny — but there's speed to burn. Sophomore Brett Foster earned a starting job late last year and parlayed that into eight points per game and he'll be asked to do a lot.
Count on expanded roles for fellow sophomore Julian Wing and Ameer Staggs, while Snyder feels that football running back Malcolm Strand-Young can be a "wild card' once he gets into basketball shape. Seniors Andrew Murphy and Isaiah Lester will also need to be big, too.
Penncrest coach Mike Doyle saw the future in last year's District One playback round game against Hatboro-Horsham and t loved what he saw.
An injury made Doyle start Drew Hanna at the point. Based on that game, Doyle is feeling good about this year's chances with Hanna running the show.
"He stepped in that game and played unbelievable,' Doyle said. "He's really a true point guard and he's got great court vision.'
Doyle's leap into the starting job will be facilitated by having big forwards Rahmi Halaby (6-5) and Ben Casanova (6-4) to work with. Halaby was the Lions' most consistent big man a year ago at 9.8 points per game, while Casanova battled through injuries to average 8.2 points. Both are expected to rank among the best bigs in Delco.
"They've been through the wars,' Doyle said, "so they're a good place to start.'
There just might be a very unfamiliar face in the District One Class AAAA tournament this year.
Expectations at Garnet Valley are a lot different than in recent years. After three straight one-win seasons, the Jaguars ripped off a 9-13 mark a year ago, including a win over state tournament qualifier Ridley in the season finale. Couple that momentum with eight returning varsity players, including four starters, and the Jaguars are eyeing a ticket to the district dance.
"I think it's great,' coach Mike Brown said. "We just had a pizza party for the team where there were about 85 people or so. Someone commented to me that when they had it a couple years ago, there were maybe five people there, so there's definitely some excitement.'
Joey Sweeney, Aaron Parenti, Kyle McCrossan and Austin Klenotiz, all of whom averaged at least six points per game, are back, and Garnet Valley returns 84 percent of its scoring output from last season.
Another team that fits the same mold is Chris Monahan's Radnor team. The Raiders bring back an incredible 98.4 percent of their scoring output, including point guard Nelson Blickman, back from a team that was competitive in nearly every game.
"We kind of go as he goes,' Monahan said of Blickman, who averaged nearly a dozen points as a junior. "For us to have a good year, he has to have a really good year, so we're expecting big things from him.'
Chris Galloway, Terrance Quinn and All-Delco soccer defender Andrew Lundstrom should also figure prominently.
Four of Springfield's five starters graduated, but coach Kevin McCormick thinks that his team can pose problems for teams this year. His son, also named Kevin, was one of Delco's elite marksmen with 54 3-pointers as a sophomore but is expected to be a more well-rounded threat. The Cougars boast a strong junior class, but seniors Sean Carpenter — "aggressive as hell,' according to McCormick — and Derek Aungst, a terrific passer out of the low post, should also be major threats.
Haverford's chances at a district berth will center on senior Tom Leibig. The 6-4 senior averaged 12.4 points per game last year and he's one of the biggest mismatches in the league. Leibig can shoot from anywhere on the court, and his presence will open things up for three-year varsity players like Mike O'Halloran, Chris Lyons, Ben Parker and Ryan Clancy.
It doesn't hurt to have point guard Jack Donaghy back, either. The sophomore had a strong year down the stretch as the Fords' quarterback this fall, and if that development can carry over to the hardwood, Haverford will be in good shape.
"He's a tough kid and you know what you're getting from him,' third-year coach Keith Heinerichs said.
Strath Haven is going to be hard-pressed to match its success from a year ago when the Panthers were 17-8 and played three district games. The Panthers were gutted by graduation as eight seniors departed.
Senior point guard Mike Fisher, last year's sixth man, will be Strath Haven's top option, while coach Tom Dougherty identified Chris DiEnno as a potential 3-point marksman for a team that Dougherty thinks will be a better shooting team than last year. Forwards Kyree Fuller (6-3), Denzil Lezenby (6-3) and Tyler Lashley (6-2) give the Panthers size up front.
Brian Shane will be the first to tell you that Marple Newtown won't be the biggest team around, but the Tigers' coach is hoping that a pair of late wins last season can provide momentum this time around.
"We might be the smallest team in the Central League,' Shane said. "But we finished strong with wins over Springfield and Radnor and we were in every game down the stretch, so it's a group with experience.'
Nick Giordano, Tim MacNeal, Tom Davis and Jake McGee all averaged more than seven points per game last year and will be tasked with bringing the Tigers closer to .500.
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