Through the Pioneer Athletic Conference boys basketball season, Spring-Ford time and time again established itself as the team to beat.
The Rams came out of the gate like gangbusters, opening with nine straight wins for their best start in program history. And they didn't let up in PAC-10 play, running the table to a 13-0 league mark.
With Liberty Division champion Spring-Ford (19-2 overall) being joined by Liberty runner-up Methacton (11-2, 13-7), Frontier champ Pope John Paul II (10-3, 13-8) and Frontier runner-up Pottsgrove (8-5, 9-12) for the PAC-10's Final Four playoffs, which tip off Friday at Pottstown's Strom Gymnasium, a couple of questions exist.
First, can anyone take down the Rams? And if so, who is the hot team among the other three capable of peaking at the right time?
Last year, Methacton went through league play undefeated, but was upended in the championship game by red-hot Perkiomen Valley — which had rallied from a 2-6 start.
Spring-Ford, which takes on Pottsgrove in the 7:45 p.m. nightcap, is hoping to avoid history repeating itself in that respect.
The Rams feature a triple-threat attack led by forward Nick Stanek (17.1 ppg.), guard Drew Kakareka (13.3, 46 3-pointers) and forward Gary Hopkins (11.6) — with guards Ryan Cass, Mike Olsen, Cameron Phillips, Noah Collins and Josh Tupper and, center Alex Epps-Ortiz each making key contributions to an up-tempo attack.
"The identity of the team is being able to play hard for 32 minutes and try to wear teams down,' first-year Rams coach Chris Talley said. "We have been fortunate enough to finish close games and pick up a big stop when needed.'
Though Spring-Ford defeated the Falcons 77-57 in the regular-season meeting Jan. 8, Talley said his squad is not taking anything for granted in the rematch.
"Pottsgrove gives us match-up problems with their length and athleticism,' Talley said. "They have tremendous athletes that are relentless on the offensive boards. They play a variety of defenses to get us out of rhythm. Pottsgrove is a big challenge for us and we hope to match their intensity.'
The Falcons won four of their last five league games to garner a playoff spot. Junior guard Mike Fowler (10.8 ppg) leads the way for coach Scott Palladino's crew, with seniors Tyrone Parker and Marquis Barefield, junior Anthony Hedgepath and sophomore Nazhir Goldston (10.8 ppg over the past five games) rounding out the starting five.
The good news for the Falcons is that they're finally back to full strength after dealing with some injury issues, meaning Palladino can completely utilize an ultra-deep rotation that also includes seniors Mike Graves, Marshon Rose and Ryan Klotz; junior Jarred Mayes; sophomores Deyon Doctor and Louie Gibbs; and freshman Nic Curnew.
"We have consistently played 10 or 11 guys on a nightly basis,' Palladino said. "I think our defensive effort played a huge part in our success down the stretch. We have done a solid job the last 10 games of holding opponents under 50 points and forcing a lot of turnovers in each of those games.'
That said, Palladino knows the Falcons will have to turn it up a few notches in order to upset the Rams.
"Spring-Ford is obviously a very talented team and very well-coached,' Palladino said. "Kudos to Chris and his staff; they have done an excellent job this season. They are disciplined and play together as a team. They have size, experienced guards, and a plethora of guys who can score. We definitely have our work cut out for us.
"If you look at the stats, I know a lot of people will not give us a chance to compete with Spring-Ford. In fact, our coaching staff and the players in our locker room are probably the only ones who do believe we can win. We relish the role of underdogs. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. It's been four years since Pottsgrove has been back to the Final Four, our kids and coaching staff are excited to be in this spot and they will be ready to go Friday night.
"Our keys to the game will be to take care of the basketball and be patient of offense. We also want to limit Spring-Ford's second- and third-chance opportunities so we must go to the glass hard.'
In the 6 p.m. opener, it will be a rematch of last month's 38-36 victory by Methacton over Pope John Paul II — when Warriors junior forward Justin Ardman was the star of the show by scoring a game-high 16 points (including the go-ahead three-point play with 20 seconds left) and blocking a shot in the final seconds to secure the victory.
Methacton, which has won eight of its past 10 games, is led by senior forward Zach Jenkins (14.4 ppg). Ardman (11.6 ppg), point guard Joe Ruhl, shooting guard Sean Mann and center Dillon Alderfer compose the starting lineup for coach Jeff Derstine. Richie Dunham, Tom Dyer and T.J. Tornetta the top three off the bench for the Warriors, who are seeking their second PAC-10 title in three years.
"A big reason for the success we have had this season has been the team-first attitude our guys have displayed,' Derstine said. "They have really played hard and for each other all season long. The commitment our players have made to consistently bring effort and energy at the defensive end of the floor has kept us in a lot of ball games this season.'
Pope John Paul II counters with a guard-oriented attack featuring starters James Bleming (12.7 ppg, area-best 61 3-pointers), Tim Tadros (11.2), Mike Cianciulli (9.5), Matt Mesaros, and James McKeon.
Rosario Peloro, Paul Taglialatela, Nick Giampietro, Sean Rafferty and Patrick Vasas have all come off the bench for PJP, which is riding a six-game winning streak.
"It's a total credit to the kids,' Golden Panthers coach Jack Flanagan said. "Coaches coach, and players win games. They have really bought into the idea that everyone has a job to do, and no job is more important than another. They've all kind of agreed in a team way to do their job, and if they do that, the team will be successful.'
Pope John Paul II won the PAC-10 title in 2011, its first year of existence, before falling in the league semifinals in each of the past two seasons.
"I think the real key for this game is coming out and trying to do what we do well,' Flanagan said. "We need to take care of the ball and get good shots, and remember Methacton is the kind of team that will be patient on offense and defense. They don't beat themselves. So we can't beat ourselves, but we also have to be ready to step up and make plays. Whoever's making some shots and playing composed down the stretch is going to leave the gym happy.'
MAPL playoffs tip off
Also Friday, the Mid-Atlantic Prep League playoff tournament gets underway at Hill School's Gillison Court.
Fourth seed Lawrenceville takes on fifth seed Hun at 6:45 p.m. and third seed Peddie School takes on sixth seed Mercersburg at 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, top seed Hill School (4-1, 13-3) meets the Lawrenceville-Hun winner in one semifinal at 5:45 p.m., with second seed Blair facing the Peddie-Mercersburg winner in the other semi at 7:30 p.m.
The championship will take place Sunday at 2 p.m.
The Blues are led by the trio of 6-foot-8 center John Carroll (18.1 ppg.), 6-6 swingman James Fives (12.8) and sophomore point guard Bryce Allen (8.9).
The MAPL girls tourney is also being held at Hill School this weekend, with the fifth seed Blues (1-4, 6-10) taking on fourth seed Hun in a quarterfinal Friday at 3:15 p.m. Rachel Salter averages a team-high 7.1 points for Hill.
Third seed Peddie and sixth seed Mercersburg meet in the other quarterfinal at 5 p.m.
In Saturday's semifinals, top seed Blair takes on the Hill-Hun winner at 2 p.m., with second seed Lawrenceville facing the Peddie-Mercersburg winner at 3:45 p.m. The semifinal winners square off in Sunday's noon championship.
Follow Darryl Grumling on Twitter at @MercSmokinD