HERSHEY — If beating the juggernauts of Lower Merion and Chester wasn't difficult enough for La Salle College High School, it'll face its toughest matchup to date in the PIAA Class AAAA state championship on Saturday night when the Explorers compete against New Castle at the Giant Center.
The undefeated District 7 champion Red Hurricanes (30-0) haven't lost a regular season game the last three years, they haven't scored less than 55 points in any game this season and every victory has been in surplus of 25 points over their opponents.
La Salle, meanwhile, has continued to surprise all season long. After an early season loss to North Allegheny 85-64 (whom New Castle a few weeks later defeated 63-41), the Explorers have been one of the most surprising teams all season long, led by a group who had little-to-no varsity experience.
After finishing in the top four in the Philadelphia Catholic League, the Explorers earned a bid to the state tournament defeating Philadelphia's Central High School 53-50.
"Getting through the Catholic League with only four losses we felt really fortunate, and our goal was only to get a home playoff game, truthfully,' said La Salle coach Joe Dempsey. "We could have never have predicted this success in the state playoffs.'
In fact, after the win against Chester, Dempsey was quick to point out that the Explorers were "this' close to bowing out before the state tournament had even begun.
"Our league is so tough that if you cough the wrong game up during the regular season you may not even get a chance to play,' Dempsey said. "Central, we were down two points with like a minute and a half remaining — that's how close we were to not getting invited to this thing.'
Yet the team is in Hershey ready to compete for the basketball team's first ever state championship as one of two PCL representatives (Neumann-Goretti won the AAA title on Friday night).
Against top competition the Explorers have played up to their opponents level every game. Be it through solid team defense — a mixture of man-to-man and dedicated zone traps — the Explorers are stingy on "D' and even more patient on offense.
Dave Krmpotich and Shawn Witherspoon have led the offensive onslaught for the Explorers all season long and the two juniors cease to disappoint. They'll be tasked with containing Malik Hooker (Sr., G/F), Anthony Richards (Sr., G) and Drew Allen (Sr., C), who bring not only the experience the La Salle Explorers lack, but also a fistful of success.
Hooker is an Ohio State football signee who is described as having "otherworldly athleticism and highlight reel dunks,' while Richards brings a slick shooting hand and Allen is a solid body in the post.
The Explorers will be given a handful Saturday night at 8 p.m. But if their recent success is any indication, they should be up to the task.