Ron Poniewasz Jr.
New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
This one is for all the marbles.
New Castle High. La Salle College.
The winner gets gold medals and a sparking trophy. The loser gets silver medals and a runner-up status.
The PIAA Class AAAA boys basketball championship is on the line. The Red Hurricane is hungry to strike gold for the first time.
New Castle will get that shot at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Hershey’s GIANT Center against the Explorers. Six ’Canes seniors will take the court looking to close out their career in style.
“Being one of the last two teams playing, and playing for a state title in Hershey, it’s a goal of all young people and all athletes,” said fourth-year ’Canes coach Ralph Blundo. “Anyone that’s ever played at New Castle has had dreams like that.
“We have that opportunity now. We’re proud to represent the WPIAL and our community.”
New Castle (30-0) will play in the championship game for the fourth time in program history — 1936, 1982 and 1998. The Explorers (23-6) are only in their sixth season of competing in the PIAA.
The Philadelphia Catholic League joined the PIAA in the 2008-09 school year in District XII. This is the third trip to the state playoffs for La Salle College since being eligible for the PIAA playoffs.
La Salle College is located one-tenth of a mile from the city of Philadelphia in Montgomery County.
Though the Explorers have never competed for a state title, they do own one Catholic League crown — 1981.
“We’re thrilled to be in the championship game,” said La Salle College coach Joe Dempsey, who is in his 10th season at the helm. “It’s such an honor, especially in basketball.
“La Salle has won a handful of state championships. Swimming just won its third in a row. Hockey is in the state championship, but it’s not in the PIAA. Lacrosse won one last year, football has a state crown and baseball won one in 2012, I think it was.”
Dempsey continued, “I work at a very successful school and sports community. I’m thrilled to hold up the basketball end. We still have one more to play. We’re certainly not taking New Castle lightly. They’re a tremendous team and program.”
New Castle is looking to become the first team from the west to win a state crown since the 2006-07 season. Schenley, out of the City League, knocked off Chester that season for the title, 78-71.
The ’Canes can put an end to that streak, but Blundo knows there’s work to be done.
“They’re an excellent basketball team,” he said of La Salle College. “They defend really well and they play well together.
“They’re a smart basketball team and they do things fundamentally right. They play hard and they are versatile. To me, it’s no surprise that they’re in the state final.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE
New Castle, the three-time defending WPIAL champions, reached the state championship game with a 58-54 decision over Abington. Blundo said Tuesday that he was happy for many reasons, but one main reason was he gets to coach his players for four more days. And spend quality time with them, in the way he and the members of the program’s motto — ‘together’.
Yesterday was a difficult one for him and the program, though.
“It’s so special,” he said of being with his team. “It was a bit emotional at practice (yesterday).
“We realized it would mark the last time we’ll practice on that floor. I’m so blessed to have these four days that we didn’t have last year.”
The ’Canes are set to depart early this morning for Hershey, where they will get a practice in later tonight and a walk-through tomorrow prior to tipoff.
“It’s really been great to prepare for this state championship game,” Blundo said.
La Salle College reached the championship game with a 61-55 verdict over Chester. The Explorers are the third-seeded team out of District 12.
“We’re certainly in unfamiliar territory,” Dempsey said. “I told a lot of the reporters, I said, ‘Look, our league is so tough. Mike Krzyzewski talked about how tough the ACC is. I feel like that’s our league. We were fourth place in our league. And New Castle was first in a tremendous league.”
Dempsey noted Catholic League members Philadelphia Roman Catholic, Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Carroll are loaded with talent. He said Roman Catholic has five Division I players, with two graduating. Neumann-Goretti has seven Division I athletes and Archbishop Carroll has six Division I players.
“We’re familiar with playing good competition,” Dempsey said.
ABOUT LA SALLE COLLEGE
Dave Krmpotich, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, paces La Salle College at 11.5 points per game. He tossed in a team-high 19 points in the win over Chester.
Krmpotich has a scholarship offer that he is deciding on to play basketball at Division I Lafayette.
Blundo acknowledged Krmpotich is a good shot blocker among his many abilities.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Blundo said of Krmpotich. “He’s very, very long. He’s one of the guys that is very good now, and he will be very good down the road.
“He plays with passion and excitement. I like those kind of players. He’s a good player; he’s versatile, too. He can play on the perimeter and on the block.”
Najee Walls and Shawn Witherspoon are a tough one-two punch at the guard position.
Walls, a 5-11 junior point guard, contributes 9.9 points a contest.
“He’s a quick point guard,” Blundo said of Walls. “He’s smart and he gets to the rim.
“He can finish and he can find people. He’s a really good all-around basketball player.”
Witherspoon, a 6-0 junior, chips in 9.4 tallies a tilt. He backed up Krmpotich’s effort Tuesday with 17 points.
“Witherspoon has been really playing well of late,” Blundo said. “He’s increased his scoring.
“I’m really impressed with him. He’s highly underrated and one heck of a player.”
The Explorers are averaging 61.2 points a game in four state playoff games and allowing 51.
“They’ll do a bunch of different things,” Blundo said. “They’ll spread the floor, use stagger screens, they’ll post up their bigs and get their guards into places where they can be effective.
“They’ve played straight man-to-man defense, some 1-2-2 three-quarter court, matchup zone and some sagging man-to-man.”
Malik Hooker, a 6-1 senior guard/forward and Ohio State University football recruit, directs New Castle’s arsenal with a county-high 22.2 points a game. He has 1,615 career points as well.
“The kid is a freak athlete,” Dempsey said of Hooker. “It’s an unbelievable accomplishment to play Division I football in college.
“I’m fairly certain he could play basketball. He’s a fierce competitor, a great jumper, and more importantly, he’s a winner and a leader.”
Anthony Richards, a 5-8 senior guard, backs up Hooker’s production at 12.8 markers a matchup. Richards, a West Virginia Wesleyan recruit, has 1,105 career points.
“The best thing about Richards is his accuracy,” Dempsey said. “It’s incredible how he can shoot; he’s not afraid to shoot.
“He can shoot from four or five feet behind the arc. He handles it well and he doesn’t take bad shots.”
Richards has 101 3-pointers on the season and 304 for his career. Both are school records.
Richards joined some elite company in the state quarterfinals when he drained a trio of 3-pointers against Hampton, reaching the elusive club of players with 300 3-pointers made in a career. He became just the fourth player in WPIAL history with at least 300 3-pointers. Highlands’ Micah Mason (2008-2012) leads the way with 346 and Chartiers Valley’s T.J. McConnell (2006-10) is second at 334. Mike Colbert, another Chartiers Valley (1994-98) product rounds out the group with 302. Richards’ four trifectas in the semifinals moved him into third place all-time on the list.
McConnell is currently playing at Arizona for Blackhawk High graduate Sean Miller.
New Castle’s Stew Allen, a 6-3 senior center and Duquesne football recruit, contributes 10.6 points a game. Stew’s twin brother Drew, a 6-0 senior guard, tosses in 10.1 points a game. Drew is a Robert Morris University football recruit.
Stew Allen hit the go-ahead layup on a long pass from Hooker with 35 seconds remaining to put the ’Canes up for good at 55-54.
“Stew is a force inside,” Dempsey said. “He gets his hands on every rebound and he hustles. I’m unbelievably impressed with his play. Who wouldn’t want a 6-3 kid at 220 pounds that plays like he’s 5-11 and would run through walls for the team?
“Everybody tells me Drew Allen has tremendous poise. He’s not afraid to take a big shot. I think he’s the glue of their team; he does a lot of the dirty work and he hits big shots.”
HOW TO DO IT
The ’Canes average 72.7 points a game and allow 50.1.
“They can play a lot of different ways,” Dempsey said of New Castle. “They execute the heck out of things. When they run a halfcourt offense, they run it as well as I’ve seen all year.
“They show a lot of defensive pressure and they’ll try to get us sped up. They’re gonna bullrush us, there’s no doubt about that.”
Blundo and Dempsey pointed out the keys to victory are basic items.
“We obviously have to keep those two guards in front of us. They’re good players,” Blundo said. “We have to apply defensive pressure and play hard and sharp offensively. We need to rebound the ball well, too. We’ll be undersized in this game. We have to try to overcome size disadvantages with positioning and effort.”
Said Dempsey, “It’s going to come down to our ability to handle their pressure. If we handle it well, we’ll have a better chance to win. If we throw it all over the gym and take bad shots, it will be a long night for us.”