Lincoln Park coach Mike Bariski knows his team will have a major challenge on its hands when it squares off against nationally ranked Neumann-Goretti for the PIAA Class 4A championship, but to think Bariski doesn’t like his team’s chances couldn’t be any further from the truth.
“We’re not going into this game thinking we’re the underdog,” Bariski said.
Two ultra-talented teams featuring multiple big-time national recruits will duel for the title at 8 p.m. Thursday at Giant Center in Hershey. Neumann-Goretti (26-3) is the defending champion (it thumped Quaker Valley by 25 in last year’s final) and nine-time champion overall, an amazing statistic considering Philadelphia Catholic League teams have been participating in the PIAA tournament since just the 2008-09 season. The Saints are ranked No. 20 in the country by MaxPreps. Meanwhile, WPIAL champion Lincoln Park (29-1) is looking to add a third PIAA title to its resume. The Leopards won them in 2014 and 2019.
“In the back of our minds, especially right after we played Archbishop Wood (a 72-64 Lincoln Park win Dec. 30), we thought we could do this,” Bariski said. “Our goals were to win a section championship, a WPIAL championship and now this. We knew that the king of the hill was Neumann-Goretti. They’re the defending champions. They got Quaker Valley pretty good last year and I think they’ve added some guys, so we knew they’d be here. We’ve had our eyes on them.”
Neumann-Goretti, the Philadelphia Catholic League runner-up, is led by Robert Wright III, a 6-foot junior guard who verbally committed to Baylor over offers from schools such as Gonzaga, Miami, Pitt and Penn State. A three-year starter, Wright III is averaging 22 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals per game. He scored a school single-game record 43 points against Overbrook in the District 12 final and tallied 24 against Allentown Central Catholic in the PIAA semifinals.
“He’s fearless and a competitor,” said Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale, who has claimed a record 12 Philadelphia Catholic League titles and nine PIAA titles. “He can score the ball on all three levels. That’s what makes him so tough to cover. When he lets the game just come to him, it’s a nice thing to watch. He’s done a nice job facilitating, too.”
Also starring for Neumman-Goretti has been 6-8 senior forward Sultan Adewale, whose offers include Clemson, Oklahoma State, Washington and West Virginia. Adewale averages 14 points a game on the season, and has pumped in an average of 16 points and 12 rebounds in four PIAA tournament games. Khaafiq Myers, a 5-11 junior guard, averages 11 points and has multiple Division I offers. The Saints are a lengthy bunch. In addition to Adewale, the Saints also boast 6-6 junior guard-forward Amir Williams and 6-5 junior forward Deshon Dodson. Lincoln Park’s tallest player is 6-5 junior forward Dontay Green.
To try to offset Neumann-Goretti’s height, Bariski said the Leopards will counter with their quickness and athleticism.
“Our bigs are two football players (Green and 6-2 junior forward Dorian McGhee) who aren’t afraid of that challenge,” Bariski said. “They’ve got some talented big guys, not just big guys. And they’re well coached.”
Of course, Lincoln Park is also well coached and not short on talent, either. Brandin “Beebah” Cummings, a 6-4 junior guard, and 6-4 sophomore guard Meleek Thomas make up one of the top duos in the state. Thomas is averaging 25 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists per game, while Cummings has pumped in 23 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists. Cummings is a Pitt recruit and Thomas is considered one of the top 10 sophomores in the country. Cummings scored 25 and Thomas added 20 in an 85-64 win against Uniontown in the semifinals.
“You can see why they’re so talented,” Arrigale said. “One kid is going to Pitt and the other has gotten all the accolades. From what I’ve seen so far, they both deserve all the accolades they get. They’re good players, but good players are good players. They’re all over the country. Lincoln Park happens to have two very good players.”
It has already been a dream season for Deer Lakes, which earlier this month won its first WPIAL title and now finds itself in the PIAA final for the first time. The Lancers (21-8) will meet Philadelphia West Catholic (19-10) at 2 p.m. Saturday at Giant Center.
“It’s a dream come true,” said coach Albie Fletcher, a 1993 Deer Lakes graduate. “Being from here and living in the community, the support we have is unparalleled. The place was packed [Tuesday at Hempfield for the semifinals]. The kids can’t be more appreciative. Just seeing those kids in this position, it’s hard to put into words.”
Fletcher has done a phenomenal job in his first season as head coach. He spent the previous four seasons as an assistant under Terrance Parham, who resigned following last season. There has been lots of reasons to “Fear the Deer” during a postseason run that has seen Deer Lakes hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds to beat No. 1 seed Steel Valley in the WPIAL semifinals before dethroning four-time defending WPIAL champion Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the championship game.
Next up for Deer Lakes is another heavyweight in West Catholic, which hails from the Philadelphia Catholic League and is also making its first appearance in the championship game. The Burrs fell to Neumann-Goretti in overtime in the PCL semifinals, but then bounced back to defeat Math, Civics & Science to win their first district title since 1953. West Catholic is led by 6-5 senior forward Zion Stanford (18 ppg) and 5-10 senior guard Adam “Budd” Clark (18 ppg). Stanford is a Temple recruit. The Burrs have eight players on their roster 6-4 or taller, while Deer Lakes has just one player taller than 6-2.
“I took a brief look at their roster, and they’re enormous,” Fletcher said following his team’s 61-56 semifinal win against Penn Cambria. “It’s a great program. Top notch. We’re going to enjoy this one and get back to work.”
Aliquippa is no stranger to playing for PIAA titles, but the last two times the Quips and their dual-sport stars were on the state’s grandest stage, they came up short in their quest for gold medals. The basketball team lost in last year’s Class 3A final, while the football team fell in the Class 4A final last fall. The WPIAL champion Quips (24-6) hope for a different result when they face District 3 champion Lancaster Mennonite (20-8) at 2 p.m. Friday at Giant Center.
“The last few losses hurt a lot, especially for the seniors. We don’t get chances too often, so this time we have to capitalize on being back there,” Aliquippa junior forward Cam Lindsey said.
This is the second consecutive school year that Aliquippa has advanced to both the PIAA football and basketball championships in the same school year. It has only happened 17 times statewide all time, with the Quips accounting for five of them. Aliquippa has won five PIAA basketball titles, which is tied for second most among WPIAL teams. The Quips will be making their 12th title game appearance overall and are shooting for their first title since finishing 30-0 in 2016.
“You know, it all comes down to our compete level. If this was a checkers game, you would see the same intensity. We just love to compete,” said Aliquippa coach Nick Lackovich.
Lancaster Mennonite captured its third consecutive district championship when it defeated Antietem last month at Giant Center. The Blazers, who are making their PIAA finals debut, are led by 6-2 senior guard Cam Hurst, the school’s all-time leading scorer who is averaging 22 points per game. The Blazers also feature 6-2 junior forward Myles Halvorson (10 ppg), 5-10 senior guard Savier Sumrall (12 ppg) and 6-7 senior center David Weaver (11 ppg).
A pair of teams from the Western part of the state looking to win their first title will square off when WPIAL champion Imani Christian (22-6) takes on District 5 winner Berlin Brothersvalley at 2 p.m. Thursday at Giant Center. It’s a rematch of a first-round game from last season when Imani Christian topped the Mountaineers, 79-70. Imani Christian trailed at the half before using a 29-15 third-quarter edge to surge ahead and pull away.
“We beat them, but they’re really good, though. They can shoot the net out the rim,” said Imani Christian coach Omar Foster, whose team ended up losing to eventual champion Bishop Canevin in last year’s quarterfinals.
Berlin Brothersvalley is coached by a former WPIAL guy. Tanner Prosser is a Brentwood graduate and one-time standout for the Spartans who is in his 19th season as the Mountaineers’ coach. Prosser guided the Mountaineers to the title game two seasons ago, but they were defeated by Pottsville Nativity BVM in overtime.
Prosser’s son, 6-1 junior guard Pace Prosser, is the team’s leading scorer at 23 points a game. Berlin Brothersvalley also features another big scorer in 6-1 junior guard Craig Jarvis (19 ppg). This is a team that loves to shoot the ball from behind the arc. They have knocked down 225 3-pointers this season. Jarvis has connected on 94 and Prosser 72. However, the Mountaineers don’t have a player taller than 6-2, which could be a major problem against a lengthy Imani Christian team that boasts 6-11 sophomore center Alier Maluk and 6-9 senior center Virgil Hall.
“It’s amazing that me and my teammates get to go out there,” said Maluk, who averages 14 points and 8 rebounds a game and is considered one of the nation’s top sophomores. “It’s a big stage for all of us. This is the first time we’ve all been here, so it just means a lot to all of us to go out there and play our best.”
Brad is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at email@example.com.