Williamsport vs. Loyalsock is a big deal. It always has been, it always will be.
That is the case when two schools are separated by just a few miles and both have more cloth championship banners than a fabric store hanging in their gyms. Williamsport and Loyalsock will never meet in the playoffs since the Millionaires are Class AAAA and Loyalsock is Class AA.
But every time they play each season it feels like a playoff game. They might be friends, they might be rivals but whatever the case no player from either side wants the other getting the upper hand. Neither wants the other securing local bragging rights.
Especially this year.
Williamsport and Loyalsock are as loaded as they have been in recent memory. Both captured district championships last year and both have strong cores of players returning. Both are not just eyeing district titles, but are also going after the biggest prize the state has to offer.
So just imagine how much fun it will be Jan. 12 when the rivals meet at Williamsport. The crowds always are big for this annual showdown and next month's might be the biggest yet. Williamsport has a legitimate shot to make a state title run and Loyalsock has the potential to make some state tournament noise and put its own stamp on its program's rich history.
But who is the better team? Williamsport returns four starters, including all-state forward Jahad Thomas and Penn State-bound guard Isaiah Washington. Loyalsock returns three starters and two key reserves, including premier guards Kyle Datres and Omar Little and standout center Roger Wilson. Both teams are deep, athletic and well-coached. Both teams are hungry to build off championship seasons and take the next step.
Last year's game was a great one at Lycoming's Lamade Gymnasium. Williamsport rallied from a five-point third-quarter deficit and beat the Lancers, 58-47.
The preseason rankings will show who this reporter thinks has the early edge between these rivals but the rankings are meaningless. Everything will be settled Jan. 12.
What a night it will be.
Player of the Year
Jahad Thomas, Williamsport: Williamsport has one of the state's best basketball traditions so the best compliment one can give Thomas is that he is one of the hardest workers the program has ever had. There really is no offseason for Thomas and the 6-foot-2 forward could not care less about individual numbers. Winning is all that matters and Thomas relentlessly works to help Williamsport win as much as possible. An outstanding mix of speed, power and athleticism Thomas was the engine that powered Williamsport last year. He averaged 14.5 points and more than 10 rebounds per game while playing stellar defense and hurting opponents with his versatility. Thomas earned all-state honors and summed up the kind of player he is with one performance. Despite badly spraining his ankle against Souderton, Thomas had 10 points, 10 rebounds and four assists as Williamsport rallied for the win.
Travis Conrad, Lewisburg: One of the district's premier point guards, Conrad can do it all and was a big reason Lewisburg won 18 games last year. The senior runs the floor well and is one of the area's best pure shooters. He is adept at getting to the basket and finding the open man or finishing himself while getting to the foul line. Conrad averaged 14.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while also playing strong defense and averaging 2.2 steals per game. He provides an excellent building block as the Green Dragons try capturing a district championship.
Kyle Datres, Loyalsock: Watching Conrad and Datres go at each other and run their offenses is worth the price of admission alone. The sophomore point guard has the whole package and might have just scratched the surface of his potential after an outstanding freshman season. Datres averaged 8.5 points, 5.2 assists and 3.8 steals per game while helping Loyalsock win 22 games along with league and district championships. Last year's Sun-Gazette Defensive Player of the Year, was a shut-down defender all year, but especially in the playoffs when he stifled a series of quality guards. If healthy, expect more big things this year.
Alize Johnson, St. John Neumann: He made tremendous strides from his freshman to sophomore season and Johnson might be ready for a major breakout season. The versatile junior has had a growth spurt and could potentially be one of the area's premier big men. Still, he is a big man in a guard's body because Johnson can do so many things. He averaged 10 points per game last year while also being one of Neumann's best rebounders, passers and defenders. Possessing excellent vision, Johnson is adept at threading defenses with his passing and is a good ball-handler who helped Neumann reach last year's District 4 Class A final.
Cole Renninger, Central Mountain: A scoring force, Renninger averaged 20 points per game last year and scored just about every way possible. The senior guard, though, is more than just a tremendous scorer. Renninger also led the team in assists, rebounds and steals. Just about every defense Central Mountain encountered was designed to slow Renninger, but few did. He helped Central Mountain go 14-10 and enjoy a nice bounceback season.
Isaiah Washington, Williamsport: One knows a player is outstanding when he commits to a major Division I school like Penn State as a sophomore. Washington flourished last year and his progression was instrumental to Williamsport capturing a district title a year after winning five games. Washington is a terrific ball-handler, who creates his own shots and shots for his teammates. He also is great at getting to the basket and also can get hot from outside. Washington was phenomenal in the postseason and had 19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals against Souderton in states. What is scary for future opponents is that Washington still has so much more that he can do.
Second Team: Roger Wilson, Loyalsock; Jordan Jackson, Wellsboro; Kelby Mullen, Sullivan County; Tristan Jeffreys, Hughesville; Chad Diggan, Milton; Ammar Sabanovic, Muncy
(last year's record in parentheses)
1. Williamsport (18-9): The Millionaires were a second from reaching last year's state quarterfinals and have the potential to make a championship run next March if they build off what they started. Not only are Thomas and Washington back, but also starting forward and Navy-bound Chris Kinley and guard Herb Stelly, one of the area's best defenders. Kinley's emergence coincided with Williamsport's late-season run and the big man can be a force in all areas, especially if he hits the boards hard. Keep an eye on Greg Ousley too. Ousley is an outstanding talent who has been beset by season-ending injuries the last two seasons. When healthy, Ousley can do it all in the backcourt or frontcourt and could be a huge X factor. Achilles Watson, Brice Harris, Thomas Ross and Tyler Gardner could make big impacts too.
2. Loyalsock (22-4): The defending district champions enter as the favorite again, although not an overwhelming one. They need to replace guard Dylan Casale and forward Jackson Kurtz, who both shined last year and were tremendous leaders. Watch out for guard Omar Little who could have a big season after being a spark off the bench last year. Little is explosive, can fill it up in a hurry and has good range. But while many focus on the young players, Wilson is vital to the team's success. Loyalsock would not have made the run it had last year had Wilson not played great down the stretch and looked like one of the district's premier post players. Players like Saabir Gibson, Ben Sosa and Wes LaPoint will be counted on too, especially with forward Ryan Bogaczyk out for a possible lengthy duration with an ankle injury.
3. Lewisburg (18-6): One could argue that Loyalsock-Lewisburg playing in last year's district quarterfinals really was the championship. The victim of an archaic and outdated seeding system, Lewisburg was denied a chance to make a run when Loyalsock edged it, 49-44. The Green Dragons have some nice players coming back from a team that beat both district finalists during the regular season. Erich Kline could have a big year underneath while Mike Driscoll and Jesse Flannery are two players to keep an eye on. Conrad makes it all go and Lewisburg traditionally is one of the area's hardest working teams. Expect the Dragons to be right in the hunt for league and district titles.
4. Wellsboro (20-4): If the Green Hornets stay healthy they likely will romp to the NTL-West championship. Wellsboro returns nearly every player from last year's league champion that went 20-4. The big question, though, is whether that will translate into postseason success. The Hornets have not won a district playoff game since 2006. Wellsboro toughened up its non-conference schedule and that could be a blessing. Point guard Jordan Jackson is one of the area's best all-around players and Dylan Prough enjoyed a breakout season last year. If players like Matt Reese, Mike Pietropola and Joey Doganiero build on what they did last year and sophomore Kieron Smethers flourishes, the Hornets could become serious district title contenders.
5. Sullivan County (22-4): This was a toss-up with St. John Neumann and I went with Sullivan only because of its 3-0 record against the Knights last year. All-state guard Sharif Welton graduated, but this is still a district title contender that could make state tournament noise if the younger players off the bench emerge. Point guard Kelby Mullen is a four-year starter and one of the best defenders around. Zach Meyer can shoot from just about anywhere, Derek Wilkins and Conner Wylie are tough inside and Lucas Hatton is another tenacious defender. Sullivan made history, winning its first district title last year and it has the ingredients to make more history in 2013.
Rounding out the Top 10...
6. St. John Neumann (19-8): Forward Tyree Vidal and guard Jordan Cole are coming off breakout years and could be much better this season. Keep an eye on Tre Allen, Malik Wilson, Noah Beiter and Isaac Beiter as well. Neumann appears deeper than last year and, like Sullivan County, should be just fine despite losing an all-state player in Mike Wenner.
7. Hughesville (8-14): The Spartans fell on hard times last year, but expect them to bounce back in a big way. Hughesville has a strong nucleus back and should not be counted out in either District 4 Class AA or the HAC-II.
8. South Williamsport (18-8): This could be the sleeper team of the year. South lost 12 seniors to graduation but Riley Hengler and Tommy Rook are strong players and the JV team was excellent last year.
9. Jersey Shore (8-14): The bad news is Caleb Barnhart and Tellef Notevarp are gone. The good news is just about everyone, including talented point guard Eric Huling, is back.
10. Montoursville (4-18): Another darkhorse, especially if the backcourt jells and Montoursville finds a consistent point guard. A lot of players who received playing time last year are back and eight of Montoursville's losses were by seven points or fewer so expect a bounce back.