No matter how many times they play, no matter what they achieve separately, St. John Neumann and Sullivan County remain linked. They have been District 4 Class A's premier rivals the past two seasons but once again they now find themselves as teammates.
It is Neumann and Sullivan vs. Philadelphia for a second straight year playing in the state tournament's second round at East Pennsboro High School. It is the District rivals joining forces while trying to reach into their bags and pull out the stone that slays the mighty giants. Neumann faces the state's No. 2 team Math, Civics and Science at 6 before Sullivan faces top-ranked Vaux at 7:30 p.m.
The winners advance to the quarterfinals. And for Neumann and Sullivan it is a chance to make a huge statewide splash.
Jordan Cole of St. John Neumann and Conner Wylie of Sullivan County play in a doubleheader tonight at East Pennsboro High School.
"I think they realize it's going to be a battle," Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. "These teams play a whole different level of basketball. They put a lot of pressure on the ball and do a lot of running and jumping and we're going to have to be ready for that."
Last year Neumann (24-2) and Sullivan (23-3) played in the same situation at East Pennsboro. The only difference was Sullivan, not Neumann, was the district champion and Sullivan played MCS while Neumann played eventual state champion Constitution. Just like last year, both opponents again are ranked 1-2 in the state.
"They're excited about the challenge," Sullivan coach Glenn Vaughan said. "We know certainly about this team's personnel."
Neumann has not lost to a Class A team this season and overcame a 10-point third-quarter deficit to beat Sullivan for its first district championship since 2000. The Knights crushed Harrisburg Christian, 84-38 in the state tournament's opening round so they enter with lots of momentum. More importantly, Neumann enters better equipped than a year ago.
Last season, Neumann was an 18-win team that revolved mostly around all-state center Mike Wenner. Players like Alize Johnson, Jordan Cole and Tyree Vidal started and were big-time contributors but all three are better this season. Johnson has grown four inches while going from a guard to a center, Cole has blossomed playing his natural shooting guard position and Richard Allen has become a terrific point guard.
Noah Beiter has emerged as a defensive stopper and Ryan Reid has excelled off the bench, scoring 22 points in his last two games. Those two players also have improved and Neumann has much more playoff experience this time around.
"Sullivan played them tough last year and we just want to go out there and see what we can do," Johnson said.
MCS (24-2) captured the 2011 state championship and lost to Constitution in last year's semifinals. The Elephants have a good core back from last year's team and have three players committed to Robert Morris and St. Peter's. A few others also are receiving Division I interest and the team held an open gym for Division I coaches this offseason in a city where recruiting is the norm.
MCS opened the season 21-0 before losing to Linden, N.J. It lost 52-51 to Vaux in the postseason after beating it 74-70 a few weeks earlier. Robert Morris-bound forward Jeremiah Worthem, a 6-foot-7 forward, sparks MCS, averaging 15.5 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Guard Britton Lee has verbaled to Robert Morris and is averaging 9.4 points and 2.6 steals per game while 6-8 center Quadir Welton, headed to St. Peter's, averages 7.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
Guard Shafeek Taylor (6-4) and forward Jeffon Powell (6-6) both have received Division I interest as well and combined for 15 points per game. The Elephants have six players averaging at least seven points per game despite suspending second-leading scorer Malik Starkes. MCS averages 74 points per game and held off Sullivan last year in a hard-fought game.
Neumann also is balanced and has four players scoring in double figures. Reid was 7 for 7 from the field last Friday and Beiter was huge offensively in a regular-season win against Sullivan.
"Everybody had a part in this," said Allen, whose grandfather is former Phillies standout Dick Allen. "You can't isolate one player. We have a full five threats, going from Alize to Noah and everyone else. We're all threats."
That is the case for Sullivan as well. The Griffins have four players averaging in or close to double figures and defensive ace Lucas Hatton had a nice offensive game last Friday. Sullivan broke the school record for wins when it thumped perennial title contender Greenwood, 56-32 in District 3 territory.
Sullivan has only lost to Neumann and has shown big-time resilience, rallying following the district final while also coming back to beat solid teams like Mansfield, Muncy and Bloomsburg during the regular season. The Griffins have played sensational defense throughout the postseason, holding four opponents to 37 points or fewer and outscored Greenwood by 22 over the last three quarters.
Sullivan is hoping for a similar strong all-around performance against Vaux. The Cougars (20-8) have beaten MCS, and the defending AA and A state champions, Imhotep and Constitution. Vaux lost to Imhotep, though, in the Public League championship, 67-66 before downing Delco Christian, 63-42 in Friday's first round.
Guard Rysheed Jordan is the country's No. 22 high school player, according to ESPN. Jordan has his pick of colleges but has zeroed in on UCLA, Temple and St. John's. There are rumors that he might play one year of college basketball before going to the NBA.
The 6-foot-3 senior is Southeast Pennsylvania's leading scorer, averaging 26.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. Jordan scored 47 points in the Public League final against Imhotep and beat MCS with a foul shot with 0.1 seconds remaining. He hit four 3-pointers against Imhotep but is even more dangerous attacking the basket.
Unlike MCS, Vaux is not loaded with height. Trayvond Massenburg, a 6-8 center, is the only player taller than 6-3. He had 12 rebounds in Friday's win. Vaux averages 70 points per game while hounding teams with its pressure. Guard Sammy Forman averages 11.3 points and 2.3 steals per game while forward Amir Butler adds 9.6 points.
While Vaux can attract players from anywhere, Sullivan has just the ones from its county. The Griffins like it that way too. They have made history the past three seasons and set a new standard. A winning culture has been established and Sullivan does not run from difficult tasks, it embraces them.
"It's up to us coaches to come up with game plan and the kids will work hard on the game plan and we'll see what we come up with," Vaughan said. "It's a challenge that our kids will respond too."
Neumann and Sullivan are joined again, both their teams and their huge fan bases. So don't be surprised if East Pennsboro feels like Neumann and Laporte at times.
"I love it when it gets loud. That's the best feeling," Cole said. "Sullivan travels well too, but we have great fans also."
They have outstanding teams too.