Neumann boys still building chemistry

He was less than 30 minutes removed from scoring his 1,000th career point, but Alize Johnson did not look happy. St. John Neumann had just beaten Selinsgrove, 70-49 too, but Johnson seemed concerned.

The all-state center knew his team could play a lot better.

The defending District 4 Class A champions were 6-0 at that point but seemed disjointed. They seemed to lack the chemistry exhibited last year when they started 19-0 and reached the state tournament’s second round for a second straight season.

Consider how the week ended then a big step in the right direction. Neumann (8-0) dismantled 2013 Class AA state qualifier Wellsboro and Montgomery by 58 combined points. More important, the Knights looked good doing so as the team played some of its best basketball together.

“We needed this. We really needed this,” returning starting guard Richard Allen said after a 65-45 win over Wellsboro. “Before we were bickering back and forth and when you play these good teams you have to be good teammates. You have to play smart and we worked it all out.”

Building on that is critical to Neumann’s success. The Knights are talented and deep but also are working in new players. Kevin Anderson, Nasza Short and Kamaal Burkholder are first-time Neumann players. Instantly jelling with returning players like Johnson, Allen, Ryan Reid and Noah Beiter takes time. Better to work things out now and get on the same page then trying to do late in the season when the games take on extra importance.

The Knights breezed through those first six games but know that if they hope to reach and attain last year’s success, building that chemistry is just as important as scoring, rebounding and defending.

“We have to work hard to get the chemistry where it was last year,” Johnson said. “We have to keep practicing hard and going hard all the time and get that chemistry to be better if we want to accomplish our goals.”

Neumann showed how dangerous it is when it is a cohesive unit against Wellsboro. The Green Hornets were four days removed from nearly upsetting the state’s No. 6-ranked Class AA team Lewisburg, but Neumann overpowered it. The Knights efficiently and unselfishly moved the ball, set each other up for high-percentage shots, played strong defense and worked hard.

The Knights are deeper than a year ago, with Short, Burkholder, Luke Iarkowski, Isaac Beiter and Cody Forsburg capable of being impact players. Short is averaging in double figures and Burkholder has had some big games too. The depth, though, also can cause friction on some teams who are looking at their playing time. Used right, though, Neumann understands its depth can be a weapon.

“It helps a lot. you can really exert all your energy knowing that that person will come in and do the same,” Allen said. “It’s definitely can be difficult for everyone who plays at times, but it is a blessing.”

Road bumps might still lay ahead but Neumann is starting to come together. They provided a glimpse of what that means last week and can only get better if those performances serve as a start. The Knights are now where they want to be yet. But they also understand if they continue jelling they can be where they want to be at season’s end.

That is what matters more than anything.

“The chemistry can get better and that’s something we’re working on. Last year it was just there,” Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said. “We had that chemistry and now we have new players, we have more players and it’s hard to keep everyone happy and on the same page. Once we can get that down and can get everyone to understand they have to play their roles we’ll be doing very well.”

MUCH BETTER: South Williamsport (6-2) has already matched last year’s win total and is emerging as a HAC-III title contender. Point guard Riley Thomas has been instrumental to that improvement, symbolizing the team’s as a whole. Thomas played another solid game Friday in a 78-35 win over Muncy, scoring 13 points and dealing six assists in three quarters.

A year ago, Thomas did not play much but now he is effectively running a solid offense, hurting opponents with his scoring and passing. He scored the first five points against Muncy before dealing four third-quarter assists in a four-minute span.

“He’s gotten phenomenally better,” three-year starter Riley Hengler said. “He barely touched the court last year. He got a lot better in the offseason.”

That is where Thomas laid the foundation. Whether in the weight room or on the court, Thomas was constantly working. He also played football for the first time last fall and was a valuable two-way starter on a district finalist. He has brought that work ethic and physical mentality to the court, helping South in a variety of areas.

“He’s done a nice job and embraced his role with some confidence and that’s good to see,” South coach Matt Fisher said. “We need that in our point guard.”

PUTBACKS: Hughesville might be one of the better 2-8 teams in recent memory. The Spartans have lost five games by eight points or fewer including 67-65 on a buzzer-beater last Friday at Southern Columbia. Sean Poust scored a career-high 22 points in that loss … Mansfield’s Bo Burleigh has recorded three straight double-doubles, the latest coming when he scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a 79-74 overtime loss to Susquehanna Valley … Former Penn College coach Gene Bruno is doing a nice job in his first year at Milton. The Black Panthers (5-4) have won three straight and avenged a previous defeat to Mifflinburg, winning 61-48 Saturday. Milton lost a lot of talent from a District 4 Class AAA championship team but seems to be getting better each game … Jersey Shore (4-4) has won two straight to pull back to .500 and overwhelmed Midd-West 77-31 Saturday. Zach Miller topped 20 points for a second time in three games while senior Ryan Eck scored a career-high 17 points.

Dr. Masse’s area boys basketball top five

1. Loyalsock (7-1): Because last Friday’s game against Mount Carmel was postponed, Loyalsock will go 13 days without playing before traveling to Montoursville Friday. The Lancers are the state’s No. 4 ranked Class AA team and only a two-point loss to Class AAAA Upper Darby is keeping it from being undefeated. Omar Little, Mike Pastore and Ben Sosa are averaging in double figures while Kyle Datres again is shredding defenses with his passing while providing excellent defense. He had eight steals in Loyalsock’s most recent win, 63-42 over State College.

2. St. John Neumann (8-0): The Knights host Bloomsburg Friday in what could be a revenge game. Bloomsburg handed Neumann its only regular-season defeat last year and snapped its 19-game winning streak.

3. Lewisburg (8-0): The state’s No. 6 Class AA team plays standout defense and has held all eight teams to 40 points or fewer. The Green Dragons have surrendered just 82 points in their last three games and are 31-5 over the last two seasons. Lewisburg complements its defense with a balanced offense that has four players averaging in or near double figures. Senior Matt Fedorjaka is one of several players making sure the Dragons have not experienced a drop-off despite losing some outstanding players and he scored a career-high 19 points in Saturday’s 60-24 win at Montoursville.

4. Williamsport (4-5): Senior Isaiah Washington continues climbing up the Williamsport all-time leader board in several categories. If he stays healthy the rest of the season, the Penn State-bound guard could finish among the top five in scoring, 3-pointers and games played. He had 21 points in Saturday’s loss to state-ranked Martin Luther King but the Millionaires still have won three of their last four. The Millionaires still can be a District 2-4 Class AAAA title contender if they keep improving and embracing their roles.

5. South Williamsport (6-2): The Mounties shot the ball great against Muncy and have developed a solid inside-outside game. Brock Jones, Tyler Schonewolf and Cody Nelson all can cause problems inside and all played well last Friday. Each player grabbed at least five rebounds and Jones is averaging in double figures. He had nine rebounds too, although the only statistic South if focusing on is wins.

“The chemistry was one of our biggest issues last year. It just didn’t click,” Fisher said. “For being eight games into the season now, we’re light years ahead of where we were last year.”

Player of the week

Alize Johnson, St. John Neumann: The all-state center dazzled last week, averaging 21 points in three wins while scoring his 1,000th career point and recording a triple-double against Wellsboro. Johnson scored 28 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in a 70-49 win over Selinsgrove before scoring 19 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and dealing 11 assists two nights later.

Game of the week

Mansfield at Sayre: This could be a huge game in the race for a NTL Small School title. Both are two of the teams to beat and also are capable of competing for District 4 Class A championships. These two usually play exciting games and Friday’s should be no different.