Decade’s best No. 9: Despite losing Johnson, SJN still won D4 title in 2015
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a ‘Best of the Decade’ series looking back at the top 10 football, girls and boys basketball, softball and baseball teams, coaches, games and players of the last decade.
St. John Neumann produced one of the program’s best seasons ever a year earlier. The 2014 Knights won their first 30 games, won a second consecutive District 4 Class A championship and reached the state semifinals.
The problem moving forward was future Indiana Pacer Alize Johnson, standout point guard Richard Allen and several vital contributors graduated. Having a similar season in 2015 appeared like a long shot.
Someone forgot to tell the returning Knights. Motivated and hungry to make their own mark, those players helped Neumann put together another memorable campaign. Neumann completed a second undefeated regular season in a row, romped to a third consecutive District 4 championship, and reached the state quarterfinals in 2015, finishing 27-2. Oh yeah, the team’s seniors also made it 100 wins in four years.
“People didn’t think we were going to get this far,” captain Nasza Short said following a second-round state tournament win against Halifax. “We’ve proven a lot of people wrong.”
“It’s an amazing accomplishment. Who would have thought at the beginning of the year we’d be here?” Neumann coach Paul Petcavage said after the district final win against Meadowbrook Christian. “It’s nice for this group of guys because we don’t have a lot of depth, but we have a lot of kids who can play.”
They sure could.
Short and future Delaware guard Kevin Anderson both earned all-state honors. Short averaged a double-double, going for 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game. Anderson averaged 18.9 points per game. Both were at their best when it mattered most, too. Short produced five playoff double-doubles in a row and had 21 points and 18 rebounds against Halifax. Anderson averaged 25 points, nine rebounds and four assists during districts.
Both Short and Anderson performed well a year earlier as well. It was the emergence of players like Otis Anderson, Ra-Quan Mars and Isaac Beiter as solid first-time starters, however, which also paid huge dividends. Senior Ryan Reid was one of the area’s best sixth men. Anderson averaged 12.1 points per game, Beiter pounded the boards, and Mars was a sensational defender.
With so many new pieces coming together, Neumann took some time to jell. Once it did, the Knights started cutting through opponents like a John Deere lawn mower. The Knights often overwhelmed the opposition, averaged 71.6 points per game, and beat teams by a 25-point margin.
A balanced team, Neumann also was one of the district’s most unselfish teams. As the year progressed, the Knights often putt on passing clinics, giving up good shots for better shots and making sure defenders had to worry about every player on the court.
“Kudos to them for how well they share the basketball,” North Penn-Mansfield coach Kipper Burleigh said after Neumann beat the Tigers, 74-46, late in the regular season. “They have some talented kids on the floor and they continuoulsy look for each other and share the basketball. That’s what makes them good and has given them the success they’ve had.”
“It’s all about the wins at the end of the day,” Mars said that season. “It makes us real dangerous. Even if one player is having a bad game, somebody can pick him up. You never know whose day it’s going to be.”
Neumann cruised to a third consecutive Mid-Penn championship. A 71-68 Heartland Conference Tournament loss to eventual District 4 Class AAA champion Milton only fueled the team’s competitive fire.
Neumann shook off that loss and took out its frustration on three district opponents, winning each game by 23 or more points. Neumann captured the district championship when it pounded Meadowbrook Christian, 71-47. The team some thought might struggle had put together one of the more impressive district runs of last decade.
“Our first day of practice we set the goal. We were winning districts and nobody was stopping us,” Otis Anderson said afterward. “Having that thought in our head we never let anyone stop us and we kept pushing.”
Neumann kept pushing forward and annihilated Pottsville Nativity, 91-57, in the opening round of states. Five players scored at least eight points in the victory and the Knights kept rolling in the next round, defeating Halifax, 68-59.
“We love playing together,” Otis Anderson said. “All the coaches talk about is sticking together and playing together.”
Defending Class AA state champion Constitution dropped to Class A that season and ended Neumann’s season in the quarterfinals. The Generals returned all five starters from that state champion and its front line went 6-foot-7, 6-6 and 6-5. Neumann fought hard but Constitution took another step toward its eventual state championship, winning 83-45. That closed the book on a remarkable three-year run in which Neumann went 82-6.
More success followed as Neumann completed two more consecutive undefeated regular seasons and made it five straight district championships. Kevin Anderson graduated in 2017 and his teams never lost a regular-season or district playoff game, going 100-0 in this games.
The Constitution result was not the ending Neumann wanted in 2015, but a third straight district championship and second consecutive trip to the state’s Elite 8 helped it take its place alongside some of the best teams Neumann ever produced.