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Loyalsock’s Idris Ali named Sun-Gazette boys basketball Player of the Year

DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette Loyalsock’s Idris Ali goes up for a basket during the PIAA Class AAA championship game at Hershey’s Giant Center against Brookville.

Loyalsock did more than capture a Class AAA state championship last week.

It provided District 4 teams everywhere hope. Other than Lourdes finishing as the Class A runner-up in 2018, no other District 4 team had reached a state final in the 2000s. The memorable 1999 Williamsport Millionaires were the last district team to win a state crown.

Loyalsock ending that drought and providing the blueprint — balance, brilliant chemistry and embracing of roles — makes the championship feel more tangible instead of some pipe dream. That is powerful and could produce big future results as well.

That was a great year for area basketball, and it should be no surprise that Loyalsock headlines the Sun-Gazette award winners.

SUN-GAZETTE COACH OF THE YEAR

Second runner-up–Allen Taylor, Williamsport and Jason Gresh, Muncy: Despite his team losing three starters from the previous year, Taylor helped Williamsport make a four-win improvement, finish 12-5 and reach the District 2-4 Class 6A championship. The Millionaires surged late in the season, won five straight games entering the district final and dethroned defending champion Wilkes-Barre Area in the semifinals. Gresh also helped Muncy continue its winning tradition as the Indians went from eight wins to finishing 14-5 and earning District 4 Class AA’s top seed. Both Williamsport and Muncy have solid cores to work with next year and could be even better in 2022.

First runner-up–Rob Houseknecht, South Williamsport: The Mounties enjoyed their best season since Houseknecht was one of its starting forwards in 2010. Houseknecht helped South turn things around as it improved by 10 wins, captured a share of its first league championship in 11 years and finished 17-6. South rallied from an 0-2 start, won 13 of 14 games at one point and handed St. John Neumann its only league loss over the last two seasons. This season could serve a big springboard moving forward.

And the winner is…Ron Insinger, Loyalsock: Well, there is nothing the legendary Loyalsock coach has not done now. He checked off the only box left on his historic resume last Saturday, helping the Lancers capture their first state championship. Flanked by outstanding assistant coaches Jeff Everett and Randy Glunk, Insinger pushed all the right buttons a year after his team lost three starters. The Lancers went 25-1, won their last 17 games and earned a third straight district title as well as fifth consecutive league crown. Loyalsock peaked at the perfect time, playing its best basketball during the state tournament and Insinger closed his 47th season with a state-record 1,066 wins. Over the last two seasons, Insinger has helped Loyalsock go 53-2, including 11-0 in the playoffs.

Honorable mention: Jamie Spencer, St. John Neumann; Mike Mussina, Montoursville; Brian Litzelman, North Penn-Liberty; Glenn Vaughan, Sullivan County; Eric Wertman, Warrior Run; Steve Adams, Wellsboro.

SUN-GAZETTE FIRST-TEAM ALL-STARS

DAVID HILL, ST. JOHN NEUMANN — Like his younger brother, the Sun-Gazette runner-up for Player of the Year should earn all-state honors again following a stellar season in which he often dominated opponents. The Towson-bound senior guard left his mark on program history, finishing with 1,583 career points while leading the area in scoring for a second time. Hill averaged 22.8 points per game but did a lot more than just torch opponents with his scoring. Hill was a complete player who also was the team’s top rebounder and near the top in steals and assists. The Mid-Penn MVP recorded double-doubles in three of four playoff games, taking over the district championship against North Penn-Liberty when he scored 33 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. A consistent clutch performer, Hill hit a series of big shots in close games against tough opponents and closed his scholastic career with a 17-point, 11-rebound, five-assist performance against Nativity. Hill also helped Neumann win 74 games, two district championships and four league titles the past four years.

DAVION HILL, ST. JOHN NEUMANN — After putting together one of the best freshman seasons in program history, Hill provided quite an encore and grew even better. A good best for first team all-state for a second straight year, Hill was a force again, helping Neumann repeat as District 4 Class A champions. The second runner-up for Player of the Year averaged 22.2 points per game, good for second in the area while also being among team leaders in assists, rebounds and steals. Hill became the first area player in 15 years to reach 1,000 points as a sophomore and closed the season with 1,093 career points, averaging 22.8 in 45 games. Like last year, Hill was at his best in Neumann’s biggest games. He scored at least 25 points in every playoff game, collected two playoff double-doubles and put on a show against state champion Pottsville Nativity. Hill nearly willed Neumann back from a 13-point third-quarter deficit, scoring a game-high 34 points and grabbing 13 rebounds on Nativity’s home court.

ETHAN HARTMAN, WARRIOR RUN — Ethan Hartman, Warrior Run

Few knew Hartman was playing through a painful injury all season because he performed so well. The Wilkes-bound center was a force on both ends and provided excellent leadership while helping a team with four new starters win its last five games to again reach the District 4 Class AAA playoffs. Hartman was a double-double machine and produced 18.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. He could take his game inside or outside and had a stretch in which he scored at least 23 points in five straight games, helping Warrior Run soar down the stretch.

NOAH SPENCER, NORTH PENN-LIBERTY — One of the program’s best players ever, Spencer helped North Penn-Liberty make history this season it repeated as NTL-II champions for the first time. The NTL’s Offensive Player of the Year also led the Mounties to their first District 4 Class A championship since 1989, directing a strong offense and playing strong defense. Spencer did a bit of everything each game, averaging 19.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 3.4 steals per game. The four-year starter produced seven 20-point games, hit 36 3-pointers and recorded a triple-double. Spencer beat teams in multiple ways and the senior point guard reached 1,000 career points in his final game, also finishing with 416 career rebounds and 345 assists.

SARAJ ALI, LOYALSOCK — Ali became Mr. Double-Double, opening the season with 11 in his first 12 games. The dynamic junior forward finished with 15, including four during the postseason while developing into one of the state’s premier post players. Ali averaged 18.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.7 steals per game for the state champions. He also made more than 60% of his shots and has produced more than 500 rebounds over the last two seasons. Ali can handle the ball like a guard and averaged 5.3 assists during the state tournament. He nearly recorded triple-doubles against Executive Education and Math, Civics and Sciences during states and produced the state final’s signature play, a poster-like one-hand dunk. Ali has made massive strides over the past two seasons and should fast be catching the attention of college programs across the country.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: IDRIS ALI, LOYALSOCK — There were different times this season when a strong case could be made for St. John Neumann’s David Hill and Davion Hill in addition to Loyalsock’s Saraj Ali. However, Idris Ali separated himself from this illustrious field late and was the best player on the state’s best team. In this reporter’s opinion, he was best Class AAA player, period. The HAC-II MVP was a dynamic stat stuffer who also provided valuable leadership and exuded a calm confidence. Nothing ever rattled Ali and that provided a settling feeling for the entire team whenever things grew rough. Ali averaged 19.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 steals per game, doing whatever Loyalsock needed on a given night to win that game. Nearly impossible to guard, Ali dissected opponents with his vision, scored at will with his explosiveness and also drained 34 3-pointers. A consummate winner, Ali helped Loyalsock go 53-2 the last two seasons, performing well in every playoff game, especially in states. He will graduate as one of the program’s best players ever.

SECOND TEAM

Secoy Roberts, South Williamsport (19 ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg, 1st team Mid-Penn); Peyton Mussina, Montoursville (14.4 ppg, 4.7 apg, 3.5 spg, 48 3s, 1st team HAC-II); James Evans-McQuay, Williamsport (13.9 ppg); Isaiah Niemczyk, Canton (18.2 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.1 spg, 1.1 bpg, 8 double-doubles, 1st team NTL-II); Hanief Clay, Neumann (14.7 ppg); Liam Manning, Wellsboro (17.6 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1 spg, 12 double-doubles).

THIRD TEAM

Nassir Jones, Williamsport (11.7 ppg); Dom Jennings, Loyalsock (12.4 ppg, 2.7 spg, area-high 68 3-pointers, 20.3 ppg, 3.7 spg in states); Ross Eyer, Muncy (13.8 ppg, 10.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 2.1 spg, 2.2 bpg, 8 double-doubles, 1st team Mid-Penn); Logan Almeida, Montgomery (17.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 3.8 spg, 44 3-pointers, 1st team Mid-Penn); Dillon Young, Montoursville (13.6 ppg, 2.4 apg, 2.1 spg, 2nd team HAC-II); Evan Laudenslager, South (12 ppg, 10 rpg, 2 apg, 6 double-doubles, 1st team Mid-Penn).

SUN-GAZETTE DEFENSIVE ALL-STARS

AL-KABEER JASON, WILLIAMSPORT — A versatile threat who was as effective defending guards as post players, Jason was part of the glue which held Williamsport together. The senior leader provided a lot of qualities stats do not measure and his defense often helped set the tone as Williamsport surged into the playoffs. Jason came up big in the district semifinals and his defense led to offense.

JALEN THOMAS, SULLIVAN COUNTY — One of the best leaders Sullivan County has had throughout its excellent 11-year run, Thomas could stick to the opponent’s best guard like duct tape and, in a normal season, would have guided Sullivan to its ninth state tournament in 11 years. Fast and featuring a motor that never stopped, Thomas averaged 2.7 steals per game as well as 11.5 points, 4.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds.

MIKEY DYLINA, HUGHESVILLE — Like Jason, Dylina effectively could guard just about every position. Taking a year off did little to lessen the junior guard’s impact as his swarming defense was a constant for one of the area’s youngest teams. Dylina often his man out of the game, developed offensively and helped Hughesville make big strides as it won four of its last six games.

BRANDON THOMPSON, NORTH PENN-LIBERTY — Opponents had a hard time establishing much of inside game with Thompson patrolling the paint. The 6-foot-7 forward was not just tall but knew how to use his height well and consistently was in the right defensive spot at the right time. Thompson’s defense played a critical role in N.P.-Liberty’s success the last two seasons and he averaged 14.4 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.

DARRYN CALLAHAN, WELLSBORO — His team’s defensive stopper, Callahan often put on clinics in man-to-man defense and slowed some of the NTL’s best players. The junior forward enjoyed a breakout season and the most vital piece of a defense which was among area leaders in points allowed. Callahan also averaged 11.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2 steals per game, helping a Wellsboro team without senior starters go 15-4.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: ETHAN HARTMAN, WARRIOR RUN — You read about his offense, but Hartman may have been even better on defense. He was the area’s ultimate rim protector and often could have put up a “no entry” sign near the basket. Hartman averaged a district-best 5.6 blocks per game while adding 1.6 steals per game. His defense and shot-blocking ability preserved Warrior Run’s playoff hopes late in the year when Hartman blocked a ridiculous 13 shots in a 46-44 comeback win against Midd-West. He also altered many shots which were not blocked as Warrior Run won five straight must-win games to reach districts.

SECOND TEAM

Branson Eyer, Muncy; Colton Litzelman, North Penn-Liberty; Naseer Dymeck, Neumann; Nolan Kutney, Montoursville; Xavier Taylor, Williamsport.

Breakthrough Player of the Year

Second runners-up–Landon Reeder, Montoursville and Damian McAllister, Jersey Shore: Reeder played guard most of his life before a growth spurt a couple years ago and played a key role in Montoursville going 15-5 and reaching the District 4 Class AAAA semifinals. A versatile weapon, Reeder averaged 11.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game while making 51% of his shots. McAllister really took off in the season’s second half and is a versatile junior who can take his game inside and outside. McAllister hit 40 3-pointers, averaged 11.7 points per game and scored a career-high 30 against Shamokin. He also is part of an exciting group of four returning starters in 2022.

First runner-up–Karson Dominick, North Penn-Mansfield: This explosive freshman could become a fixture on the all-star team the next three years. Tall, quick and able to shoot it from anywhere, Dominick produced six games of 20 or more points and averaged a team-high 14.4 points while hitting 36 3-pointers in 16 games. He also pulled down 6.6 rebounds, dealt 1.7 assists and made 1.5 steals per game. He has only scratched the surface of his potential and Dominick provides North Penn-Mansfield a super building block.

And the winner is…Max Rymsza, Muncy: Although he started as a junior last year, Rymsza really burst onto the scene this winter, often filling out the stat sheet, taking over games and giving Muncy whatever it needed. Possessing excellent range and keen vision, Rymsza was a consistent match-up problem and was instrumental in Muncy going from 8-14 to 14-5. Rymsza averaged 13.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4 assists, 2.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. The senior guard also produced a triple-double before following it up less than a week later with a double-double in a comeback win against Warrior Run.

GAME OF THE YEAR

Second runner-up–Wellsboro 75, North Penn-Mansfield 66: Easily one of the district’s most intense and exciting rivalries over the last 11 years, Wellsboro and North Penn-Mansfield staged another classic late in the season. Wellsboro seemingly had the game won before the Tigers scored seven points in the final 23 seconds of regulation to force overtime. The Hornets responded strong, however, and took over in overtime as Callahan went for 15 points and 16 rebounds.

First runner-up–South Williamsport 64, St. John Neumann 63: South needed this February game to share the Mid-Penn championship with Neumann and the rivals exchanged haymakers all night. Neumann furiously erased a 12-point deficit in the final four minutes and went up one when Davion Hill fed Naseer Dymeck for a layup with 15 seconds remaining. Following a South miss, Grant Bachman jumped high, grabbed an offensive rebound and scored off a buzzer-beating putback as South defeated Neumann for the first time in 10 years and eventually won a share of that championship.

And the winner is…Loyalsock 79, Executive Education 75: Looking back at how the final two rounds played out, this state quarterfinal thriller may have essentially been the state championship. Loyalsock turned a nine-point second-quarter deficit into a 13-point third-quarter lead against this loaded team before Executive started hitting 3-pointers as if they were layups. The Raptors took a two-point lead late before Saraj Ali made a game-tying steal and layup with a minute remaining. Following an Eli Gair go-ahead basket, Executive had one last chance to tie or win. Idris Ali then slammed the door and made what may go down in Loyalsock lore as “The Steal.” Ali intercepted a pass near the top of the key, sprinted downcourt and made a game-clinching layup. The Lancers went into overdrive from there and were crowned state champions a week later.

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