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St. John Neumann’s Davion Hill named Sun Gazette boys basketball Player of the Year

Davion Hill of St. John Neumann goes strong to the basket against High Point Baptist at St. John Neuman Regional Academy March 8, 2022. DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

Before last season, no area team had reached a state championship since the 1999 Williamsport Millionaires captured the Class AAAA crown.

Now it has happened two straight years. A season after Loyalsock won the Class AAA title, St. John Neumann put together a remarkable run, reached the Class A state final and achieved something no other Knights team had in 50 years.

Just like Loyalsock a year ago, Neumann continues shining a bright light upon this area’s basketball talent and inspiring confidence. Reaching the state final is no longer some far-fetched dream. It now feels more attainable for future players after Loyalsock and Neumann have provided the blue print. Not surprisingly, Neumann’s state final run has it well-represented among this year’s Sun-Gazette Boys Basketball award winners.

Sun-Gazette Player of the Year

Davion Hill,

St. John Neumann

The state’s best Class A player, Hill enjoyed one of the best seasons in recent area history. Hill averaged a district-best 26.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. He also was among the area’s leaders in steals, drilled 50 3-pointers and dominated defenses geared toward limiting his damage. Soon to be a three-time first team all-state player, Hill again was at his best come playoff time. He averaged 29.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.3 steals per game during states, producing four postseason double-doubles. Hill topped 30 points in Neumann’s last three games, poured in 39 against Nativity, had 30 against Canevin and went for 31 points and 19 rebounds against District 3 champion Linville Hill Christian. Hill scored 783 points this season, the most by an area boys player during the 2000s. In just three years, he already had scored 1,876 points, averaging 24.1 per game during that time, while moving within 230 points over Jim Nolan’s Lycoming County record for career points. Oh yeah, Hill also topped 30 points 12 times, 20 points 28 times and has helped Neumann go 64-14 in three years. Featuring a will even stronger than his talent, Hill is building one of the more impressive resumes in area history and could be poised for his best season yet next year.

Sun-Gazette Coach

of Year

Second runner-up–Brian Litzelman, North Penn-Liberty and Allen Taylor, Williamsport: Four starters graduated from one of the best teams in program history, but Litzelman helped North Penn-Liberty return to the District 4 Class A final. The Mounties won 15 games, reached states for the second time in three years and gave Neumann a battle in the district championship. Taylor faced similar challenges after losing the majority of his 2021 contributors. Instead of taking a step back, Williamsport kept moving forward, going 18-6, beating Hazleton on the road in the District 2-4 Class AAAAAA semifinals and reaching a second straight championship. There, Williamsport nearly topped Scranton which went on to reach the state quarterfinals. The Millionaires also won eight straight late-season games.

First runner-up–John Vaji, Lewisburg: It never made sense why Lewisburg moved on from Vaji following the best 15-year run in program history and he wasted no time showing why, leading Lewisburg to its first District 4 Class AAAA championship since 2017. The Green Dragons (23-6) made a 13-win improvement, won their first league crown since 2016 and have captured three district championships in the last four seasons in which Vaji has coached them. Lewisburg surged at the right time and developed into one of the area’s most well-rounded teams as the season progressed.

And the winner is … Jamie Spencer, St. John Neumann: The last time Neumann had reached a state final, Neumann’s three previous coaches, Paul Petcavage, Mike Kirby and Joe Clark were starters. Spencer might not be an alum, but he has left his mark at Neumann and brought the best out of his players at the most crucial time. A year after losing three-time all-state guard David Hill and versatile forward Keon Burkholder, Neumann reached the state championship and won 26 games. Spencer and his staff pushed the right buttons throughout the year, especially come playoff time, as Neumann won seven straight postseason games while downing three district champions during states. That included an 82-62 thrashing of defending state champion Pottsville Nativity as Neumann knocked down that 50-year wall in emphatic fashion.

Honorable mention: Jason Gresh, Muncy; Tyler Bardo, Central Mountain; Gene Bruno, Bucktail; Brock Kitchen, Canton; Ryan Brandt, Milton; Junior Parrish, Montgomery

Sun-Gazette All-Star Team

Hanief Clay, St. John Neumann: One of the state’s best point guards, Clay should receive serious first team Class A all-state consideration following a sensational senior season. Clay possessed rocket-like speed, was an elite ball-handler and carved up defenses with his scoring and passing. A team captain, Clay averaged 19.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 4.4 steals per game. A tenacious competitor, Clay consistently stuffed the stat sheet, rebounded well for his size, shined against tough opponents and scored 34 or more points three times. Clay made seven steals in the state championship against Bishop Canevin, produced a double-double in the second round against Bishop Canevin and topped 900 career points despite not playing his first two years.

Kenon Brown, Williamsport: Brown showed brilliant flashes the past two seasons and put everything together his senior year while becoming Williamsport’s MVP. A polished player who helped in all facets, Brown led the team in scoring and assists, while also rebounding well and playing strong defense. The senior leader averaged 15.3 points per game, was one of the area’s best shooters and helped Williamsport win its most games in a season since 2017. Brown played some of his best basketball at the most important times, hitting a game-winning buzzer-beating jumper against Scranton Prep and feeding JJ Beagle for another buzzer-beating shot against Pottsville. He also scored 17 points in the comeback win against Hazleton.

Jake Hernandez, Lewisburg: The HAC-I MVP and Class AAAA all-state candidate, Hernandez built upon a strong junior season and became one of the district’s best post players. A force when he had the ball down low, Hernandez also could take his game outside and drain 3-pointers. He averaged a double-double, going for 18.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while producing three playoff double-doubles. Hernandez topped 1,000 career points, made 76 % of his foul shots and played outstanding basketball during the playoffs. Also possessing good vision, Hernandez was good at setting up his teammates and produced 26 points and 11 rebounds in the district final against Athens. Hernandez was 10 for 10 at the line in that win.

Ross Eyer, Muncy: Many around Muncy call Eyer, “Mr. Double-Double,” which is appropriate. The junior forward produced a staggering 24 double-doubles in 26 games, including in 21 straight contests. An all-state football player last fall, Eyer built an all-state basketball resume as well, averaging 20.4 points, 13 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.9 blocks per game. A three-year starter, Eyer grabbed at least 10 rebounds in all 26 games while helping Muncy reach its first district final since 2017. Tough in the post but also one of the district’s best shooters, Eyer drained 58 3-pointers. In just three seasons, Eyer already has totaled 949 points, 709 rebounds, 191 assists, 132 steals and 118 blocked shots. He pulled down his 500th, 600th and 700th rebounds this season and has helped Muncy go 33-12 the last two years.

Saraj Ali, Loyalsock: The runner-up for Sun-Gazette Player of the Year, Ali feels like a lock to earn first team Class AAA all-state honors for a second straight season. The lone starter back from the 2021 state championship team, Ali often dominated opponents who geared their defenses toward slowing him. The senior forward made a run at averaging a triple-double, producing 21 points, 13 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. Ali was second among area players in scoring, rebounding and assists and also was the HAC-II Defensive Player of the Year, helping Loyalsock capture a fourth straight district championship. Ali was nearly automatic around the basket, making 68 percent of his shots and he also developed a quality outside shot. Ali topped 1,000 career points and nearly 1,000 rebounds while helping Loyalsock go an astounding 104-9 during his four years there. Ali put together the most dominant performance in HAC Tournament history as well, scoring 72 points, grabbing 35 rebounds, dealing 12 assists and making seven steals while helping the Lancers win the crown.

Second team: Isaiah Niemczyk, Canton (17.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 2.3 spg, 1.5 apg, 8 double-doubles, 1,224 career points, 575 career rebounds); Logan Almeida, Montgomery (1st team Mid-Penn, 17.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 3.7 apg, 2.9 spg, 43 3s, 1281 points); Brendan Clark, Loyalsock (12 ppg, 55% overall shooting, 70% foul line, 8 rpg, 4 apg, 4 spg); Lee Habalar, South Williamsport (16.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1st team Mid-Penn); Jack Hanna, Central Mountain (12.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.9 spg, 31 3s, 1st team HAC-I); Karson Dominick, North Penn-Mansfield (16.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 1.6 apg, 1.4 spg)

Third team: McGwire Painter, Cowanesque Valley (21.7 ppg); Cam Michaels, Lewisburg (9.6 ppg, 2.3 apg, 2.3 spg); Derek Litzleman, North Penn-Liberty (13.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.8 spg); Branson Eyer, Muncy (1st team Mid-Penn defense, 12.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.2 spg); Conner Adams, Wellsboro (11.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 6.6 apg, 250 career assists, 1.7 spg); Liam Manning, Wellsboro (15.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.7 apg, 4 double-doubles); Caiden Williams, Canton (11.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 1.4 spg)

Sun-Gazette Defensive All-Stars

Josh Heiney, Hughesville: He was Hughesville’s leading scorer, but Heiney did a lot more than provide an offensive jolt. The exciting junior also was an outstanding perimeter defender who was key to Hughesville’s defensive success. Heiney earned first team HAC-II defensive honors and enjoyed a breakthrough season despite missing time with a concussion. An outstanding shooter who also attacks the basket well, Heiney averaged 13.4 points per game.

Devin Bradley, North Penn-Liberty: Tough defense was at the heart of North Penn-Liberty’s return run to the district final and Bradley helped spark that stingy unit. The senior guard often stuck with explosive guards like glue and helped the Mounties slow down some dangerous offenses. Bradley frequently turned defense into offense for the Mounties and averaged 9.2 points and 2.9 steals per game.

Darryn Callahan, Wellsboro: One of the NTL’s premier defenders the last two years, Callahan was quick enough to stay with guards and strong enough to handle strong scorers inside. He was a big reason Wellsboro won 31 games the past two seasons. A strong three-sport athlete, Callahan often stuffed the stat sheet, producing 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and two steals per game.

Joey Martin, Lewisburg: Like Callahan, Martin’s versatility provided Lewisburg quite an asset. The senior guard had the length and quickness to match up with both guards and forwards. Martin pressured ball-handlers well and also used his length to make steals, clog passing lanes or make passes riskier. A first team HAC-I defensive all-star, Martin also was the team’s second leading scorer and one of the area’s top shooters.

Branson Eyer, Muncy: A player who may make a run at 1,000 points next season and who does a lot of offensive damage may be more known for his defense and that says a lot. An elite defender over the past two seasons, Eyer often matched up against the opponent’s best player and often did a nice job slowing him down. A three-year starter, Eyer made an impact in all areas. In addition to earning first team Mid-Penn Defensive honors, Eyer also averaged 12.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.2 steals per game.

Sun-Gazette Defensive Player of the Year

Elijah Frierson, Williamsport: When Williamsport needed someone to neutralize a dangerous playmaker, Frierson was the one it so often turned to. Explosive, multi-faceted and smart, Frierson used all his attributes to fuel one of the best collective defenses Williamsport has enjoyed over the last few years. His speed and size enabled Frierson to guard just about any position and he put together an impressive list of leading scorers who were held well below their season averages. Frierson used his defense to jumpstart a dangerous transition game and helped Williamsport hold 15 teams, including state quarterfinalist Scranton, to fewer than 50 points.

Second team: Isaiah Fenner, Montoursville; Jaylen Andrews, Loyalsock; Jeff Fenstermacher, Hughesville; Cam Michaels, Lewisburg; Loudon Boring, Muncy

Sun-Gazette Breakthrough Player of

the Year

Second runner-up–Ben Manning, South Williamsport and George Whaley, Williamsport: Manning has developed into one of the area’s premier point guards and did a nice job running the offense for a fairly young team which returned to the District 4 Class AAA playoffs. The junior averaged 7 points and was among area leaders with 4.6 assists per game. He also defends well and helped the Mounties surge down the stretch while laying a good foundation for next season. Whaley fits into that mold as well and will play a huge role for the Millionaires in 2023. The junior guard was outstanding off the bench, before working his way into the starting lineup and forming a strong backcourt with Kenon Brown. Whaley averaged in double figures down the stretch, scored a career-high 23 points against Tyrone and can make things happen on both ends.

First runner-up–Jaylen Andrews, Loyalsock: One of several exciting sophomores who made a big impact in their first full-time varsity seasons, Andrews could develop into one of the area’s top players next season. Possessing good speed, size and smarts, Andrews became one of the area’s defenders and also has exciting offensive skills. Andrews averaged nine points, an area-best five steals, six rebounds and three assists per game. His stellar defense was critical to Loyalsock rallying from a 15-point deficit against Southern Columbia in the district semifinals and he scored a career-high 26 points against Central Columbia.

And the winner is…Hayden Pardoe, Central Mountain: One of the most valuable players for a team which made a 10-win improvement and captured the second district championship in program history, Pardoe burst onto the scene and helped Central Mountain in all areas. The junior guard/forward averaged a team-high 14.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per game while hurting defenses with his versatility. Pardoe could get to the basket, post up or drain outside shots. He also was a defensive factor, blocking 1.7 shots and adding one steal per game. Pardoe scored 18 points in a thrilling district semifinal win against top-seeded Bellefonte and went for 26 points and 11 rebounds late in the year against Selinsgrove.

Game of the Year

Second runner-up–Williamsport 53, Pottsville 50: Pottsville has been a perennial thorn in Williamsport’s side, but the Millionaires flipped the script in this exciting January victory. Williamsport rallied from five down late and tied the game in the final minute. The Millionaires then ended the game in the dramatic fashion with Kenon Brown finding JJ Beagle at the top of the arc. As a defender flew toward him, Beagle drained a buzzer-beating 3-pointer and Williamsport won its second last-second contest of the season.

First runner-up–St. John Neumann 77, Lourdes 64: One of the wildest games this reporter has covered in 23 seasons on the job looked like it would be a mercy-rule as Neumann built a 19-0 lead less than five minutes into the contest. Neumann still led by 15 early in the third quarter before Lourdes made a stunning rally and went up four a minute into the fourth. When everything seemed to be crumbling, Neumann pulled together and dominated those final seven minutes, pulling away and blazing the trail to a third straight district title.

And the winner is…Loyalsock 78, Southern Columbia 73: Just two night following that semifinal thriller, Loyalsock and Southern went to the same court at Milton and produced an epic Class AAA semifinal. The Tigers stormed out to a 23-8 first-quarter lead and looked like they would knock out the defending state champions early. instead, Loyalsock fought back, took the lead in the third quarter and then exchanged leads with Southern like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed did punches. Brendan Clark played one of the best games of his high school career, going 11 for 11 at the foul line and producing 25 points and 11 rebounds, helping Loyalsock finally pull away in overtime. Nate Bauman and Braden Wisloski exchanged game-tying shots in the final 10 seconds to force overtime and Bauman scored 21 points as Loyalsock reached its fifth straight district final.

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