Carroll knows what it’s up against in state final

RADNOR — Off the top of his head, Paul Romanczuk’s estimate of Archbishop Carroll’s history with Neumann-Goretti is pretty accurate.

The win column, he says with a chuckle, is easy to tabulate. It’s one.

The number on the other side of the ledger, since the Philadelphia Catholic League joined the PIAA for the 2008-09 season, is much vaster: 16. (Romanczuk, an accountant by trade, was only off by one with his guess of 17.)

Since the last time Carroll beat Neumann-Goretti, the Patriots boys basketball team has incurred 12 losses; before that win in 2009, dating back to 2001 and the pre-PIAA era, it was 18 straight setbacks at the hands of a program that has become the gold standard in Pennsylvania.

But there’s a glint of hope for Romanczuk among what should be dour numbers: The last time Carrol beat Neumann-Goretti back in 2009, it led the Patriots to a state title. That proposition will be repeated Friday, more directly, in the PIAA Class AAA Championship game.

For the sixth time in seven seasons, a Catholic League squad will be crowned the AAA champ at Hershey’s GIANT Center (8 p.m. tipoff). In 2009, that was Carroll, the road going through Neumann-Goretti with a 70-65 quarterfinal win at Archbishop Ryan that still stands as the Patriots only win in the last 31 meetings.

Four of those titles have headed to South Philadelphia with the Saints, while the seventh was claimed by District 12’s Imhotep Charter in the 2013 final over Carroll.

That history is hefty, and Romanczuk’s job this week is to sort what parts of that legacy will weigh his team down and need to be discarded, and which can, like a counterweight on a catapult, be used to launch them forward.

“They know each other. They know each other’s games,’ Romanczuk said at practice Wednesday. “We just want to make it as much as possible Neumann-Goretti vs. Carroll, not one player vs. another player, not a personal battle.’

Though the Patriots harbor recent history with both halves of the other semifinal — in which Neumann-Goretti beat Imhotep, 75-67 — the rooting interest for many of the Patriots was clear after their 59-32 dismissal of Cathedral Prep.

“Neumann is definitely who you want,’ point guard Josh Sharkey said. “You want to play against the best, and they’re the best in the area. That’s who we wanted.’

No one on the Carroll roster has ever tasted victory against the Saints, though they’ve gotten close. Three meetings over the last two years have been decided by a total of 13 points, including the Jan. 23 loss at Carroll, decided by Quade Green’s 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds left in a game that Carroll led by six in the fourth quarter.

While Neumann-Goretti (29-2) is a big piece of the equation, Carroll (23-6) had plenty of its own positives to focus on. They are, after all, just as deserving a participant in the final, having breezed through the western half of the bracket, banishing four opponents by an average of 30 points per game. The 27-point margin against Cathedral Prep was the closest of the tournament.

“We have to keep playing our game,’ Sharkey said. “I think throughout the state playoffs, we’ve been playing really well and we started the games out very strong. Coming into this game, we want to keep starting strong and come out with a lot of energy.’

Carroll’s understanding of its strengths has morphed in the postseason. They still average a shade under 70 points per game, but the defense has ratcheted up in the state tournament. Despite playing at their usual quick tempo and increasing the number of possessions on both sides, the Patriots are still limiting teams to just 45.8 points per game.

Thanks to the injury to Ernest Aflakpui, forward Derrick Jones is the only Patriot left to have played in the 2013 final against Imhotep, in which he recorded a double-double. While this is the first time on such a large stage for most of his teammates, he’s seen them rise to meet the challenge of generally hostile gyms far from home through states.

“It’s a lot of pressure going into a state championship game,’ Jones said. “But I know my guys well, and I know that we’re going to go out there and do what we do.’

At least Carroll gets a leg up on the preparation, having seen Neumann so often. Romanczuk is adamant that it’s never easy to prepare for a team like with the illustrious history and bevy of options of Neumann-Goretti, but the familiarity means they start at a more advanced, more nuanced level.

Romanczuk is also trying to turn the intangibles in Carroll’s favor to ensure his charges make use of the fire of the past.

“I think it definitely makes us hungry,’ Sharkey said. “It gives us motivation. A lot of people are doubting us. They think because we haven’t beaten them that we’re just going to bow down to them or something like that. But it gives us motivation to come in and play hard. We’re the underdog.

“It has been a long time, but sometimes you have to put the history aside and play the game,’ Jones said. “You can’t let your emotions get the best of you.’

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