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MCCUE: ‘Underdog’ Pope John Paul making historic run of its own

SHILLINGTON >> In the same league as a Methacton team proving to be arguably the best in Pioneer Athletic Conference history, it’s been easy to overlook another PAC program on its own historic run.

Pope John Paul II, the runner-up to the Warriors in the 2020 PAC title game, is in the midst of the best season in program history.

Though the lopsided PAC championship loss and a 13-day break between their District 1-4A title win over Lower Moreland and their PIAA playoff opener didn’t help the Golden Panthers build much buzz, PJP is making plenty of noise this postseason.

By knocking off District 11 champion Allentown Central Catholic, 44-42, on Tuesday in the PIAA Class 4A tournament and earning a trip to the state quarterfinals for the first time, Pope John Paul II made sure if your weren’t listening you are now.

“It’s honestly amazing to be a part of the team, and it’s just fun every day,” said sophomore Jaden Workman, who made the game-winning basket against Central Catholic.

Most impressive about PJP’s performance Tuesday night was not just the victory, but the way the Golden Panthers got there.

Pope John Paul (21-5) played with a poise and confidence that made it look like a squad that not just belonged, but had been there before. This PJP group hadn’t been there before though, breaking a seven-year state playoff drought last Friday when they defeated District 12’s John Bartram.

The Golden Panthers went into Tuesday’s game with a 2-3 overall state record against an Allentown Central Catholic program with a 44-32 mark, including three straight PIAA appearances and a quarterfinal trip in the 2018 PIAA Class 5A tournament.

PJP nearly led the entire game and came out on top against a district champion that won 24 games this season and featured a lineup several inches taller than the Golden Panthers at almost every position.

“Everyone was talking about how we’re the underdogs and stuff, and we love that,” said junior Luke McCarthy, who led PJP with 12 points. “We love being underdogs, and hopefully they keep on doubting us and we keep proving everyone wrong.”

Pope John Paul II’s Luke McCarthy (2) celebrates with teammates after the team’s PIAA 4A win over Allentown Central Catholic on Tuesday. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Unlike Methacton, which entered the 2019-20 season as a well-known name around District 1 and even the state after a deep PIAA run, Pope John Paul’s season does have an ‘underdog’ narrative to it.

PJP entered this season as the favorite to represent the three-team District 1-4A field in the state tournament and the favorites in the PAC Frontier Division, but a run to the PIAA quarterfinals? That would have seemed a little far fetched for a team that went 11-12 in 2018-19 and lost three starters.

Returners Drew McKeon, a senior wing, and Justin Green, a junior forward, have led the charge, but McCarthy, Workman, Green’s sophomore younger brother Kevin, senior Dave Smrek and others have emerged to bring this team to new heights.

A season that started with a concerning opening night loss to Unionville (a Class 5A quarterfinalist), produced an 11-game win streak, a second straight Frontier Division title, the most regular-season wins in school history (17), the first league championship appearance since 2011, the program’s first district title and the most overall victories by any PJP team all before the PIAA playoffs began.

“We lost by 15 the first night at Unionville and everyone was really down and we didn’t play very well, and I think people were worried at that point,” second-year coach Brendan Stanton said after last Friday’s win against Bartram. “But they were able to right the ship and they just never quit. I can’t say enough about these kids. I’m unbelievably proud.”

The Golden Panthers were not supposed to be this good — at least not this good this fast — when Stanton took over last season.

After starting with three straight PIAA appearances and a four consecutive winning campaigns upon opening in 2010-11, Pope John Paul II finished below .500 in four straight seasons from 2014-18.

Stanton, a Lansdale Catholic graduate who went on to play at Gwynedd Mercy, became head coach in 2018-19 with PJP coming off a 6-15 campaign and a combined 9-24 record the two years prior.

“I think going in people talked about the job as if it was a complete rebuild and there wasn’t much there,” Stanton said. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

Pope John Paul II coach Brendan Stanton, center, congratulates his players after the team’s PIAA 4A win over Allentown Central Catholic on Tuesday. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

After a 12-13 season in his first year, which included a Frontier Division title and a trip to the District 1-4A championship game (albeit with a four-team field), Stanton has continued to quickly steer the program in the right direction.

PJP broke a seven-year state playoff drought and won the second state playoff game in school history last Friday. Stanton can now add advancing this PJP squad further than any of the eight before it to his resume after defeating Central Catholic on Tuesday.

Certainly the transfer of Green, a second team All-Frontier selection last season, from La Salle College High School before his sophomore season and subsequently his younger brother Kevin, who became a starter this year, gave a boost to the program.

But Stanton said there was something intangible about this PJP group when he took over that has made the program something special in such a short span.

“From Day 1, I think we had a lot of kids who were invested, and we had a lot of young good kids who are now seeing the floor as juniors and sophomores, and obviously Drew’s playing great,” Stanton said. “It’s been really cool to see. I just think it’s the guys.

“I don’t know what really happened before, but ever since I’ve been there, these kids have been into it like it’s an elite program. I’ve just been trying to reward them and give them everything I can and the coaches have been. And things have somehow turned out OK for us.”

Pope John Paul II’s Justin Green (21) celebrates with teammate Dave Smrek (24) after Tuesday’s PIAA Class 4A win over Allentown Central Catholic. (Owen McCue – MediaNews Group)

Even while PJP was struggling to put out a winner on the boys basketball court, there were at least three who had visions of the brighter days that lay ahead.

McKeon said he and his fellow seniors Smrek and Evan Yasneski have envisioned this season since they were freshmen in a program that was in the midst of five consecutive losing campaigns.

Tuesday night’s victory was the culmination of something worked for over the past four years or perhaps even longer when McKeon watched the first PJP team win a PAC championship from the stands.

“Me and my fellow seniors, Dave and Evan, we’ve talked about since freshman year going on a run like this. We knew it,” McKeon said. “At the beginning of the year we were more focused on just the next day and getting through to the next game. But now that we’re here, I think we always knew we could do it.”

Pope John Paul will continue its run in the Class 4A tournament on Friday against Tamaqua, the third seed out of District 11.

Win or lose, the Golden Panthers have already left a large imprint on the short history of their program and made enough noise over the last two seasons to wake up anyone who still might be sleeping on them.

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