Boys basketball: PAC divisional powers find new ways to keep their place

With the Pioneer Athletic Conference boys basketball tournament right around the corner, the two PAC juggernauts of recent years are primed to once again compete for the banner.

Methacton and Pope John Paul II have enjoyed a wealth of riches the past several years in PAC play, and once again the two schools are right among the top of contention one week out from the conference tournament. The Golden Panthers are in first place of the Frontier with a 6-2 divisional record while the Warriors are in second place of the Liberty at 6-2 within their division as well.

Methacton has been paced by a strong rotation of guards in Matt Christian, Cam Chilson, Sal Iemmello and Jason Lagana. Six-foot-3 forward Alex Hermann, who, like Iemmello hadn’t played varsity minutes before this season, is having a standout sophomore campaign averaging 14.5 points per game.

“We knew we were going to try and find our identity this year, adding some new guys and some new roles and fresh varsity minutes and everything,” Methacton coach Patrick Lockard said. “I think we’ve been really developing and establishing that chemistry throughout the year, trying to find guys in good spots to get the basketball with what the rotations are gonna be looking like.”

Christian has filled in the big shoes of Cole Hargrove — last year’s Mercury Player of the Year — with a deadly outside shot. The 6-foot-1 senior has 63 3-pointers, tied with Tyler Rossi of Owen J. Roberts for most in the PAC this season. Christian is sitting on 283 points this winter and averaging 14.9 ppg, fifth-most in the conference.

Methacton is still riding the momentum it’s built in recent years with four of the last five PAC titles and six within the last decade. The Warriors look like a well balanced group with just as much talent from their underclassmen as there is with their juniors and seniors.

“The ebbs and flows of public high school basketball, you’re gonna have good years, bad years, whatever you wanna call it. You just have to do the best you can with the talent that you have,” Lockard said. “There’s a lot of good, young players in the league and you just gotta be ready.

“Just because a senior class graduated, that doesn’t mean that team is now going to be worse or lesser. It just gives opportunities for other guys to step up and for coaches to show how good they actually are.”

Look no further than Pope John Paul II for a prime example of that notion.

Ahead of 2022-23, the Golden Panthers graduated a senior class of multi-year All-Frontier first teamers who produced four division titles, back-to-back District 1 Class 4A championships and a PAC crown in the absence of a tournament due to COVID-19. And still, Pope John Paul II sits in first of the Frontier after all that firepower walked the stage in May.

But this winter marked uncharted waters for Pope John Paul II. Senior guard Trey Rogers was the only returning player with real varsity experience. This past month, the Golden Panthers dipped below .500 overall for the first time in fifth-year coach Brendan Stanton’s tenure.

And yet, an overtime win over Phoenixville and buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Chase Mondillo against Pottstown last week have propelled the young squad into a position to control their own destiny in the final week of the regular season.

“It’s been a little bit of an up-and-down year. But we sort of thought that coming in,” Stanton said. “We knew there was gonna be some ups and downs and learning curves for those guys.”

Dom DeMito, Mondillo and Rogers have been providing a strong backcourt for PJP with Caleb Zavertnik and Bradey Bass highlighting its forwards. Braden Reed has been a valuable sixth-man off the bench while Denny Owens and Jake Robinson have been getting valuable varsity minutes as well.

“We’re really trying to mix and match and find the best guys in certain spots,” Stanton said. “We knew going into the Frontier a second time that if we wanted to win the division again, we probably had to win out.”

Methacton hosts top-ranked Spring-Ford Tuesday and caps its regular season at Boyertown on Thursday.

Pope John Paul II hosts Upper Perkiomen Tuesday and concludes its regular season at Upper Merion on Thursday.

“We put ourselves in a good spot now where if we take care of business the last two games, we’ll win the division,” Stanton said. “If you had asked me last March if I’d take that, I would’ve taken it 10 times out of 10.”

The PAC race

Six teams qualify for the PAC tournament, the top two in each division along with two wild card entries determined by overall PAC record (including crossovers). Division winners received a first-round bye.

The tournament will be staged at Spring-Ford. The opening round game will be staged Wednesday, Feb. 8, and the semifinals on Friday, Feb. 10. The championship is set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 14.

One division winner already ensured its bye is Spring-Ford, which is firmly at the top of the food chain after missing the conference tournament last season. At 8-0 in the Liberty, 11-0 in the PAC and 19-1 overall, the Rams have clinched the No. 1 seed in the PAC playoffs. Ranked No. 1 in District 1-6A with 19 straight wins, Spring-Ford closes its regular season with second-place Methacton (6-2, 8-3, 14-6) and Perkiomen Valley (2-6, 5-6, 13-7) this week.

Norristown currently holds the top wild card spot with a 7-4 conference record. The Eagles can punch their ticket to the PAC tournament with a win over Boyertown on Tuesday or a win over Owen J. Roberts Thursday. As the reigning District 1-6A runner-up, Norristown is well within making the district tournament again at No. 17 in the rankings.

In the Frontier, PJP is atop the standings at 6-2. Recent losses have stalled Pottstown and Upper Merion, but both are 5-3 in the Frontier. The Vikings have the head-to-head over the Trojans and are also a game up in conference play.

Upper Merion, ranked No. 12 in District 1-5A, takes on Pottsgrove Tuesday before a crucial tilt against Pope John Paul II Thursday. Pottstown, No. 7 in District 1-5A, will round out its regular season by hosting Phoenixville and Upper Perkiomen.

It’ll be a huge week for Phoenixville. The Phantoms are neck-and-neck with Pottstown for a PAC wild card spot and the two meet on Tuesday. Phoenixville is also ranked just outside the top 12 in District 1-5A at No. 14, two spots out from making the district bracket.

Perkiomen Valley needs to win out with losses from Pottstown and Phoenixville as well in order to make the PAC tournament, though the two Frontier teams meet on Tuesday, making the order a bit taller for the Vikings.

Regardless of the PAC tournament, Perkiomen Valley finds itself ranked No. 9 in District 1-6A with the chance of hosting a playoff game, or potentially moving up into first-round bye territory. The Vikings have Owen J. Roberts and Spring-Ford on tap this week.

Boyertown is in a similar boat to Perkiomen Valley at the same 5-6 conference record. Needing to win out as well, the Bears have Norristown and Methacton this week. Boyertown is ranked No. 16 in District 1-6A.

Owen J. Roberts, Upper Perkiomen and Pottsgrove have all been eliminated from PAC playoff contention. The Wildcats are outside the top 24-ranked 6A teams in District 1 while the Indians and Falcons are beyond the top 12 in 5A, meaning all three teams will conclude their seasons this week.

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