Coming off a wire-to-wire march to the WPIAL Class AAA title with a largely intact lineup, expectations were understandably high for the New Castle boys this March.
Those expectations were understandably tempered a bit after the program moved up to Quad-A, where it was placed in the proverbial “Group of Death,” which included contenders North Allegheny and Hampton, and feisty Seneca Valley.
But the 28-0 Red Hurricane left them all red-faced, blowing past the competition to another perfect season in district play. They are the first WPIAL boys’ team to do that back-to-back seasons, and the first to repeat as WPIAL champions in two different classifications.
Exactly how Ralph Blundo and his coaching staff drew it up…?
“Absolutely not. Every coach looks at their schedule at the beginning of the season and says, ‘I think our record could be…,’ you know. I thought we could be 17-5, or 18-4. We were still going to be good. But no, I didn’t expect this. We were good, and we played this well all year, that’s how it happened,” Blundo said after New Castle humbled Hampton, 68-53, for the second time in a row at the Palumbo Center in the district final.
“It’s hard even for an adult to it. There’s times I have to talk myself up on the way to practice, because those kids deserve my very best, too. What you saw on the court is how they work in practice.”
One can only imagine what a typical New Castle practice looks like if one play in particular from last Saturday’s game is any indication. In the First Round of the PIAA Class AAAA Playoffs, a missed three-pointer from the far wing by Antonio Rudolph appeared to be easy pickings for a pair of physically superior Gateway defenders. The ball had barely touched the rim when Malik Hooker out-leaped them both and jammed it home.
“What’s impressed me the most is how hard we grind, and how dedicated we are to one another. It’s like we’re out there playing to die for each other. We don’t want to go down without having a run,” said Hooker, a 6’2″ junior off-guard who averaged 17.5 points per game during the regular season.
He finished with 15 and nine rebounds in a 68-48 victory over the same Gators his team manhandled in the WPIAL tournament fresh off back-to-back Quad-A titles. Meanwhile, New Castle made a run, as it often has, by getting outside shots to go down.
The ‘Cane whipped the Gators on the perimeter with 25 second-quarter points to take a 25-point lead into halftime. Anthony Richards chipped in 12 points and has, in fact, made all of his postseason buckets from behind the arc. Although he didn’t play a dominant role Saturday, fellow guard Brandon Domenick has proven, on an off night for Richards, he can pick up that offensive slack.
New Castle shot 33% from three-point range against Gateway. It wasn’t quite as gaudy as its 56.5% showing against Hampton, but it hasn’t mattered. If at first those shots don’t fall, Blundo has enough confidence in his team to let them fire away until they do.
“It’s all about the amount of shots we put up. If there’s a good look, my guys have the green light,” he said Saturday. “They take thousands and thousands of shots on those shooting machines, and that gives them the confidence in big games. We made some early, and that was big for us.
“They know where they’re supposed to be, and they all have great basketball sense. Sometimes I’ll just let them play, because I know they’ll make the smart play. They’ve earned my trust in that regard.”
But the identity of this New Castle team comes just as much from 6’3″ senior forward Shawn Anderson, perhaps his most trustworthy player. He averaged 20 points per game entering the playoffs and balances the offense. He’s a glass-cleaner, a facilitator, and most importantly, a finisher. Coming off a 17-point effort against the Talbots, he pumped in 18 on 7-of-11 shooting versus the Gators, adding ten boards and, for the second straight weekend, a game-high four assists.
“Shawn is like my other half. There’s just so many things you could say about him,” said Hooker, his cousin. “Without him, or any of these guys, I don’t know that we’d be as great as we are.”
“Shawn is a great player, and plays his best basketball in the biggest games,” Blundo added.
New Castle has earned a No. 2 state-wide ranking from MaxPreps, riding shotgun only to two-time state Quad-A champ Chester, as well as a top-50 national ranking. This Saturday they take on Cathedral Prep, the No. 7 team in the state, at 1:00 at Edinboro University.
The Red Hurricane must contain an offense that, like its own, leans on its guards. The Ramblers are led by six-foot senior Sheldon Zablotny, who averages 18.9 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, and 6’2″ junior Matt Harris, who averages 13.7 points per game. Both are shooting over 40 percent from three-point range.
Physically, this might actually be one of the most manageable matchups New Castle has encountered in this year’s PIAA tournament, but Cathedral Prep, like New Castle, is capable of overcoming physical deficiencies by simply out-shooting opponents, particularly from long range. This could make the impressive teamwork of Hooker and Anderson inside a deciding factor.
Regardless of how the rest of this tournament unfolds, it’s hard to recall, in recent seasons, another WPIAL Class AAAA team this capable…and this incredibly consistent.
A state championship would and should surprise nobody. Except, perhaps, Blundo.
“I don’t know if any of us could have predicted this. The level of consistency these guys have demonstrated is absolutely amazing, and I’m so proud of them for it,” he said.
“It appears easy, but it’s so far from easy. It takes so much effort to do what we’ve done.”
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)