By: Rich Flanagan
Videos: John Knebels
Photos: Donna Eckert & Mike Nance
PHILADELPHIA – With his team trailing by 19 points with 1:11 remaining in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Class 5A Tournament title game, Joe Zeglinski applauded his team as several starters checked out in favor for some of the other bench players.
Accomplished seniors like Dominic Vazquez, Aaron Lemon-Warren and Christian Tomasco came off the floor and were met by their head coach knowing they had overcome more than simply winning basketball games.
Archbishop Ryan’s season began two weeks after the rest of the Philadelphia Catholic League as the program was shut down due to COVID-19 contact tracing. Once the program was allowed to begin practices (again) and start playing games, it was a gauntlet navigating through the season. A trip to the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinals along with an improbable run to the state title game came about in a season that seemed to be nonstop.
For Zeglinski, the sense of pride he had for his team and the Raiders program, one that he played several years for, was felt by all involved.
“In a normal year, I might be a little bit more upset with the outcome, but this year, I’m extra proud of what everyone has been through,” Zeglinski said. “We were shut down for two weeks then we jump right into games on February 13. From that time to March 26, it was 40 days and we played 18 games. To get us to the first state championship in program history is remarkable with these kids have been through.”
While Archbishop Ryan (12-6) fell to Cathedral Prep, 69-49 at the GIANT Center in Hershey, the season will be remembered for a number of reasons.
It was the first state title game appearance in program history after two trips to the semifinals since Zeglinski took over six years ago. Lemon-Warren led the Raiders with 16 points and six rebounds while Vazquez poured in 15 points in the loss. Archbishop Ryan only led for 13 seconds after Vazquez scored the first layup of the game, but the state title run was a defining moment about the Raiders makeup.
A year after leading the Philadelphia Catholic League in scoring before breaking his right foot in practice and ending his season, Lemon-Warren returned and began to showcase the skillset that made him so dominant last year. The 6-foot-5 forward averaged 18.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game on his way to being a First Team All-Catholic selection. Vazquez took over the starting point guard role as a junior, his first season on the varsity team. Tomasco began his career at St. Joe’s Prep before playing the last two seasons at Bishop Eustace (N.J.). The 6-9 senior forward was a great complement to Lemon-Warren in the front court, as evidenced by his avg. of 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocks. The other two starters, juniors Jalen Snead and Luke Boyd, were role players as sophomores and took huge leaps this season.
This group made two league semifinal appearances as well as two state playoff appearances. The growth that they had as individual players and as a team was remarkable and Zeglinski saw firsthand all of the hard work they put in throughout their careers.
“Where everyone started as a freshman to where they are now is astounding,” Zeglinski said. “You saw in the championship game that [Cathedral Prep] had been playing since November and we’ve only been playing since February. The pieces came together down the stretch and we were clicking on all cylinders, particularly in the state playoffs. We were working for that one goal to win a championship, and while we didn’t bring home that trophy, we gave it our best effort where we were playing as one and using all of the pieces to achieve that common goal.”
Archbishop Wood followed up its Philadelphia Catholic League title with a run to the PIAA Class 6A title game, which ended in dramatic fashion. In the final quarter, Rahsool Diggins, the UConn commit and four-year starter, drilled a three-pointer to make it a one-point game. After its opponent, the Reading Red Knights, turned the ball over on the ensuing possession, the Vikings had one more possession to close out the winningest senior class in Archbishop Wood boys basketball history. Diggins inbounded the ball with 3.9 seconds and his pass to Muneer Newton was intercepted by Reading’s Joey Chapman to secure the Red Knights first title since 2017.
Instead of great despair and wondering what could have been, the Vikings 2021 class, after finishing with a 74-25 overall record, two Philadelphia Catholic League semifinal appearances and this year’s league title, bonded and reminisced about its historic run of dominance. Diggins finished his career with 1,513 points, the most in Vikings boys history. Daeshon Shepherd, a three-year starter and La Salle commit, finished his career with 1,099 career points. Jaylen Stinson, a James Madison commit, was a three-year starter, including his sophomore season when the Vikings advanced to the 5A title game, and scored 1,086 career points (began his career at the Haverford School). Marcus Randolph, the Richmond commit, also surpassed 1,000 career points and led the Vikings at 16.6 ppg this season.
Randolph and Stinson embraced after the loss and talked about all of the success this group has had. For Randolph, constantly reminding himself about why he joined the Vikings program helps alleviate the hardship of this loss.
“I’m going to remember everything, especially the family aspect,” Randolph said. “We did everything together. We all built a special relationship that will carry on for years to come. We definitely built the culture for the younger guys coming up. We showed them that playing for one another will take you further than playing selfishly.”
Like the Raiders, this team was brought together over several years. Diggins and Shepherd have been members of the rotation since their freshman year. Stinson transferred in prior to his sophomore year and helped elevate the program back into state contention. Randolph came over from Willingboro High School (N.J.) before his junior season and now four starters will be playing Division I basketball. Add in Newton, the 6-5 athletic forward who had seven points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in the state title game, and this team came full circle to get to this spot.
For John Mosco, a head coach with two Philadelphia Catholic League titles and three state title game appearances, he was thrilled with what this team accomplished but also wants one unsung hero to be noted.
“You have somebody like Rob Jackson, who was a starter during his sophomore year,” Mosco said. “He focused on football but he was a huge supporter to Muneer being the starter. A couple of games I didn’t get him but he told me, ‘Coach, don’t worry about it. We just have to win.’ As well as they all played individually, they all sacrificed for each other and they wanted to win.”
Both programs have reached new heights over the last season and both will be losing key players to graduation. Both have shown the ability to rebuild and remain in contention in the toughest league in Pa. year after year, and that is not expected to change. A return to state supremacy is still in their vision but it will not be long before both the Raiders and Vikings are back in this position.