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BOYS BASKETBALL: Archbishop Carroll and Devon Prep Advance to Represent the PCL in the PIAA State Finals

By Rich Flanagan. Photos: Lennie Malmgren & Krystal Williams, 03/21/24, 1:00PM EDT


2024 PIAA Boys Basketball Championship Preview

Photos/Videos: Donna Eckert, Mike Livingston, Ryan Nix, Lennie Malmgren & Krystal Williams

By: Rich Flanagan

PHILADELPHIA - Paul Romanczuk was courtside to witness Archbishop Carroll win a state tournament game.

Not on the sideline as he was 14 seasons as head coach of the Patriots but taking the game in as a proud alumnus of his alma mater. The Patriots were playing Allentown Central Catholic in the second round of the PIAA Class 4A Tournament at Norristown Area High School, and even all these years later, Romanczuk is still keeping tabs on his former school where he starred as a player before a terrific career at the University of Pennsylvania then later returned to lead the program to unprecedented heights afterward.

On this night, he was enjoying the current iteration of the Patriots, who were in the second game of a deep state tournament run.

“They have an exciting team with all freshmen and sophomores, and for them to make a run here so early in their careers is so exciting,” Romanczuk said. “I’m pulling for them and Coach [Francis] Bowe.”

Archbishop Carroll vs. Scranton Prep - PIAA 4A Semifinals Highlights by Archbishop Carroll Jr. Reporter Mike Livingston

Archbishop Carroll (21-8) will head to the GIANT Center in Hershey to play in the state championship for the first time since 2015 when Romanczuk was at the helm. The Patriots will face reigning PIAA 4A champion Lincoln Park (27-3) on Thursday night in hopes of claiming the program’s first state title since 2009 when Romanczuk’s team, spearheaded by current Miami (Fla.) assistant coach DJ Irving, do-it-all guard Juan'ya Green, and Kasheef Festus. The Philadelphia Catholic League officially joined the PIAA that season and the Patriots became the first program to secure a state championship as it downed Greensburg Salem, 75-54 at the Bryce Jordan Center on the campus of Penn State University in the PIAA 3A final. 

Festus, who played at Lock Haven, led the way that night with 18 points while Irving added 17 points and seven steals, and Green filled up the stat sheet with 16 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals. Irving scored 1,117 career points at Archbishop Carroll then 1,456 at Boston University, which included a trip to the NCAA Tournament against Kansas as a freshman. Green scored more than most wherever he went, first at Archbishop Carroll (1,493 points) then Niagara (1,131 points) and finally Hofstra (1,186).

It was a historic championship for the program and league as the Patriots did something that six more Philadelphia Catholic League programs have done since by winning a state title, but Romanczuk’s team will always be the first.

“We made history and it’s something that I look back very fondly on that team and run,” Romanczuk said. “It’s interesting to think that if we didn’t have the state playoffs then, we would’ve ended on a great season but ultimately a semifinal loss to Roman Catholic at the Palestra. We wouldn’t have finished the season as champions.”

Archbishop Carroll is 35-13 all-time in the PIAA state tournament with the majority of those wins belonging to Romanczuk but Bowe has continued the Patriots’ trend of deep March runs here.

Two seasons ago, Bowe took the Patriots to the state semifinals before losing to Adou Thiero (Kentucky) and Quaker Valley. That team was led by sophomore Moses Hipps, Dean Coleman-Newsome, Jake West, and a host of others. It was an unlikely run as Archbishop Carrol had lost in the first round of the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs and stopped practicing as it believed the season was over, but when another District 12 team could not participate, the Patriots were given the bid and turned it into a semifinal run.

Hipps is playing at Compass Prep (Az.) and West is playing at Penn Charter while Coleman-Newsome has since graduated. This group is both new and very inexperienced, which has made this push all the more meaningful for Bowe’s team.

“You realize how difficult this is,” Bowe said. “You can’t take these moments for granted and I’m talking to freshmen and sophomores. Our sophomores weren’t in this tournament two years ago and we’re telling them, ‘What you’re doing is incredible.’ They don’t know what this was like at all. We’re not taking this for granted and we’ve always had this belief in ourselves.”

Archbishop Carroll head coach Francis Bowe - PSD Photo by Krystal Williams

The Patriots are led by three sophomores in 5-11 floor general Ian Williams (13.2 ppg), 6-foot guard Nasir Ralls (11.3), and 6-5 forward Luca Foster (13.4), who boasts offers from St. Joe’s, Penn State and Temple. The other two starters are breakout freshmen in 5-10 guard Darrell Davis (12.0) and 6-5 wing Munir Greig (11.0), who picked up an offer from Villanova before playing a high school game. This corps won eight games in the Philadelphia Catholic League then nearly came away with a win at Neumann-Goretti in the quarterfinals. Bowe noted how the group from the beginning of the season that looked skittish and hesitant had transformed into one with passion and intrigue as the months wore on.

He recalled a preseason scrimmage in November against Reading where it was “the first time really playing anyone together” and “they kicked our tails.”

Archbishop Carroll's Luca Foster #0 and Nasir Ralls #55 - PSD Photo by Krystal Williams

Reading, a program that has won three state titles since 2017, is exactly the type of team the Patriots have faced in the state tournament. It’s one thing to play a vaunted Philadelphia Catholic League opponent like Roman Catholic or Archbishop Wood, but as a District 12 team moves further out west, it finally gets to see how the rest of the state plays basketball.

“It was one of those moments like, ‘Now, do you see what we’re talking about,’” Bowe said. “Those guys might not be on an elite AAU team like Team Final or New Scholars, but they’re tough kids who put everything on the line for their school and community. They needed to be ready for that. That has helped us in the state tournament.”

The Patriots began the state tournament against Big Spring in Newville as Davis went for 23 points and Williams stuffed the state sheet with 17 points, five rebounds and six assists. Davis hit eight three-pointers over the first two state tournament games while Greig went for 19 points and Foster, who missed the state opener with an injury, returned to score 17 points in the win over Allentown Central Catholic.

Archbishop Carroll made quick work of George Washington Carver Engineering & Science in the quarterfinals, 60-42 as the touted freshmen in Greig and Davis combined for 33 points then the first-year duo combined for 32 in the semifinals against Scranton Prep. Williams followed up with 17 points, six boards, six assists and three steals in the 66-56 win over Scranton Prep.

The talent and upside were there from the first practice and even after the thrashing by Reading, Bowe knew this group had the potential to do something special. He has had deep teams in the past, like the 2019-20 group of John Camden, Anquan Hill, Tairi Ketner, and Coleman-Newsome, but there was something about the manner in which this one meshed together. The individual allure of each player was palpable but once they started to play for a common goal, everything started to click.

“It’s the process of maturation,” Bowe said. “They come with a lot of high praise and great backgrounds being awesome in eighth grade or almost All-Catholic as a freshman. They have to mature individually and cohesively as a team because they think, ‘Oh I can win all these games,’ but then they realize that this is what it’s like to win against seniors. The growth and understanding that basketball is a big game.”

Archbishop Carroll fell to Andre Noble, who has nine PIAA state titles to his name, and Imhotep Charter in the 2013 PIAA 3A title game behind Dallas Mavericks forward Derrick Jones Jr. and former Temple big man Ernest Aflakpui. Jones posted a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds while Aflakpui had one of his own with 13 points and 12 boards, but they were unable to slow down Panthers star Brandon Austin who went for 25 points as Imhotep won its fourth state title in five years. Like this current contingent, the 2012-13 version had to travel far to get to the state final starting at Garden Spot High School in New Holland then later to Chambersburg for both the quarterfinals and semifinals. The 2023-24 team has played at Pottstown High School and Liberty High School in Bethlehem during this run.

Romanczuk noted that it gave his program experience playing schools further west and brought increased exposure to his own.

“I think people at first didn’t know what to expect with the state tournament being from the Catholic League,” Romanczuk said. “I got a little bit with my geography of Pennsylvania with some of the treks that we went on.”

Archbishop Carroll freshman Darrell Davis #1 - PSD Photo by Ryan Nix

“We were generally the No. 3 seed out of District 12 and got sent out west,” Romanczuk said. “We were making some trips and traveling a little bit, especially those last few state tournaments. We really started to learn about the teams out west.”

Jones propelled one final run to the 2015 PIAA 3A final before his career came to an end at the hands of Neumann-Goretti in Hershey. The future UNLV and NBA prospect went for 30 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks as the Patriots lost, 69-67 to the rival Saints. Jones led the way alongside Josh Sharkey, David Beatty and Ryan Daly, currently an assistant at the University of Albany. Neumann-Goretti had one of its more heralded teams, led by Quade Green, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Vaughn Covington, Zane Martin and Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble.

The 2014-15 group lost Alflakpui to a torn meniscus before the heart of the Philadelphia Catholic League season but found another gear en route to its second state title appearance in three seasons. Alflakpui going down was the wake-up call it needed and the current group found its spark after a regular season loss to Roman Catholic. The Patriots won the final three games of the year then beat Bonner-Prendergast to open the league postseason. The momentum of those wins helped spur the state title run and Bowe stressed that it was exactly what this team needed.

“We felt that, and we were right there,” Bowe said. “I told the staff that we got something here, and when we knew we were in the state tournament, I said, ‘We have the chance to make noise in this thing if we can keep these guys believing and buy into this state tournament.’ That’s part of the beauty of this.”

The Patriots will face their toughest test of the season when they go up against Lincoln Park’s dynamic tandem of Meleek Thomas and Brandon Cummings. The Leopards have 19 consecutive games, including the WPIAL title, and Thomas - the 6-3 junior who hit the game-winning basket to beat Neumann-Goretti in last year’s state championship and currently holds offers from Kentucky, Duke, UConn, and Kansas – and Cummings, the 6-3 senior guard bound for Pittsburgh, have scored over 600 points apiece this season. Cummings had 24 of his 30 points in the opening half against Hampton in the semifinals and Thomas added 18 points. The Leopards average 78.9 ppg and scored 89 in their quarterfinal win over North Catholic.

It's the biggest game for Archbishop Carroll since the 2015 state title and, for such a young group, this game could spearhead the next generation of great Patriots teams. Romanczuk notes that his group may have been first, but it did more than simply win a state title at the same time.

“It meant a lot to Archbishop Carroll to be the first, I’ll tell you that,” Romanczuk said. “You get an opportunity of having college coaches see you as some of their seasons have ended and we’re playing longer than they are. They can come out and see these games. It gives your players another opportunity to be seen by college coaches and that can only be a good thing, especially in this day and age. It’s getting tougher for high school players to get recruited."

Archbishop Carroll freshman Munir Greig #14 - PSD Photo by Ryan Nix

Devon Prep (14-13) is in the midst of its best three-year run in program history and could culminate another season with a state championship trophy as it will play Franklin Area (24-5) in the PIAA Class 3A Tournament championship game on Saturday afternoon. After losing to Cardinal O’Hara in the first round of the Philadelphia Catholic League playoffs, the Tide have regrouped, beginning with a 53-33 win over Math, Civics & Sciences to secure its first District 12 title and first district title since 2012.

Head coach Jason Fisher, who has the opportunity to become only the third Philadelphia Catholic League head coach to win multiple state titles, joining like Carl Arrigale and Chris McNesby, says his program never sets out to win a state championship at the beginning of the season.

“We don’t set out at the beginning of the year to win a state championship or any championship. Our goal is to get better. I don’t look at it like it’s changed, even though it has. It’s not something where we sit around and say, ‘Wow, look at how things have changed,’ and maybe someday we will, but we’re approaching Saturday like it’s another game against a good opponent.”

Devon Prep Head coach Jason Fisher - PSD Photo by Donna Eckert

Shane Doyle, a 6-3 junior guard, led four players in double figures in the state opener, a 73-32 dismantling of Delone Catholic, with 19 points to go along with five rebounds, five assists, and seven steals. Reece Craft, a 6-7 junior forward who has come into his own during the postseason, had 14 points and nine rebounds while Zane Conlon added 11 points and nine boards of his own. Conlon, a 6-4 junior forward, has been spectacular during the state tournament, avg. 17.0 ppg and 10.5 rpg and dominating inside and out. He hit three three-pointers on his way to 22 points in the 62-58 double-overtime win over Executive Education Academy Charter School in the quarterfinals then dominated with 15 points and 16 rebounds in a semifinal rematch with Math, Civics & Sciences that ended in a 69-50 victory.

Craft posted 21 points, nine rebounds and two blocks against Executive Education then followed that up with 11 points and eight boards against MCS in the semifinals. Craft and Conlon have formed an impressive one-two punch in the post but have given opposing bigs fits with their offensive versatility to work their way outside and even drive through contact to the rim. Doyle has been steady during the state playoffs, avg. 11.5 ppg, and may have had his best postseason performance against Executive Education with seven points, eight rebounds, eight assists, two steals, and two blocks.

The Tide are playing in their second state title game in three seasons and have an 11-1 record in the state tournament over the last three years. The corps of IV Pettit (Chestnut Hill College), Allen Cieslak (Susquehanna University), Ty Mishock (DeSales), Jacen Holloway (Army West Point), and Lucas Orchard, who just completed a prep year by winning a PAISAA title at Perkiomen School before going to play at Monmouth, secured the program’s first state championship in 2022 by defeating Aliquippa, and despite only winning five Philadelphia Catholic League games, Devon Prep has a chance to win another state title.

All of those players will be forever remembered for securing the program’s first state title and now a new group has its chance, with a lot more versatility, particularly in the post.

“It’s definitely a different team than we had two years ago,” Fisher said. “We were 6-foot guards who could all shoot the ball and put it on the ground. This year, we can shoot the ball and put it on the ground, but we also have size, which is something the previous team didn’t have. That causes a whole bunch of different problems for other teams since we have a 6-7 and 6-5 forward. They can go out on the perimeter but also clean up a lot of things inside.”

Fisher’s team has been without two key members of the rotation during this run, junior Calvin Smith, and sophomore Mason Thear, both of whom are ineligible due to PIAA transfer rules. In their absence, the Tide have received significant contributions from several different players including junior guard Mike Pergolis, who had 22 points on 7-for-10 from the field with four three-pointers, in the semifinal win over MCS and had 12 points versus Riverside in the second round. Fellow junior Ayinde McLendon has been terrific, hitting a pair of three-pointers and finishing with 10 points in the semifinals and before that, he had 11 points, five rebounds and four steals against Delone Catholic.

PIAA 3A Full Game Highlights: Devon Prep vs. MCS - PSD Video by Lennie Malmgren

Final seconds and celebrations after Devon Prep's 69-50 victory over Math, Civics & Sciences to advance to the PIAA 3A championship - PSD Video by Lennie Malmgren

It has been a welcomed sight for Fisher to see guys like Pergolis and McLendon make huge strides on the biggest stage in their careers and bring the team that much closer to another title, in the process.

“We entered the district championship game, and we didn’t know who was going to play or in what role,” Fisher said. “It was very reminiscent of November and December when you’re trying to figure things out. We went with one lineup and that has changed each game. Each guy has stepped up, and Mike and Ayinde have played significant roles." 

Starters like Conlon and Craft have raised their play during the state playoffs, reminiscent of the 2022 state title run, and players like Pergolis and McLendon are getting hot at the right time. Devon Prep has all the pieces in place to close out another season with a state title.