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BOYS BASKETBALL: Archbishop Carroll's Run to State Title Showcases Ever-Changing High School Basketball Landscape

By Rich Flanagan, 04/12/24, 10:30AM EDT


By: Rich Flanagan

HERSHEY, PA – When Archbishop Carroll lost in the 2015 PIAA Class 3A title game, it was the beginning of a new era for the Patriots.

Derrick Jones Jr., the program’s all-time leading scorer, was headed to UNLV and Ernest Alflakpui, who had missed most of the season with a knee injury, was headed to Temple. David Beatty transferred to St. Benedict’s Prep (N.J.). Names like Josh Sharkey, John Rigsby and Ryan Daly – the 2016 Philadelphia Catholic League MVP – returned but there was no encore performance for heralded head coach Paul Romanczuk and the Patriots.

Romanczuk stepped away four years later and in stepped Francis Bowe, who recently took the Patriots to the 2024 PIAA 4A title game. Bowe took an inexperienced but talented group of freshmen and sophomores from one that had potential at the outset of the year and transformed them into a team no one wanted to play in March. Archbishop Carroll was no match for reigning champion Lincoln Park, which rolled to an 80-50 victory at the GIANT Center in Hershey behind its dynamic one-two perimeter punch of Pittsburgh commit Brandin Cummings and Meleek Thomas, the No. 9 ranked player in the class of 2025 by 247 Sports.

There were times during the regular season where Bowe witnessed the growing pains or the erratic style of play where guys were pushing the pace when they shouldn’t or had defensive lapses that seemed to lag on for multiple possessions. Yet, here was Archbishop Carroll on the precipice of something it hadn’t done since 2009, and Bowe attributed much of the result to this corps getting its first real taste of high-level basketball outside of what it had experienced during the Philadelphia Catholic League season.

Archbishop Carroll head coach Francis Bowe - PSD Photo by Ryan Nix

“It’s the first time being here in this arena seeing some big boy basketball,” Bowe said. “[Lincoln Park] acted and played like they had been here before and our guys saw it for the first time.”

Bowe called it “constant learning” as Cummings erupted for 37 points on 14-for-18 from the floor with seven three-pointers and Thomas contributed 16 points, 14 rebounds and four assists. To look at the bigger picture now, constant learning is what Bowe and coaches across the country are now having to deal with on a yearly basis. One year ago, Cummings and Thomas handed Neumann-Goretti its first ever loss in a state title game. Few knew that Robert Wright III’s heave at the buzzer would be his final shot in a Neumann-Goretti uniform as the Baylor commit chose to transfer to Montverde Academy (Fla.), where he was the starting point guard on a team that finished 33-0 and won the Chipotle Nationals championship.

To put this into perspective, Neumann-Goretti has been a historically great program, having won nine PIAA state titles and 12 Philadelphia Catholic League titles under Carl Arrigale, and furthermore, it’s the type of program that doesn’t lose players. Wright was a two-time Class 4A Player of the Year who had led the Saints to the league and state title just one year prior to his departure, and after getting to the Palestra and GIANT Center twice in two years, all signs appeared to indicate Wright would be one of the faces of the best league in Pa. Unfortunately, this is now the nature of what has become an ever-changing landscape in basketball, driven by the NCAA transfer portal as collegiate rosters are getting older and coaches are more reluctant than ever to give scholarships to unproven prospects, even if substantial upside is there.

2024 PIAA 4A Championship Highlights - Lincoln Park vs. Archbishop Carroll - PSD Video by Rich Flanagan

Cummings scored 2,224 career points and secured a pair of state titles to close out his career before moving on to Pitt. Thomas avg. 22.7 points and 10.4 rebounds this season and has 1,750 career points to his name as the likes of Kentucky, Duke, Tennessee, and Auburn vie for his services. The question for Thomas will be does he choose to make a jump like Wright to better prepare himself for college now that he has accomplished significant statistical and historical feats in his three years at Lincoln Park. 

It’s a question Thomas will contemplate, and Lincoln Park will brace for a potential split.

On the other side, the Patriots finished 21-9 (8-5 Philadelphia Catholic League) and, by all accounts, should have its entire roster coming back next season. As Bowe understands it better than most across Pa., that’s no longer a guarantee.

“I say this all the time and that is we have entered the high school world of the transfer portal,” Bowe said. “Whether it’s public, high school, prep school, Montverde, all of them.”

Bowe has had to deal with the evolving landscape since he first took over for Romanczuk. John Camden, who has played at Memphis and Virginia Tech, transferred to Brewster Academy (N.H.) when it appeared high school sports would not be played in Pa. during the 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chase Coleman chose to transfer after the 2020-21 season then Moses Hipps made the jump to AZ Compass Prep (Ariz.) the following year. Jake West (Penn Charter) and Su'Meer Alleyne (Friends’ Central School) transferred after last season.

Even amidst the multitude of moves, Bowe has remained focused on the task at hand and that is building a team that can compete in the Philadelphia Catholic League every year while also continuing the tradition of state tournament success that began with that title victory 15 years ago.

“Sometimes you need to have some sort of journey to convince your kids to come back or stay,” Bowe said. “Basically, here’s the gold nugget of staying here. I heard those boys during every timeout and even during the fourth quarter, they said, ‘We’re coming back here, Coach.’ I said prove it by playing hard till the end. I’m hoping that those words to my ear stay true with this group because I love them. This has been one of the most unique, crazy experiences to have all freshmen and sophomores. What an awesome journey for them to have gone on together.” 

Private schools, like those District 12, has always been pegged as the biggest perpetrators of player movement from many throughout Pa. as the public versus private school debate tends to heat up just prior, during and immediately following the state championships every year like clockwork, and while that has been the case in certain instances, schools in Philadelphia and southeastern Pa. are in fact being poached in a manner not seen before. The stigma has been that players move from one school to the next within District 12 and more specifically the Philadelphia Catholic League, in hopes of individual and team success that breeds increased exposure from college coaches. This is more of a fallacy than reality, but the debate will rage on as public schools regularly express their disdain with the inclusion of private schools in the PIAA state tournament.

The reality is that the current landscape of college basketball doesn’t help high school basketball players hoping to play at the next level. College coaches would rather take a player from the transfer portal with experience at a lower level or even one who has played minimal time at the Division I level over a middle-of-the-pack high school prospect. Players like Cummings and Thomas were found but that doesn’t mean they didn’t seek out a change of scenery or may even be exploring one.

Ian Williams accepts the PIAA 4A Runner-Up Championship trophy alongside head coach Francis Bowe - PSD Photo by Rich Flanagan

 Ian Williams, the 5-11 sophomore point guard with an offer from Albany, led the Philadelphia Catholic League in assists (189) this season. He had 12 points in the state final and never stopped attacking, showcasing what has made him the unquestioned leader of such a young team that went further than perhaps some believed.

“We’re young and we have two to three more years of this, so going into next year I don’t see anyone who’s going to stop us from doing what we have to do to get to the PCL championship and back here,” Williams said. “There are more opportunities, but we wanted this one. We’ll let this sink in and be ready for our opportunities to come.”

Williams along with sharpshooting guard Nasir Ralls (59 three-pointers), high-flying forward Luca Foster, and star-studded freshmen Munir Greig and Darrell Davis give Archbishop Carroll one of the most exciting and loaded lineups in the state. Foster burst onto the scene as a sophomore by averaging 13.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 1.1 bpg with 39 three-pointers, and the 6-5 forward has several Division I offers with Temple, St. Joe’s and Penn State in the mix. Greig had an offer from Villanova before taking the floor in high school and the 6-5 wing was superb in his first season by avg. 11 ppg and 5.6 rpg with 25 three-pointers. Davis, the 5-10 Baltimore native, may have been the best of the group with averages of 11.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.0 apg and 2.1 spg to go along with 33 three-pointers.

All five starters scored at least 300 points and made at least 25 three-pointers this season. This group could be explosive at times and when it was playing its best basketball, as it was in the state tournament, very few were ready for the versatile onslaught the Patriots presented.

It was Williams at the forefront of this vaunted offensive attack, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that once things started to click and talent turned into teamwork, the wins came rolling in.

“The whole season we never looked at it as us against players who are older than us,” Williams said. “We believe we’re good basketball players and there’s talent here.”

Greig was essential to the Patriots’ success in his very first year and his growth is part of what made Archbishop Carroll a must-see team throughout the year. He’s prepared to make the program one of the most sought-after in the coming years.

“We were young, and we’ll get it back next year,” Greig said. “We’ll come out and fix it next year with some big wins.”

Winning breeds cohesiveness and, in turn, individual and team success. The state championship game against Cummings, Thomas and Lincoln Park was a lesson about what it takes to not only compete with the best but what a championship team looks like. The Patriots may have exceeded expectations in year one together and that may have been the best thing possible. That immediate success could be the springboard to several years of success and resurgence of the Archbishop Carroll program in the league and state. Returning a program to the Palestra and the top of the Philadelphia Catholic League is one of the most storied traditions in southeastern Pa., and this group certainly has the makings of one that could deliver that in the long run. The only thing standing in the way of that is staying together and building off a monumental season.

Like several programs both state and nationwide, the focus shifts to how palpable is the draw to do it again. Like at the college level, coaches have little say in the matter and all they can do is strive for the team to be the best version of itself year in and year out. Players have to believe their current situation is the best one for their future, but at least in Pa., making a move can be a detriment to the player and his future team. PIAA transfer rules ban any student-athlete from participating in postseason play should the athlete transfer in 10th grade and beyond. This is why Philadelphia Catholic League champion, Roman Catholic was without two starters during the state tournament in Travis Reed Jr. and Kabrien Goss, the hero of the title game who hit the game winner at the buzzer.

Start with the current state of college basketball, add in the rise of programs like Montverde Academy and Compass Prep bringing in elite prospects from all over the country, and finish off the equation with the combination of individual and team success from a current program compared to another, and the result, unfortunately, will never be the same. The unknown affects so many programs like Archbishop Carroll and the hope is that players remain to finish what they started.

Bowe feels the Patriots have started something here and this group can create a lasting impression in an ever-changing landscape.

“They’ve learned what it’s like playing in this area,” Bowe said. “These guys took everything from this experience and I’m hoping they can catapult that into next year.”