If a high-school basketball team is serious about winning a championship, there is no offseason. Summers are spent playing Amateur Athletic Union tournaments and pickup games at local recreation courts, and doing individual workouts.
The South Philadelphia and St. John Neumann High basketball teams took full advantage of their vacations by participating in the Greater Philadelphia League. If the two teams hadn’t lost in last Wednesday’s quarterfinal games, they would’ve squared off in a semifinal contest.
The Southern Rams, who finished the summer season 9-1, saw their championship hopes end with a 64-60 overtime loss to Franklin Learning Center. The local squad took no foul shots during the game, while FLC scored 12 points from the foul line. Luckily, the Rams weren’t playing for the Public League title.
"That loss to FLC in the summer could’ve been a blessing," said Southern coach George Anderson.
The coach stressed the tournament still served its primary objective of conditioning the team for a 2003 championship run. The 1987 Rams were the last Southern team to bring home the title.
"They’re prime and confident," Anderson said of his players. "The Public League is going to be very challenging this year. Other teams are just as good as us."
But his team may be one of the deepest, the coach found out this summer. Some of the role players from last season are ready to support junior starters Antoine Brown, Shawn Sabb and Keith Grimes, he said. And senior forward Ray Alexander is making tremendous strides after being described as "passive" last season.
"This summer, we found out the kid can flat-out play basketball," the coach said. "When we realized he can play, we asked him to step up. He can score, play defense and rebound."
Steve Rudd, now a junior, is another player who struggled to fit in last season, when he had trouble catching the ball and scoring points. That has changed, as Rudd scored 14 points in a summer-league win. Fellow junior Ryan Williams and his jump shot also have Anderson’s attention.
Southern’s lineup once again will have sophomore representation. Last winter, Brown, Sabb and Grimes led the Rams to the Public League playoffs, and this year sophomore Kashiff Carr — nephew of former La Salle University standout Donnie Carr — has the potential to be a major contributor. His father Darren Carr is a former Southern point guard.
"Right now, he has the potential to do it all," Anderson said. "If he steps up and shows he can play defense, he could challenge for a starting position. I don’t hold back because they are young."
The junior starters pushed themselves to stay competitive this summer. Sabb and Grimes had regular individual workouts in Mount Airy, while Brown played with his Philly Hoops team.
The offseason activity gave Southern’s coaches a good framework, one that will be filled out with a few more players as the regular season draws near.
"When we start our practices, we’ll be going into perfecting what we know, instead of starting from scratch," Anderson said. "We’ll fine-tune as the season goes on."
The Neumann Pirates, who went 7-3 over the summer, finished summer play with a 90-71 loss to Bartram. The back-to-back defending Catholic League champs played a Braves squad that had five players suited up for action, as opposed to Neumann’s nine.
Coach Carl Arrigale chalked up the lopsided loss to a lack of focus.
"[On Wednesday night], we didn’t show up," he said. "We have to play better. I’d rather it happen in the summertime than when it counts."
Arrigale, who spends the summer session watching from the stands, takes a laid-back approach to the offseason. But some of his athletes are quite active. Several players are traveling with their Amateur Athletic Union teams, while others are working summer jobs. Junior Richard "Tabby" Cunningham played in just two games this summer because he needed time to recover from tendinitis in both knees. Last Wednesday, he was the Pirates’ second-leading scorer with 10 points.
"He is not nearly where he needs to be now," Arrigale said. "He seems to be feeling OK. He’s got plenty of time."
One advantage of having some team members absent is it gives the younger players a chance to show off their abilities. Once again, Neumann has a very strong crop of freshman and sophomores looking to earn varsity minutes. Freshman guard Earl Pettis will arrive at 26th and Moore streets with high expectations as Hoop Scoop online — a national recruiting service — has him ranked 13th nationally among incoming freshmen. His half-brother, Robert "Beatie" Taylor, graduated from Neumann last year and is playing Division I basketball at Rider University. Sophomores David Burton, Phil Love and Lorenzo Byrd and senior Jack Hatty also showed the coaching staff they are ready for the varsity court.
"The young guys are really going to play if our older guys don’t do the job," Arrigale said.
But the returning varsity starters, hungry for a third straight title, aren’t likely to surrender their spots too easily. Todd Johnson, Adon El, Antwain Wynn and Cunningham are expected to be team leaders.
Arrigale advised his athletes that the groundwork is in place for the upcoming season.
"I tell them players are being made in the summer and teams are being made in the winter," he said.
Local hockey player wins gold
Michael Pagliarella, 8, and his Mount Laurel Rink Rats hockey team dominated the competition at last week’s Amateur Athletic Union Junior Olympics. His team finished 5-0 in the 8-and-under elite division tournament and earned the number-one seed in the playoffs. The Rink Rats defeated Skaters Xtreme 6-4 to win the gold medal.
Pagliarella, of 11th and Annin streets, stood out by scoring 10 goals and three assists. His team entered the tournament in Raleigh, N.C., ranked number-one by AAU in the 8-and-under division.