THIS WILL BE an unusual year in the Central League. No team is a clear-cut favorite, there are no major Division I caliber players, and the league has great balance.
There are four Delco schools - Penncrest, Marple Newtown, Springfield, Ridley - that could win the league title. Marple Newtown has arguably the best player in the league in senior guard Soutiri Sapnas, who averaged 26 points a game last season. Ridley has arguably the best big man in 6-9 Cameron Gunter, who's already committed to Penn. Springfield returns all five starters, and Penncrest has possibly the best backcourt combination in seniors Andrew Radomicki and Rodney Duncan.
"This league is completely wide open," Penncrest coach Mike Doyle said. "Honestly, it will come down to the team that escapes with no injuries and gets through the season healthy. There are no superstars in the league, and there isn't a guy who will step on the floor who you know, besides Soutiri, that can drop 20 to 25 on you. This whole league will be dribble-drive city."
The X-factor could be Marple Newtown, led by Sapnas, who will have an inside force in 6-5 Archbishop Carroll senior transfer Ryan Hanley. Sapnas is out for at least 2 weeks with a sprained left ankle. But a healthy Sapnas and an inside presence like Hanley could mean big things for the Tigers.
Garnet Valley went 6-16 overall and 5-11 in its first year in the league last season. The Jaguars return 5-10 senior guard Marcellus Irving. The top newcomers are 6-1 Ryan Moore, 5-10 Kyle Moore, and 5-11 Sean Van Horn. Size, obviously, will be an issue for the Jags.
Haverford High, which was 3-19 overall and 2-14 in the league last year, will be very young for coach Terry McNichol. The Fords will have back 6-2 senior Scott Zlotnick and 6-3 junior Eric Falasco. But McNichol will rely heavily on newcomers Pierre Charles, a 6-3 sophomore, 6-3 junior Greg Rotzell, 6-2 sophomore Patrick Morgan, and 5-7 senior Zac Yelson.
"It will take time to mature," McNichol said. "We shoot the ball very well and hope to utilize the three. We will go as far as our defense takes us. It will be a huge factor as the team learns to play together."
Marple Newtown last year went 13-10, its first winning season in 12 years, and 8-8 in the league. Sapnas is the key, but he'll have experienced starters around him in senior guard Kevin Johnson and junior guard Kurt Johnson; Hanley is the top newcomer. James Martin, a 6-4 senior forward out for the season with a Lisfranc fracture in the foot, is a major loss.
"If we get healthy, we could have a good season," Marple Newtown coach Jerry Doemling said. "I like the way Hanley looks so far and we'll have to wait for Soutiri to come back."
Penncrest had an excellent run last year, going 18-6 overall and 12-4 in the league, and expect the same from the Lions again this year. It will come down to guard play, with Radomicki and Duncan. They'll get nice support from 6-9 senior Chris Sell and 6-1 senior Matt Atkinson. Ian Campbell, a 6-3 junior guard, and 6-2 senior Brandon Jacquette give Penncrest a solid perimeter game.
"Our guard play and shooting the three will be our strengths," Doyle said. "I feel we have one of the best backcourts in the league. We should be in the mix."
Radnor returns starters Kyle Hammonds, a 6-2 senior guard, and 6-5 senior forward Curran Ruyak. The Red Raiders could be another sleeper team, after going 14-9 overall and 9-7 in the league last year.
Expect Ridley to bounce back from an uncharacteristic 4-18 finish (3-13 league) last season. Gunter has matured into a factor for the Green Raiders, who also return seniors Colin Masterson and Mark Dzaidon.
"We are a work in progress with young players still coming off the bench that makes us a question," Ridley coach Keith Heinerichs said. "Cameron will be the key to the season and how much he demands attention from other defenses."
All five starters are back for Springfield, which went 10-14 overall and 5-11 in the league last season. Wally Rutecki, a 6-5 senior forward, returns after averaging 11 points and eight rebounds a game in 2008. Also back are 6-3 junior guard Kevin Chevalier, 6-2 junior forward Adam Washington, 5-8 junior guard Steve Baker and 5-11 Zack DeVito.
"The league should be balanced with only one Division I player, but an abundance of Division II and D-III players that will make the league very competitive," Cougars coach Kevin McCormick said.
Tom Dougherty takes over for Steve Nelson as the coach at Strath Haven, which went 15-13 overall and 9-7 in the league, reaching the District 1 Class AAA championship last year.
Jack Roberts, a 6-8 senior center, is developing into an inside force after averaging eight points and seven blocks a game his junior year. Pat Fisher, a 5-8 senior guard, Chas Fisher, a 6-2 junior forward, Tyler Long, a 6-3 senior forward, and 5-8 senior guard Kevin Valentino are also back.
Upper Darby coach Bob Miller always produces a competitive team. The Royals, who were 14-8 overall and 11-5 in the league last year, have one returning starter back in 6-foot senior guard George Vlahos. Top newcomers include 5-11 senior guard Myron McNeely, 6-5 junior forward Terrance Bridgers, 6-5 junior center Daron Harris, and 5-10 junior guard DJ Johnson.
"We are very inexperienced, but believe we can compete with anyone in the league," Miller said. "We can play as many as 10 players each night. If we can get past the problem of inexperience, we should have a good team by the end of the season." *