By Tom Robinson, NEPA Elite News
After dominating play around the Mid-Atlantic, the NEPA Flames 6th grade team has earned itself a chance to play on the national level later this year.
The team, one of three out of Riverfront Sports to earn regional rankings from Zero Gravity in the middle school grade levels, learned this week that it has been selected to play in The Ladies Ball, an event held in conjunction with the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. It will play in the Northeast Regional Sept. 10-12 at home at Riverfront in Scranton with a chance to advance to The Ladies Ball championship in Knoxville, Tenn. in October.
The NEPA Elite Clark 17U girls, the reigning Hoop Group Showcase League champions, landed an earlier invitation to The Ladies Ball.
The Flames team, coached by Mike Fenton and Jamie McHugh, is the second local team to earn that distinction and along with it, will undergo a name change to become part of the NEPA Elite, the top-level AAU clubs out of Riverfront. They will become the youngest team to compete under that name.
“This past season under Riverfront sports, we had 43 AAU basketball teams, whether they were travel or non-travel,” said Kevin Clark, co-owner of Riverfront and founder of NEPA Elite. “Within that, we look at the make-up of the rosters and the success of their seasons.
“Most specifically, at the sixth-grade level, Class of 2027, on both the boys and girls side, there was immediate and noticeable success, so we kept trying them in competitive tournaments and they continued to succeed.
“We’re confident that they are ready to represent the NEPA Elite well.”
As of now, The Ladies Ball Northeast Regional will be the first chance for the group to compete as NEPA Elite. The girls will continue to practice together throughout the summer in preparation for that opportunity.
“They’ve done a tremendous job,” Clark said. “Mike and Jamie have done a great job with that group. They’ve been playing together for awhile. They have all the right pieces for girls in our area and I think it’s exciting for the girls and it also will alter the tournaments they attend in the spring and the summer next year – on a much more competitive sense.”
As the NEPA Flames 6th grade team – the team is made up primarily of Class of 2027 players who will enter seventh grade in the fall – the group often proved to be too strong for the competition it was facing.
The team evolved through 2020.
In the spring portion of the AAU schedule, the team played with a 12-player roster and did well – finishing in first in each event that was played in a tournament format.
Five players from that group continued on into the summer AAU schedule with three new teammates.
That combination lost just once in three tournaments, finishing up with titles at Virginia Beach and in the Battle for the Belt in Albany, N.Y. Along with it, they spent time competing against eighth-grade summer league teams at Riverfront and continued their winning ways.
The team features three girls from Valley View on the eight-player roster, including two among the five that have been with the squad all through 2020.
Eva Kaszuba and Ava Fenton from Valley View, Ella Clementoni and Kayli McHugh from North Pocono and Emma Coleman from Abington Heights make up the five that have been with the team throughout. McHugh is younger that the rest of the group, getting ready to enter sixth grade.
The additions to the team are Zya Smalls and Chrissy Jacklinski, both from Northeast Intermediate, and Cora Castellani from Valley View.
Catie and Lizzie Beecham, Malice Blackwell, Cassandra Cottell, Emily Chilek, Abby Schneider and Jacqueline Gallagher were on the roster and contributed to the team’s strong start during the spring.
Kaszuba and Clementoni were recognized individually by Zero Gravity for their play in games this season and, as a group, the team is listed in the top five teams in the Mid-Atlantic South.
“For a group of sixth-graders going into seventh grade and Kayli going from fifth to sixth, just how well they play together and see the floor,” Fenton said, when asked to explain the team’s success. “They seem to find the open teammate on a consistent basis.
“The strongest suit is their defense. Every one of those eight girls can play man-to-man without any trouble.”
Dennebaum emphasized the pressure part of that defense.
“The thing that sets the tone very early in every game is our press,” Dennebaum said. “Teams really struggle with our press. We have Zya, who’s 6-1, on the ball and our guards attack. For this age level, it’s something that teams can’t seem to overcome.”
The team, in turn, tends not to be hurt by pressure.
“Our press-breaker gets us easy buckets,” Dennebaum said, “because of our quickness and our speed.”
The coaches also said the developing friendships and the time the players spend together away from basketball, even though they are from different schools, has helped on the court.
Lamont Tillery coaches the NEPA Bulldogs 6th Grade boys team, with assistance from Jason Kingery.
The team includes three players from Dunmore – Carter Sload, Adam Badyrka and Will Bonin – along with three players from St. Clare/St. Paul in Scranton – Charlie Skoff, Alex Scanlan and C.J. Thompson.
It also includes Brayden Rose and Nico Antoniacci from Riverside, along with Colin Ritterbusch from All Saints, Mason Kingery from Central Columbia, Anthony Maros from North Pocono and Andrew Yost from Southern Columbia.
The Bulldogs went 13-1 in four early-season events at home, winning titles in the two that included a tournament format, and also found success on the road. They also won titles at Spooky Nook in April, the Zero Gravity State Championships in King of Prussia and the Battle for the Belt in Albany in May and back at Riverfront in a Syracuse Selects Event at the facility in June.
The Bulldogs added second-place finishes at the 76ers Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Del. in April and at the Zero Gravity Beach Ball in Virginia Beach in May. They wrapped up at the Zero Gravity National Championships in Boston where they finished third in their bracket.
At the state championships, Kingery was recognized by Zero Gravity as its Player of the Day and Antoniacci was named first-team, all-state.
Tillery pointed to some of the same traits with the Bulldogs as those that are part of the girls success on the sixth-grade level. He said the team strengths are “our full-court pressure defense, pushing the ball offensively and sharing the ball.”
The success was not confined to the sixth-grade teams.
The NEPA Flames 8th grade team, coached by Cathy Genco, with assistance from Dave Scoblick and Jackie Dempsey, climbed to the top of Zero Gravity’s Mid-Atlantic North rankings for the grade. Since completing its season, the team has dropped to second.
The roster included eight eighth-graders and two seventh-graders playing up a year.
Scranton twin sisters Maggie and Madelyn O’Shea are among the team members getting ready to enter the high school level as ninth-graders in the fall.
There are also two Abington Heights players Maggie Coleman and Lily Scoblick, one of the team’s seventh-graders.
Dunmore’s Amanda Dempsey was the other seventh-grader on the roster.
The team also includes Bella Dennebaum from St. Paul’s, Kate Gallagher from Crestwood, Jenna Hillebrand from OLP, Daniella Ranieli from Pittston Area and Riley Ritterbusch from All Saints.
“The strengths of our team were strong team man-to-man defense and unselfish ball movement,” Genco said. “The girls improved with each game and all had unwavering support for each other and for the process of getting better.
“Their unselfish play and true teamwork made them a joy to coach.”
The Flames opened the season by going unbeaten through their five events, the last two of which were played in tournament formats where they won one title on their own level and another while playing up in the 9th Grade Division.
A season that included just three losses in eight multi-game weekend events wrapped up with a title in the Junior 76ers Tournament at Competitive Edge.