All seven NEPA Elite teams are just days away from making their debuts in a pair of weekend events.
The new AAU basketball club, founded by Kevin Clark and run out of Riverfront Sports in Scranton, has had its first competition delayed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has halted most sporting events throughout the spring and the early part of the summer.
After earlier considering other tentative possibilities for openers, the club’s three girls and four boys teams appear set for their first games in weekend events at different sites.
The NEPA Elite girls teams are scheduled to travel to Spooky Nook Sports in Manheim Township, Lancaster County to each play five games Friday through Sunday in the Summer Tip Off, run by Select Events Basketball. Originally known as Live at the Nook, the tournament was moved back three months from its original April spot on the calendar.
The NEPA Elite boys teams are scheduled to play three games each in the Pennsylvania Tip-Off, a Hoop Group Jam Fest event being held Saturday and Sunday at East Stroudsburg University.
“We are all excited about it,” said Clark, co-owner of Riverfront Sports.
After the usual spring AAU season was canceled, NEPA Elite was able to conduct tryouts and set its rosters, which were announced early this month.
Then came the process of selecting the right event to begin playing against other clubs for the first time.
The families that committed their promising high school-aged basketball players to the club during the pandemic put their trust in Clark and his staff to choose the best situations.
“Obviously, in the times that we are in, it is extremely difficult to make those decisions,” Clark said. “We’re monitoring what each tournament is doing and how they’re running it.”
Event schedules have been evolving along with public health rulings.
Most of the NEPA Elite games will wind up being played in Pennsylvania. With current mandatory quarantines on visitors from 18 states – and more than that at some points – the events will not have any teams traveling in from the states on the quarantine list.
The events at Spooky Nook and East Stroudsburg University turned out to be the best fit for the program’s long-awaited debut.
“The precautions I think that they are taking are probably the best route and makes us feel the most comfortable,” Clark said. “They are doing one spectator per player, so 11 people per team. They are grouping them together in the stands. Each team is going to have its own section in the stands so there is no comingling.
“All players have to wear masks in and out of the building. Obviously, when they are playing, they do not. All coaches, referees, scorekeepers, staff – everybody is in a facemask and practicing social distancing when they can.
“And, I think the smartest thing they are doing is having teams play back-to-back. That way, they are limiting the amount of time in the building. Spooky Nook being a 700,000-square foot building makes it a little easier to social distance.”
With the timing Clark mentioned, all of the two-game days for the NEPA Elite teams feature doubleheaders with two different opponents.
There are two 17U girls teams – NEPA Elite-Clark and NEPA Elite-Carra/Lewis, coached by Lauren Carra and Kaitlyn Lewis. There is also a 16U girls team, coached by Morgan Birmelin.
There are also two 17U teams on the boys side along with 16U and 15U teams.
NEPA Elite-Coyle, coached by Brian Coyle, and NEPA Elite-Basalyga, coached by Clay Basalyga, are the two 17U teams.
Marywood University head coach Enrico Mastroianni will coach the 16U boys team while Misericordia University assistant Ryan McGoff will coach the 15U boys team.
The rising profile of players from District 2, particularly the Lackawanna League, in Pennsylvania girls basketball is evident in the placement of the NEPA Elite Clark team in the top division of the Summer Tip Off, which is drawing 140 teams across five grade divisions – 11th down through 7th – to Spooky Nook.
The team coached by Clark, the former St. John’s University player who is the head boys basketball coach at Dunmore, his alma mater, is in Pool A of the 11th Grade Division. It includes players who have finished 11th grade. Players who have completed their high school eligibility have also completed their AAU eligibility in almost all cases.
The Clark team plays at 5:40 and 7 p.m. Friday, at 4:30 and 5:50 p.m. Saturday and at noon Sunday. It will face Empire State Blue Flames-Nick from Westchester, N.Y., Comets Genther-GUAA from Philadelphia, Books & Basketball Academy 17U 3SSB from New Jersey, New Jersey Freedom from Oakland, N.J. and GTS Fusion from Falls Church, Va.
The Comets and GTS Fusion are Under Armour-sponsored teams while the Books & Basketball Academy is sponsored by Adidas. Sneaker companies traditionally sponsor some of the nation’s strongest and most talent-laden AAU teams.
GTS Fusion features Azzi Fudd, a 5-foot-11 rising senior from Fairfax, Va., who plays at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C. Fudd is rated by ESPN as the top girls basketball prospect in the country for the Class of 2011.
“This bracket that we’re in is absolutely loaded,” Clark said. “ … It will be five tough games.”
The Carra/Lewis 17U team will be the first NEPA Elite squad to play. It plays in Pool G of the 11th Grade Division with opponents from Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey and has games scheduled for 1:40 and 3 p.m. Friday, 8:30 and 9:50 a.m. Saturday and 9:20 a.m. Sunday.
Carra is a former Dunmore and University of Delaware player who spent last season as an assistant coach at North Pocono. Lewis, who played at North Pocono and American University, just completed her first season as an assistant coach at the University of Scranton.
The NEPA Elite 16U girls are coached by Birmelin, the former Honesdale and DeSales University player who is coming off her first season as a King’s College assistant coach. Her team will be in Pool E of the 10th Grade Division along with three southern Pennsylvania teams and one each from Maryland and New Jersey. It has games scheduled for Friday at 4:20 and 5.40 p.m., Saturday at 1:50 and 3:10 p.m. and Sunday at 2:40 p.m.
The boys program gets started Saturday.
The 16U and 15U teams will be on the same schedule the first day of the Pennsylvania Tip-Off.
Mastroianni’s team will play in Pool D of the 16U Division while McGoff’s team will play in Pool A of the 15U Division. Both teams will play at 11 a.m. and 12:10 p.m. Saturday.
The 15U team will finish up with an 8:30 game Sunday morning. Its pool includes two other Pennsylvania teams and one from Virginia.
The 16U team’s last game is Sunday at 12:30 p.m. All of its opponents are in-state teams.
NEPA Elite-Basalyga is in Pool A of the 17U Division. It plays at 1:30 and 2:40 Saturday afternoon and 9:50 Sunday morning. It faces two Pennsylvania opponents and one from New Jersey.
Basalyga is the Director of Basketball Operations at Riverfront Sports.
NEPA Elite-Coyle will be the last team to get started. It plays at 4 and 5:10 Saturday, then 1:50 p.m. Sunday in Pool E.
The Coyle team opens with York Lightning, one of two Hoop Group Showcase League opponents it will face in the first event. The other is SJ Hoops Elite from New Jersey, Sunday’s opponent. In between, it faces New York Lightning Black.
Coyle is a former local college coach.
The NEPA Elite-Clark 17U girls and NEPA Elite-Coyle 17U boys are each entered in the Hoop Group Showcase League, which will be contested in conjunction with many weekend events on the AAU schedule.
The girls are expected to make their HGSL debut Aug. 7-9 in the Summer Jam Fest at Spooky Nook where Clark plans to enter all of the NEPA Elite teams.