Ramonia Benitez named MVP

The Mountain Valley Conference coaches picked Pocono Mountain West senior guard Ramonia Benitez as the conference MVP.

Benitez, a three-year starter, three-time All-MVC first-team pick and two-time Pocono Record All-Area first teamer, was joined on the All-MVC first team by teammates Jackie Benitez, a sophomore, and senior Steph Davis. East Stroudsburg South’s Cy Lippold and Hana Swinton also made the first team.

Here is a complete list of players picked by the coaches:

FIRST TEAM

Jackie Benitez, Pocono Mountain West

*Ramonia Benitez, Pocono Mountain West

Stephanie Davis, Pocono Mountain West

Cy Lippold, East Stroudsburg South

Hana Swinton, East Stroudsburg South

*Most Valuable Player

SECOND TEAM

Keri Dekmar, Pleasant Valley

Mackenzie Dorney, Pleasant Valley

Jenny Faust, Stroudsburg

Jordan Meckes, Pleasant Valley

Indigo Ramirez, East Stroudsburg South

Cheyanne Ruggierio, Pocono Mountain East

HONORABLE MENTION

Shayna Almodovar, East Stroudsburg North

Madison Hagy, Stroudsburg

Naomi Jimenez, Pocono Mountain West

Alpreshia Parker, Pocono Mountain East

Brittany Poje, East Stroudsburg South

Kaitlyn Poje, East Stroudsburg South

Tiffany Thompson, Lehighton

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Checking my Eagles list

With it being Christmas and wish lists so prevalent at this time of year, I thought I’d share my list of Eagles players I’d keep after what has been the worst season I’ve seen since I became an Eagles fan in 1988.

It’s been clear for months that Andy Reid won’t be back for a 15th season as the Eagles head coach. There are some people trying to sell the theory that he will return because of the $6 million he’s owed next year, but if Jeff Lurie does allow Reid to stick around then he will garner Norman Braman levels of ire from Eagles fans.

Let’s get this clear, I like Reid. I think he’s a good coach and he’s done a lot of great things in Philadelphia, but he’s made some epic errors over the past few seasons. It started when he pulled the rug out from Kevin Kolb and handed the keys to his offense to Michael Vick early in the 2010 season. I don’t know how Kolb would have panned out, but I knew then that Vick was a turnover machine and, although he conned Reid into thinking he wasn’t, that’s exactly what he’s been. It got worse when he hired a defensive line coach (Jim Washburn) before hiring a defensive coordinator, meaning that anyone interested in being the Eagles defensive coordinator would have to use Washburn’s gimmicky Wide-9 scheme. That led Reid to moving offensive line coach Juan Castillo, who hadn’t coached defense since doing so at a Texas High School in 1989, to defensive coordinator, a move that reeked of desperation and cluelessness. The last miscalculation came after the Eagles blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to the Lions this year, which prompted Reid to fire Castillo and promote secondary coach Todd Bowles to defensive coordinator. Since Bowles took over the Eagles have played some of the worst defense in NFL history thanks to players who either aged rapidly (Trent Cole), had little experience (Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks) or just didn’t try all that hard (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie).

Along with Reid, all of his coaches will be fired, too. If you ask Eagles fans, they might be happier to see special teams coach Bobby April go than to see Reid canned.

So without further ado, I’ll go through each position group and list the players I’d keep and why I would jettison others.

Quarterback – Nick Foles has earned the right to start in 2013, but who knows what kind of offense the new coaching staff will install. It’s clear Foles has talent, but he is extremely limited athletically. He’ll need a very good offensive line protecting him to succeed and if the Eagles get some players back from injury their line can be very good. We’ll get to that later. Still, I might bring someone in to challenge Foles for the starting job. Having Trent Edwards be the backup wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Vick’s time in Philadelphia is over. He fooled the Eagles into thinking he had become an actual quarterback, one who put protecting the ball at a premium. Instead, in his last 30 games Vick has played four turnover-free games. FOUR! If he had played only 15 games without a turnover in that stretch it would be bad. The best part of cutting Vick is if the Eagles do so within three days after the Super Bowl they owe him nothing. That’s if he doesn’t get injured against the Giants on Sunday, which if he does he could net $3 million.

Running backs – I’d keep everyone on the roster. LeSean McCoy is a star, Bryce Brown has worlds of potential and just needs to go to the Tiki Barber school of protecting the ball and Dion Lewis has been underused in my eyes. I’ll lump fullback into this group, too, so come on down Stanley Havili. He’s not as big as Leonard Weaver, but I think he can be used in a similar way in the passing game.

Offensive line – Jason Peters, Todd Herremans (if he kicks inside to guard), Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis and Dennis Kelly are definite keepers. I think Jake Scott could be a valuable backup at both guard spots. I’m hesitant to keep Danny Watkins because I don’t think he’s all that good and now it’s been revealed that he has a chronic ankle problem, but since he’s a first-round pick that probably buys him another offseason with the team. He’ll have to perform well to earn a roster spot, though. You can’t even say King Dunlap would be a good backup because backup offensive linemen usually end up playing and Dunlap is no good. Dallas Reynolds, Matt Tennant and Matt Kopa, it was nice knowing you. Demetress Bell, it was awful knowing you.

Tight ends – I’d keep Brent Celek and Clay Harbor, let them fight for the starting job and then trade the loser. In that battle I’d pick Celek because he just tries so damn hard. Evan Moore, well, you could have caught a touchdown late in the Redskins game and dropped it. And you had a false start. See ya.

Receivers – Some people don’t like Jeremy Maclin because he seems to be hurt all the time, but he’s been very productive in four years. He’ll be playing for a contract next year, either from the Eagles or someone else. Jason Avant is one of the best third-down receivers in football. DeSean Jackson isn’t the same player he was a couple years ago and that’s too bad. I thought getting paid would make him care more, but he’s big on talking and not so big on walking. Still, he’s ultra-talented and I’d put him back to catch punts, throw a couple deep balls and run at least one reverse a game to him. Riley Cooper is so so and I think he’s comfortable, which is not a good thing in professional football. Damaris Johnson has a lot of potential to be a good slot receiver. I’d bring Greg Salas to camp to give him a look. Marvin McNutt and Ronald Johnson would not be so lucky.

Defensive line – Here’s where I’m making changes. I want a 3-4 defense because I still don’t think the Eagles have the linebackers to play a 4-3. If Cullen Jenkins is cool with it I’m moving him to nose tackle and making Cox an end. I’d like to see what Cedric Thornton could do as a 3-4 end, but I’m probably drafting someone in the second or third round to compete with him. Trent Cole, you’ve been a great Eagle and have so overachieved as a pro it’s not even funny, but I don’t see you being a 3-4 OLB and you make too much money. Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and Phillip Hunt all get shots to be 3-4 OLBs. Darryl Tapp has been awful and Derek Landri has been a big disappointment this year. I like Mike Patterson as a person and if he can get back into shape I’d bring him to camp and let him fight for a job. He has the size to be a 3-4 nose guard, but he’s kind of short.

Linebackers – I know he struggled to be a 3-4 ILB in Houston, but I think DeMeco Ryans can do it now because he’s healthy. He wasn’t with the Texans last year. Jamar Chaney is gone. He seems to never know what to do and, after I saw him give up on chasing a Redskin who was nearing the end zone on Sunday, Chaney’s ticket out of town is punched. Kendricks might be too short to be a 3-4 ILB and I don’t know what his pass rushing skills are like, but he’s back because he’s so athletic and young. Akeem Jordan is back, but only as a special teamer. Casey Matthews does nothing for me at all. Gone.

Defensive backs – More sweeping changes. I’m only bringing back Brandon Boykin, Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes. That’s it. Everyone else is gone (I’m keeping Colt Anderson, but only to play special teams). DRC has been awful this year. Doesn’t try. Can’t tackle. Gives up on plays too often. Nnamdi Asomugha has been a fraud since he came to Philadelphia. Great person, below average player anymore. Kurt Coleman can stay, but only as a special teamer. I can’t bare to watch him miss anymore tackles on tight ends or slow receivers. Nate Allen is another player who I think is comfortable. I don’t like comfortable players. I don’t know if Marsh can play, but that’s because he’s barley played. Put him on the field and we’ll see. Boykin is a slot guy only because of height, but I think he can be a good one. Hughes I like as a dime back and special teamer. David Sims, maybe you come to camp, but you’ll have an uphill battle. Maybe special teams for him.

Special teams – Alex Henery may have been the Eagles MVP this year and that’s just sad. Still, he’s accurate and I think there’s more leg there than he’s been allowed to show so far. Punter is a place I’m bringing in a couple guys and let them fight for the job. If former East Stroudsburg South and East Stroudsburg University standout Ken Parrish is still interested, I’d bring him to camp and give him an honest shot (something I don’t think he was ever given). And unless Jon Dorenbos magically turns into a tight end I’m not bringing him back. I need a long snapper to be able to do something other than snap. Even it’s be a third tight end. Anything really. And magic tricks don’t count.

I won’t even touch the practice squad. Don’t know much about them. If I have to say something, I’d given former Penn State linebacker Nate Stupar a shot at a special teams job.

So there you have it. Lots of changes, lots of cuts and lots of job openings. Now, I’ll say this after you’ve read everything, I’m not sure on salary cap hits for some guys. Some guys I cut might cause a lot of damage to the cap if released. I’d renegotiate those guys’ contracts and give them another shot with good faith from a new coaching staff.

Oh yeah, one more change, but not to the team. Get rid of Howie Roseman, who has zero background in evaluating talent and had a lot of say in the 2010 and 2011 drafts, both of which were putrid. I know he just signed a contract extension, but Roseman has no business being an NFL general manager. And I know with Reid as the Executive Vice President of Football Operations that he has final say on personnel, but for some reason Roseman has Reid’s ear and that’s really hurt this team.

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Reid is to blame

Enough is enough.

Even though he tried to divert attention from his own failures by firing defensive coordinator Juan Castillo on Tuesday, there is no question that Eagles head coach Andy Reid is fully to blame for the dysfunctional football team he “runs.”

His biggest blunder was putting Castillo, who had been the team’s offensive line coach since 1998, in charge of the defense last spring. After an “exhaustive” search that saw several prominent candidates spurn the Eagles, Reid decided it was a good idea that his new defensive coordinator would be someone who hadn’t coached defense since he did so at a Texas high school in 1989. Seriously? I know people will say Reid took a chance on a guy who basically begged for the opportunity, but you don’t take wild chances like that in the NFL. You do and you get beat and that’s what teams have done to the Eagles.

The Eagles lost to the Arizona Cardinals last year and this season because they allowed wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, the Cards’ lone offensive weapon, to run free in both defeats. Against the San Francisco 49ers last season and the Detroit Lions on Sunday, both at home mind you, with both teams’ offenses showing no signs of life, the Eagles’ D lifted their foot off the gas and allowed both to rally and win. With three high-paid linemen (ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole, and tackle Cullen Jenkins), another well-paid end (Darryl Tapp) and two first-round picks (end Brandon Graham, who has been a huge bust, and tackle Fletcher Cox, who decided to punch a helmet-wearing Detroit Lion in the head Sunday) the Eagles have generated zero sacks in the last three games.

The first two are Castillo’s fault, no question about it, but the last one is on Reid. Since he is the Eagles’ Executive Vice President of Football Operations, Reid has the final say on personnel decisions. Don’t be fooled by title of general manager given to Howie Roseman or previously to Tom Heckert, now the general manager of the Cleveland Browns. That was title only. Which players to sign, not sign or let go and who to draft are Reid’s decisions and they’ve been awful as of late.

Let’s look at free agency first.

Last year the Eagles assembled the “dream team” according to backup quarterback Vince Young, one of worst signs by Reid in his 14-year tenure. Young was awful last year, no more so than against the Seattle Seahawks on a Thursday night when his interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter sealed the Eagles’ fate of staying home during the postseason. They also brought in Ronnie Brown, whose key fumble at the goal line against the 49ers last year will never be forgotten because of its stupidity, Nnamdi Asomugha, who is no more than an average player right now making superstar money, Steve Smith, who decided to dive to the ground to avoid taking a hit only to end up short of a first down against the Cardinals last year, and Jenkins, who looks old and slow this season after showing signs of life in 2011. Reid also allowed David Akers, the best kicker in franchise history, to leave town for San Francisco, where Akers had a record-setting 2011 campaign. In Akers’ place Reid chose Alex Henery, who has been no more than OK so far, in the fourth round of last year’s draft, far too high for a kicker when there were other pressing needs.

And speaking of drafts, let’s look at the past three.

The Eagles selected 33 players since 2010 and currently just five (guard Danny Watkins, safety Kurt Coleman, safety Nate Allen, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and Henery) are starters. That doesn’t include center Jason Kelce, who is out for the year with a torn ACL. Five (or six if you want to include Kelce) out of 33 is a terrible ratio for a team that supposedly prides itself on its ability to draft. The Eagles’ selections are more notable for their wild misses (2011 second-round safety Jaiquawn Jarrett was cut earlier this year and 2010 third-round defensive end Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who was cut last year, was taken instead of Penn State linebacker NaVorro Bowman), foolish trades (moving up to take Graham when Texas safety Earl Thomas and South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul were on the board) and down-right headscratchers (selecting Watkins, at the time a 25-year-old who had only played football for four years). This April, the Eagles took Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry, who has yet to dress for a game this year despite the Eagles’ desperate need for pass rushers.

But the biggest mistake regarding personnel was the decision to make Michael Vick the franchise quarterback.

Vick has been absolutely awful this year, but it’s not just this year. In his last 27 starts, Vick has only three turnover-free games. Three!!! He has 39 turnovers in that time, 29 interceptions and 10 lost fumbles. Even it was half that number it would be bad, but 39 is just comically inept. If you watched Sunday’s game against the Lions, you heard how Vick carried a football around all week to remind himself not to fumble. You heard how he said he wouldn’t throw anymore interceptions this year. So what happens? With an inexperienced center and the playclock dwindling Vick decides to change the play only to have Dallas Reynolds snap the ball right past his head. Two more interceptions, including a terrible deep pass to a wide-open DeSean Jackson, which Vick blamed on the wind of course, raised his season total to eight. It could easily be twice that number if defenders could catch the ball.

I understand why Reid chose Vick over Kevin Kolb in 2010, I do. The Eagles’ offensive line was average at best and there was no way Kolb would survive playing behind it. At least Vick could escape at times when pressure came. Plus, there was no quarterback at the time (Robert Griffin III is that quarterback now, but he is actually a quarterback and not just a great athlete playing the position) who had the raw skills that Vick possessed. It’s easy to get mesmerized with the things Vick can do. The game where he put it all together came against the Redskins on a Monday night in November 2010. With one of the worst defenses in NFL history, Washington allowed Vick to complete 20-of-28 passes for 333 yards and four scores and run for 80 yards and two TDs in a 59-28 victory. Since then Vick has been the same careless quarterback he was with the Atlanta Falcons.

People might read this and say, ‘Hey, Joe, I thought you were an Eagles fan? Shouldn’t you support the team and not rip them like this?’ Trust me, I’d love to. I’ve been an Eagles fan all my life and my dad has had season tickets since 1995. There is nothing I want more than to see the Eagles win a Super Bowl. For the longest time I thought Reid would get it done, but he has made nothing but terrible decisions the past three years. And that is why they’re 3-3 going into the bye, with a home game against unbeaten Atlanta and road game against New Orleans looming. Certainly not because of Castillo’s failures.

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Hard to believe Harry, Part 2

It’s been more than two months since my last post and my how things have changed.

Back then, the Phillies were dead in the water. They were playing lifeless, sloppy and excruciating-to-watch baseball. They were making errors, not running out groundballs and pop ups and giving away games left and right. Seeing Charlie Manuel summon the likes of Chad Qualls in from the bullpen made fans at the game want to pull their hair out and those at home to want to throw their remotes through the television.

The Phillies were so far out of playoff contention that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded outfielders Shane Victorino, a key member of the five straight division titles, and Hunter Pence, which the Phillies traded the farm for last year to extend that postseason run, at the trade deadline.

Fast forward six weeks from the end of the July and all of a sudden the Phillies find themselves three games back of the second wild card spot with 19 games to play.

How have they done it? It’s simple – pitching.

Cliff Lee has turned into Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels has shown why the Phillies gave him a $144 million extension and Roy Halladay, while not his dominant self, has been pretty good since returning from a disabled list stint for a strained muscle in his right shoulder. Throw in a very good Kyle Kendrick and two good outings in his first three starts by Tyler Cloyd and the Phillies have been able to win games without having to wear out the scoreboard.

But as good as the starting pitching has been, the bullpen has been even better.

Gone is Qualls, and it was a month over due, and it looks like Charlie Manuel has given the eighth inning to rookie flame-thrower Phillippe Aumont. The key player in the trade that sent Lee to Seattle after the 2009 season, Aumont was a bust in his first year in the Phillies system. He started then, walked far too many hitters and had runners on base constantly. He switched back to relieving, which he did with the Mariners farm teams, last year and the results have been good. While sometimes still a bit wild, Aumont has something you can teach – a sinking fastball that runs up to 98 mph. He also has a knee-buckling curve that when it’s on just isn’t fair to hitters. Will he continue to pitch like he has the past month (1.08 ERA in 8 1-3 innings with nine strikeouts)? Probably not, but maybe he does. Jeremy Horst (1.19 ERA in 22 2-3 innings with 25 Ks) and Jonathan Papelbon (34 saves in 38 chances) have been outstanding as well. Even Antonio Bastardo has been good lately, giving up just 1 run while fanning 20 in his last 11 appearances.

And the amazing thing about this run is that the two guys the Phillies thought they needed back to make a run – Ryan Howard and Chase Utley – have been pretty much invisible. Howard is striking out a ton, even for him, and Utley just isn’t close to the same player he used to be because of achy knees, but John Mayberry Jr. has been playing better lately and Eric Kratz has been fantastic with Carlos Ruiz out of action for about a month. With Ruiz, the team’s best player all season, now back the Phillies have to feel even better about their chances.

And if that doesn’t help, how about their schedule?

They open a four-game set Thursday with the dreadful Astros. Next, they’ll play three with the Mets, who have been in a free fall since July but also are 10-5 against the Phillies this year. A six-game homestand starts with the Braves on Sept. 21 and then three against the Nationals before a season-ending three-game trip to Florida.

This is very doable people. Of those 19 games, I say 13 wins could get the job done, and I see the Phillies winning more than 13 games mind you. I’ve also been a Phillies fan since I was six years old so I know enough not to get too far ahead of myself.

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Hard to believe, Harry

If you’ve been a Phillies fan longer than the team’s recent five-year postseason run, you’ll understand the title of this post. If not, those were often the words of Hall of Fame player and fantastic color analyst Richie Ashburn to his good friend and fellow announcer Harry Kalas time and time again as the two worked Phillies games until Ashburn’s death in 1997.

I can only imagine what Whitey (that’s Ashburn for you new Phillies fans) must be thinking with the All-Star break here.

The Phillies, a team with a payroll of $175 million, were swept at home by Atlanta this weekend to end a first half that had only one real positive, the breakout performance by Carlos Ruiz. Not even a career year (done in half a season) by Chooch could save a sinking ship that was taking on water before the first pitch was even thrown.

I was at Saturday’s listless 6-3 loss (I’ve never heard Citizen’s Bank Park so quiet) with my girlfriend, and on the drive home she asked me how a team that had been so good could be so bad so quickly. It took the whole 90-mile ride home to explain it to her and I didn’t even get to everything. Lots of people like to point the finger at a player or a manager, but a team doesn’t go from losing 60 games in a whole season in 2011 to losing 50 games in the first half during this dreadful year with just a few problems. And that’s worrisome going forward.

Forget a sixth straight division title. That’s over. Making the wild card? No way, not with the lack of effort and heart (Shane Victorino, who is making $9.5 million this year, was scratched from the lineup Sunday after a meeting with Charlie Manuel about his recent, and really season-long, slump – 8-for-40 over the last 10 games and a woeful .240 average and punchless .680 OPS this season) on this team. The Flyin’ Hawaiian, who should absolutely be traded and for peanuts if necessary, isn’t the only culprit on this team, though. Far from it.

John Mayberry, Jr. had a fantastic year last season in a part-time role, hitting .273 with 15 homers and an OPS of .854. This year, with a chance to win himself an every-day job in the big leagues and earn tons of money in the future, Mayberry has been awful with a .232 average, .646 OPS and 61 strikeouts in 207 at bats.

Antonio Bastardo was lights out for the first five months last year, but since then he’s been no better than a mop-up reliever. After posting a WHIP of 0.93 last year, Bastardo has allowed 43 base runners in 28 2-3 innings this season. He came into a 0-0 game Friday against Atlanta and faced seven batters, walking three, allowing a single and giving up a grand slam that brought on the fiercest boos of the season from the crowd according to several reporters at the game.

After signing a three-year, $30 million contract to return to Philadelphia, Jimmy Rollins was a player who had to play well early while Ryan Howard and Chase Utley (I’ll get to him in a minute) were babied back to health. Instead, Rollins was awful the first two months of the season. Sure, he played well in June, but this is a guy who has been in the majors since 2001. Taking the first two months off, when you’re team is in desperate straits because of injuries, is unacceptable from J-Roll (I loathe that nickname by the way).

It’s not just on those three guys, though. They’re part of the problem, but really outside of Ruiz, Cole Hamels at times, Jonathan Papelbon more often than not and Hunter Pence (who has had a pretty good first half offensively, but is just an awful, awful defender), this whole team has been a huge disappointment. And it started before spring training even got going.

While the rest of the Phillies were on the practice fields in Clearwater, Fla., Utley was nowhere to be found. He had missed the beginning of last season with a bad knee, but going into the offseason there were reassurances given by both Utley and the Phillies that there would be steps taken to make sure that Utley would be ready for 2012. But as the days crept by with Utley missing in action, it became apparent that the knee problem had resurfaced. This time it was worse. Now both of Utley’s knees were bothering him and there was no time table for him to even begin working out let alone start playing. It took until May before he could even take ground balls. He was so-so during his rehab games, finishing up with a 3-for-5 game with the IronPigs, before homering in his first at bat of the season against the Pirates on June 27. Watch that homer again, though, and you’ll see the prettiest hanging breaking ball you could ever imagine. I wrote about Utley’s return in my last blog post and still feel the same way. That was reinforced when I saw him hit a pop up to left field on a 90 mph fastball Saturday. The old Utley drives that ball in the right-center field gap or maybe to the seats. I know, he didn’t have a spring training and was given just 37 at-bats on his rehab assignment, but the guy has no legs. Enjoy him this season and next because that’s when his Phillies career is over.

It doesn’t help that the Phillies’ two highest paid pitchers are hurt (Roy Halladay) and an underachiever who seems bored (Cliff Lee), their highest paid set-up reliever (Jose Contreras) blew out his elbow and their biggest free agent pickup for the bullpen (Chad Qualls) outside of Papelbon was awful in every aspect of the word awful. Throw in losing young reliever Michael Stutes to a shoulder injury, having Joe Blanton be good for a start and horrible for three and getting the worst season of his career across the board from someone like Victorino in the final year of his contract and it adds up to a 37-50 first-half.

How is it fixed? Addition by subtraction is a start.

Victorino should be traded ASAP. A team that needs a decent center fielder with an OK arm, a guy who has a history of getting on base and can steal some bags might give up a mid-level prospect or two. I highly doubt any team would trade anything but a little bit of money for either Placido Polanco, who has been below average this season, or Blanton, and I’m not sure who would replace either if they were shipped out, while also forcing the Phillies to eat some of their salaries, but it could send a wake-up call to the team. Or it could cause the players to tell the media that it sent a wake-up call only to go out and sleep walk through a series like they did against Atlanta this weekend.

The biggest question surrounds Hamels, who is due to be a free agent after this season and could get a six- or seven-year offer for upwards of $150-175 million. Could the Phillies afford that? Probably, but that would be four guys (Halladay, Howard, Hamels and Lee) all making more than $20 million a season with the need to also work on extensions for Pence and Ruiz and fill in holes in the bullpen and on the bench. The Phillies should try to get Hamels to sign an extension over the next two weeks and if he won’t explore the possibility of trading him. If they can’t get two blue-chip prospects and one or two mid-level guys, hold on to him, let him walk as a free agent and get three draft picks.

And we’re at 1,303 words for this post and I’m not even halfway done. It’s been that kind of season, well half a season really.

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Will Utley’s return help?

It appears that Chase Utley will return to the Phillies for Wednesday’s game against the Pirates after missing the first 76 games of the season with creaky knees.

His presence will certainly help in the clubhouse as well on the field (where the Phillies can finally stop playing Michael Martinez, who is capable defensively but offers less than zero at the plate). While not the most vocal player, Utley commands respect in the clubhouse because of his past success, even if that seems like light years ago, and for the way he plays the game. He also does something no other hitter in the Phillies’ lineup seems capable of and that’s work a pitcher. During his prime (I thought he’d be entering his prime now, but that’s another discussion for another day), Utley had the ability to make pitcher’s throw something they didn’t want to and when they did he made them pay.

That wasn’t the case last year though, when Utley appeared to struggle using his legs at the plate. And that’s where I wonder what kind of production he’ll provide this year since he posted career lows in games played (103), batting average (.259), home runs (11), on-base percentage (.344), slugging percentage (.425) and OPS (.769) last year with just one bad knee. Now he has two bad knees and is coming off a rehab stint in Clearwater where he was 5-for-32 with one home run, five RBIs and five strikeouts. And worst of all? It’s playing in the field that affects his knees the most, which means Martinez will likely play when Utley is given the day off since Mike Fontenot has been just awful defensively and Freddy Galvis is hurt/suspended.

So what exactly will Utley bring to the table? How can anyone be hopeful after all the above information? I sure can’t. You want to hope that the old Utley, who ran out every ground ball like it was Game 7 of the World Series, clobbered home runs a big man would be jealous of and threw his body around on defense with reckless abandon, will return and lead the Phillies out of the NL East cellar. You also want to be realistic and accept that this is a man whose playing career may be over after his contract runs out next season (which means we’ll most likely have to go through this again of him not being ready to play at the start of the 2013 season). He could DH in the American League, you might say, but the DH isn’t for everyone. Just ask Pat Burrell.

The reality of the situation is that Utley, and his bad knees, will be a superior upgrade to what is in place now and Ryan Howard will provide the same when he returns, whenever that may be, but neither pitch out of the bullpen, which has been putrid this season, and both are shells of their former selves. The hole the Phillies have dug themselves, nine games out of first place and six games under .500 going into Monday’s game against Pittsburgh, may be too deep to climb out of. Even the old Utley would have been hard pressed to save this season.

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East’s Heaton steps down

This will be in Monday’s paper, but I figured I’d post it here as well.

By JOE MIEGOC
Record Sports Writer
While there were other factors, the financial troubles plaguing the Pocono Mountain School District forced Patrick Heaton’s hand.

Heaton, who just finished his fifth season as Pocono Mountain East’s boys basketball coach, informed PM East principal Todd Burns and athletic director Robert Bailey on Friday that he was resigning as the school’s basketball coach.

Heaton, who came to Pocono East from Mountain View in 2007, guided the Cardinals to the District 11 Class AAAA championship game and PIAA playoffs in 2009, and a Mountain Valley Conference title in 2010. Heaton finished his five-year stay with the Cardinals with a record of 87-42 and led them to the district playoffs every year and to the MVC playoffs every year since they started in the 2008-09 season.

Basketball didn’t have much to do with Heaton’s decision though.

When the PMSD released the latest version of its budget last week it included a proposal to cut nearly 300 employees for the 2012-13 school year. The school board approved the cuts, contingent on the closings of three district school buildings in May.

Couple the job uncertainly with the illness of his wife Tara, who has been hospitalized several times while battling a digestive disorder caused by a defect in her pancreas, and Heaton didn’t have much choice.

“It’s partly the impending job cuts, and as it looks like right now my position will probably be cut based on lack of seniority, and also the welfare of my family,” said Heaton, who teaches mathematics at East. “We won’t know the final cuts until later in the year, but my wife has been ill and I can’t go without insurance so I need to make sure I secure employment for next year.

“It’s unfair to the kids (in the basketball program) to think that I have the commitment to do both things at the same time.”

While frustrated with the situation, Heaton said he understood what the school district was facing.

“It’s frustrating, but I understand the economics of the situation,” said Heaton, who has two sons in the PMSD. “You have less money than you need to spend. I don’t know if anybody has any choice in the matter at this point.”

Heaton said he wasn’t sure what his future held, but his resume will be bolstered by his time at East.

The Cardinals had three 20-win seasons during Heaton’s tenure and played in the MVC title game three times, beating Pocono Mountain West in 2010. PM East also advanced to the district title game in 2009 for just the third time in school history.

“I’m proud of all the efforts of the kids,” Heaton said. “The parents, the administration, Bob Bailey, my AD, everyone has been so supportive.”

That support carried over to off the court where Heaton has focused much of his time caring for his wife and family.

“I got a lot of support from the community and the administration and everyone really,” Heaton said. “I’m very thankful for that.”

Posted in High school sports | Leave a comment

The prospects of the Flyers, Sixers

One team is underachieving, while the other is overachieving, but even as the Sixers entered the All-Star break losers of five straight and the Flyers continue to play uninspired hockey both teams are in line to be part of the postseason.

That’s not really a shock.

The Sixers, who made the playoffs last season, lead the Atlantic Division thanks mostly to the fact that the Knicks, despite Jeremy Lin being the newest darling of New York, are an average team and the Celitcs are an aging one. Suffocating defense that has allowed a league-low 87.5 points per game is another big reason why the Sixers lead the division, but the losing streak is mainly about lack of offense. Philly is scoring just 94 ppg, good for 18th in the league, and without a go-to scorer on the roster that doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon.

The Flyers had a huge turnover in the offseason, shipping Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to new teams, while finally getting a “big-time” goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov. The trades helped Claude Giroux takeover as the face of the franchise, but Bryzgalov has been underwhelming at best. Of course, playing without captain Chris Pronger, ruled out for the season and playoffs with concussion-like symptoms, on the back line hasn’t helped Bryzgalov. The Flyers average an NHL best 3.3 goals per game, but without Pronger are giving up 3 gpg, which is 27th best (or worst) in the league.

So what are the prospects of each team going forward?

The Sixers are not contenders. Anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish. They might be able to win a game in a seven-game series with the Miami Heat, maybe two against the Orlando Magic, but the Sixers cannot win four of seven against those teams. Why? It’s easy really. When it comes down to crunch time the Heat have LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, and the Magic have Dwight Howard. Who do the Sixers have? And don’t say Lou Williams, please don’t say Lou Williams. Until the Sixers get a guy who is capable of scoring 22-25 ppg on any given night, don’t expect them to challenge in the East let alone for a title.

The Flyers are a different story, though. Yes, Bryzgalov is spacey and frustrates the hell out of Philly fans every time he opens his mouth, but there’s denying the guy’s talent when hockey is the only thing on his mind. Some of the goals he gives up are super soft, like the last two against Pittsburgh last weekend before getting benched, but Bryzgalov has been around for a long time and has established himself as one of the better goalies around. That, of course, is given that he’s not pondering the wonders of the galaxy or talking about white tigers (if you didn’t watch HBO’s 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic, you probably have no clue what I’m talking about). The Flyers did try to beef up the defense by adding Nicklas Grossman and Pavel Kubina in the past week, but the Flyers’ fate rests on the shoulders of Bryzgalov finding his game and the offense continuing to flourish.

All that said, don’t expect any parades in Philadelphia to be generated by either team, but just think, the Phillies are working out in Clearwater, Fla., now. I’ll save that blog for another day, though.

Posted in Flyers, Sixers | Leave a comment

What now for the Eagles

With one game left in an exceptionally disappointing season, the Eagles have little left to play for but pride. The funny thing is if they had any pride during the middle of the season Sunday’s home game against the Redskins game might actually mean something.

Still, I’ll give them credit (just a little) that they’ve seemed to figure a few things out defensively (I’m thinking Juan Castillo has probably gotten some input from his position coaches and actually put it to use) while making sure LeSean McCoy gets enough touches to be a difference maker. That said, even if they get to 8-8 with a victory Sunday it is far, far below what this team should have been.

So where does the blame lie?

Many will point to Castillo since it was his defense that continually coughed up leads through the first 12 games of the season. And while he shouldn’t have been the Eagles defensive coordinator (a given after not coaching defense since the late 1989 at a Texas high school), it’s not really Castillo’s fault that he was in far over his head.

But hang on, this isn’t another rant as to why Andy Reid should be fired. That would be a waste of time because even if the Eagles lose Sunday the team has saved Reid’s job for another season by winning three straight in dominating fashion. The true onus of the failures of this season falls directly on the players.

When is Michael Vick going to learn to slide instead of falling back, “sliding isn’t part of my game. That’s the way I play.” Pal, you’re barley 200 pounds playing in a league where 250-pound linebackers run almost as fast as you. Learning to slide or run out of bounds is the least you can do to ensure your teammates that you’ll actually play 16 games instead of collecting 16-game checks to play 12 times.

Hey, DeSean Jackson, stop crying about your contract. You don’t like it? Then don’t play. Simple as that. You want to get paid? Stop alligator-arming passes across the middle. Of all places, Philadelphia is not a place that will tolerate prima donnas. Now Eagles fans are starting to realize why Jackson slipped to the Eagles in the second round of the 2008 draft when he clearly had first-round talent.

Paging Nnamdi Asomugha, the guy who was a multiple first-team All-Pro player with the Oakland Raiders. You know, when teams didn’t dare throw the ball in his direction because of how good he supposedly was. Where is that guy? This season, I saw a guy getting beat by the likes of Victor Cruz and Brandon Marshall, good but not in the same league as Asomugha. Or so we thought.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the entire team.

Brent Celek has had a Pro Bowl season and for him to not even be an alternate is a disgrace. Jason Babin has been the player the Eagles hoped for and then some with an 18-sack season. Alex Henery has bounced back nicely from two misses on short field goals that ultimately cost the Eagles a game against San Francisco to have a very good rookie season. And Jason Peters, despite your weekly false starts you are clearly one of the best lineman in all of football.

This isn’t a team that needs to be blown up. Not in the least. I might be in the minority, but seeing Jackson walk wouldn’t bother me one bit. I’d rather see someone out there trying hard all the time, not just after they get paid or when they feel like it. There are holes to fill (all three linebacker positions, especially MLB, one or maybe two starting safeties unless Nate Allen can rebound from a 2010 knee injury and a competent backup quarterback if Vick isn’t going to stop being stubborn about sliding and/or running out of bounds), but this is a team that is built to win for the next two or three seasons.

With a full offseason to continue working (at the top of the list has to be getting through to Vick how truly important he is to the team) and some tinkering here and there (I’m fine with Castillo returning as long as he’s open to playing to the strengths of his players and not just how he wants to play) this is a team with Super Bowl talent. Now I’m starting to sound like a member of the Eagles front office.

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All-MVC football

To nobody’s surprise, Stroudsburg quarterback Robert Bennie was chosen as the Mountain Valley Conference MVP in a unanimous vote by the conference coaches.

Really, there is only one problem I have with the All-MVC team and it’s a big one. How East Stroudsburg North wide receiver Abdul Murphy didn’t make the first team is an ultimate mystery to me and a complete diservice to the kid. Yes, Eastburg North runs the Veer offense and throws the ball rarely, but Murphy was the second best receiver in the conference behind East Stroudsburg South’s Marquis Harp. Think about this – ES North completed 23 passes and Murphy caught 20 of them. He finished the season with 441 yards and seven touchdowns and was often the only receiver out in the pattern for North. You can bet Murphy will be on the All-Area first team that we’ll have out in the near future.

In years past I’ve had several problems with choices for the All-MVC football team so to only have one is a step forward, but the MVC coaches really messed up on the one.

Here’s the team:

All-Mountain Valley Conference football
First team
Offense
Tight end — Ron Savoia, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Wide receivers — Marquis Harp, Sr., ES South, Jacen Nalesnik, Jr., Lehighton, Dwayne Vines, Sr., PM West.
Tackles — Blaine Woodson, Jr., Stroudsburg, Sebastian Joseph, Jr., Stroudsburg.
Guards — Jon Passmore, Sr., Stroudsburg, Jacob Fritz, Sr., PM East.
Center — Steven Randazzo, Jr., PM East.
Quarterback — Robert Bennie, Sr., Stroudsburg, unanimous selection.
Running backs — Robert Getz, Sr., Pleasant Valley, Andrew Brome, Sr., Stroudsburg, Travon Pugh, Sr., PM West.
Fullback — Joe Clouse, Sr., ES North, unanimous selection.
Placekicker — Jordon Ellison, Jr., Stroudsburg.
Defense
Ends — Sebastian Joseph, Jr., Stroudsburg, Stan Acosta, Jr., ES South.
Interior linemen — Michael Balliet, Sr., Lehighton, Liam Hughes, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Linebackers — Dakota Everett, Jr., Pleasant Valley, Phil Stokes, Jr., Stroudsburg, Cade Milegar, Sr., Pocono Mt. East.
Defensive backs — Marquis Harp, Sr., ES South, Robert Bennie, Sr., Stroudsburg, Robert Getz, Sr., Pleasant Valley, Travon Pugh, Sr., PM West.
Punter — Joe Clouse, Sr., ES North, unanimous selection.
MVP — Robert Bennie, Sr., quarterback, defensive back, Stroudsburg.
Second team
Offense
Tight end — Dakota Everett, Jr., Pleasant Valley.
Receivers — Ryan Sickler, Sr., PM East, Ben Kloepping, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Offensive tackles — Glen Kleiber, Sr., PM West, Tom Rose, Jr., ES South.
Guards — Judson Kibagendi, Jr., ES North; Nick Roughan, Sr., ES North.
Center — Kyle Gill, Sr., ES South.
Quarterback — Jeff Krisiak, Jr., PM West.
Running backs — Devyn Papa, So., PM East; Caseem Johnson, Jr., ES North; Tariq Butler, Sr., ES South.’
Fullback — Cade Milegar, Sr., PM East.
Placekicker — Grant Belanger, Sr., PM East.
Defense
Defensive ends — Blaine Woodson, Jr., Stroudsburg; Joe Clouse, Sr., ES North.
Defensive linemen — Steven Randazzo, Jr., PM East; Frankie Gonzalez, Sr., Stroudsburg.
Linebackers — Daryle Koger, So., ES North; Terryl Littles, Sr., ES South; Rob Karstendiek, Jr., Stroudsburg.
Defensive backs — Kyle Harris, Jr., PM East; Dean Bumbulsky, Sr., Pleasant Valley; Anthony Farole, Sr., Lehighton; Darius Gonzalez, Sr., Stroudsburg; Abdul Murphy, Jr., ES North.
Punter — Grant Belanger, Sr., PM East.
Honorable mention
Offense
Tight end — Grant Belanger, Sr., PM East.
Tackle — Ryan Mayo, Jr., ES North.
Guards — Ricky Calvert, Sr., ES South; Eric Whiteman, Sr., Lehighton.
Quarterback — Josh Agosto, Sr., Lehighton.
Receivers — Sekou Jones, Jr., Pleasant Valley; Andrew Romeo, Jr., Pleasant Valley.
Defense
Defensive ends — Alex Storm, Sr., Lehighton; Dominick Ammirato, Jr., Pleasant Valley.
Defensive linemen — Jon Speaks, Sr., PM West; Devon Mirabal, Sr., ES North.
Linebackers — Jacen Nalesnik, Jr., Lehighton; Joe Vacca, Jr., PM West; Joe Oriel, Sr., Lehighton.
Defensive back — Jake DeJohn, Sr.,  PM East.
Punter — Jacen Nalesnik, Jr., Lehighton.

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