By ED HEDES
The regular season and league playoffs are in the book, pigtail round games have been played ... now it's time for the fun to begin when the district 11 basketball playoffs get into full swing tonight.
This has always been my favorite time of year. It brings back memories of three straight Class B championship in 1967, '68 and '69 back at Panther Valley High School. It was a little tougher back then because unless you were a league champion, you didn't have a shot at a district title.
I remember some thrilling contests in places like St. Joseph's in Hazleton and the old Blue Mountain gym. Back then the district championships were played at the Farm Show Arena in Harrisburg with a Final Four flavor, high school bands and all.
Some may argue that with more teams that qualify now, the road is longer and harder. But if you messed up one too many times during the regular season, you weren't going to be around for the post-season.
It hasn't been an overall pretty year for boys basketball in our area, but at least Northern Lehigh and Marian will carry the local banner. Pleasant Valley dropped a heartbreaker to Bangor Wednesday so the season is over for the Bears.
On the girls side, Pleasant Valley earned the No. 1 seed in Class AAAA by winning the Mountain Valley Conference; Tamaqua, Palmerton and Jim Thorpe all in the AAA bracket; Northern Lehigh is seeded No. 1 in AA and Marian is No. 1 in Class A.
So lets take a look at how I see things panning out as the curtain rises on an exciting nine days:
Pocono Mountain West drew the No. 1 seed and a lot of people think this is the year that the Mountain Valley Conference can take the championship away from a Lehigh Valley Conference team.
A big hurdle for Brad Pensyl's Panthers comes on Saturday night when they play archrival Pocono Mountain East in a quarterfinal matchup.
If the Panthers come away a winner, look for them to have a rematch against the Allen Canaries, who beat them by two points during the regular season.
For some reason, however, I like No. 2 seed Liberty coming out of the other side of the bracket. The Hurricanes face Bangor in the quarterfinals with the winner getting the Pottsville-Nazareth winner.
It's an easier road if you ask me.
Look for a Liberty-Pocono Mountain West final with the Hurricanes winning the gold.
Only five teams in this bracket with Colonial League champ Saucon Valley seeded No. 1.
The real key here is a No. 4 seed Central Catholic team on the same side of the bracket as the Panthers. The Northern Lehigh-Wilson winner makes it right into the final. I'm going to give the Bulldogs some love here, picking them to beat the Warriors and reach the championship game against Central Catholic.
The Vikings win the title, however.
This is another five-team bracket with Schuylkill League runner-up Pine Grove seeded first.
Notre Dame of Green Pond should beat Shenandoah in the quarterfinals and will match up with the Cardinals in the semis. I like Notre Dame in that game.
The Crusaders will then beat Salisbury in the final.
You guessed it .... five teams again in this bracket with Marian getting a bye into the semis. The Colts will probably have to beat Pius X to make the championship game and then they'll face the Tri-Valley-Mahanoy winner for all of the marbles.
The Colts win it all here.
The top half of the bracket is loaded with good teams with Liberty, Northampton and Pleasant Valley.
Look for Parkland and Nazareth in one semifinal and Liberty and Northampton in the other.
I like the Konkrete Kids, who didn't make the LVC tournament, to bring home the hardware in this final.
This is a tough bracket with Allentown Central Catholic, Tamaqua, Southern Lehigh, Blue Mountain and Palmerton all thinking they have a shot at the gold.
In the past, it seems like the championship always went through Central Catholic. Mike Kopp always seems to have his team ready this time around.
I sort of have to stick with Tamaqua, however, as the Lady Raiders have beaten everyone on their side of the bracket. It's a 3A title for Joe Berezwick's girls this time around.
Back to the five-team matchups again and this one has Northern Lehigh written all over it.
The Bulldogs will play the Pen Argyl-Minersville winner in the semis next week and will probably get Pine Grove in the final.
Northern Lehigh wears the gold when it's all done.
The Marian Fillies get a bye into the semis and I'm sure Paul Brutto has his club working day in and day out so they don't get rusty.
They'll play the Notre Dame (ES)-Moravian Academy winner in the semis and the Tri-Valley-Nativity winner in the final.
Tri-Valley will be a tough opponent, but the Fillies find a way to win the gold here.
So sit tight, get out and see some exciting high school basketball .... March Madness has begun.