By Tom Robinson,

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – With a national championship in its own age group in hand from the most recent trip, the NEPA Elite 14U Clark girls team will be back to playing against older competition Friday through Monday in The Hoop Group’s season-ending Championship Weekend at the Convention Center.

The NEPA Elite 16U Rini team and 15U Scoblick teams competed in the Hoop Group Showcase League throughout the season and are contenders for HGSL titles in their age groups. NEPA Elite won 17U titles in 2020 and 2021, the first two years of the HGSL. (See: NEPA Elite teams land high seeds – NEPA Elite Basketball.)

The 14U Clark team is not eligible for an HGSL championship – they begin on the 15U level – but will take on a different type of challenge on the final weekend. It is back to playing 15U teams, something it has done in more than half its games during a 25-3 season.

“We’ll be playing up in the 15U Division and really try to test ourselves for this last AAU tournament, which is another live period,” coach Kevin Clark said of one of the four other teams NEPA Elite will have in action in Atlantic City.

The live period means major college recruiters can get an up-close look, something many chose to do in Chicago. They came out to see a group of players still getting ready for their high school debuts when NEPA Elite was winning the 14U Diamond Division Platinum Bracket title, the highest in its age group, by going 7-0 at the Nike Tournament of Champions. (See: Defensive stops secure Nike T of C title – NEPA Elite Basketball.)

“We were fortunate enough at the eighth-grade level to have some really good colleges – Kansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, St. Joe’s, Penn State, Bucknell, Illinois State, Boston College, Bucknell, Illinois, Nebraska, Central Michigan and Sacramento State to name a few – already piquing interest in these girls,” Clark said. “The exposure is definitely there and they’re trying to live up to exactly what AAU does, to get college exposure.

“To be able to do that at the 14U level, I think speaks volumes about this group and where they’re headed.”

Playing older opposition is part of continuing to push the talented group to aim higher.

“I understand the skill level that they have and the potential and the ceilings that these girls can get to,” Clark said. “So, we really challenge them with competition. The games are great, but I think in practices and skill development, we’re trying to teach them not to be too complex and that sometimes the fundamentals are better.”

The players who make up the team spend plenty of time practicing, according to their coach.

“This is a group of girls that you don’t have to ask them to get in the gym,” Clark said. “They’re always after me to do it and get them better. They, their parents and their families trust us to continue the build them.

“Over the past two AAU seasons that we’ve had together, they’ve done nothing but get better every weekend.”

Since the fall of 2021 when Clark chose to make this group the youngest team ever to wear NEPA Elite uniforms, representing the top basketball club out of Riverfront Sports in Scranton, they have gone 74-12, an .860 winning percentage. They debuted with a 4-0 mark that first fall, went 35-5 in the spring and summer of 2022, continued through the 2022-23 Winter Series with a 12-4 record. This season’s record includes being unbeaten against opponents their own age and 12-3 against teams made up of players a year older.

In Chicago, they showed they could be dominant, with six straight wins by double-figures margins, and clutch, with the defensive stops necessary to pull out a one-point victory in the championship game.

Zya Small already has National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I scholarship offers from Boston College, Penn State and Arizona State.

The 6-foot-2 forward from Scranton led the way in Chicago, but had plenty of help.

Small posted a double-double in four of her last five games and led the team in several statistical categories during the Tournament of Champions. Three other players averaged in double figures in points and all five starters had games of at least 12 points.

While shooting 68.4 percent from the floor and 71.7 percent from the foul line, Small averaged 15.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots per game.

Ella Clementoni, Chrissy Jacklinski and Cora Castellani all joined Small in averaging at least 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals during the championship run.

Kam Gallis, two grades behind all of her teammates, had the highest-scoring game in Chicago with 23 points.

Kayli McHugh came off the bench to hit four 3-pointers in a 12-point game and Jaelyn Alers, the other reserve, scored at least 6 points in 6 of the 7 games.

Clementoni, a point guard from North Pocono, hit 50.7 percent of her shots and 40.7 percent of her 3-point tries while averaging 13.3 points and 3.1 assists.

Jacklinski, another Scranton player, chipped in 10.6 points and 4.9 rebounds, including a team-high 2.6 per game on the offensive end.

The team’s 3-point accuracy was uncanny for a team in the 14U Division. NEPA Elite hit as many as 16 shots from beyond the arc in a game, shot 38.4 percent from long range as a team while making 8 shots per game from long range.

Castellani, a guard from Valley View, was 15-for-32 for a team-best 46.9 percent.

Alers connected 10 times and at a 45.5 percent clip while Clementoni hit 40.7 percent of the time.

McHugh, who took all 15 of her shots from behind the line, was right at 40 percent.

Castellani averaged 10.3 points and matched Jacklinski for the steals lead of 2.4 per game.

Alers is headed to Scranton Prep. McHugh goes to North Pocono.