Truth be told, it’s not very often that history happens to be on the line when it comes to yearly holiday basketball tournaments. On the contrary however when talking about this year’s Warwick Christmas tourney as presented by Lititz Flooring. After all, capturing their own Christmas tournament crown is an achievement that has eluded Warwick since 2007.
Coming into the week, there weren’t many teams playing any better in the Lancaster-Lebanon League than the Warriors from Lititz as evidenced by the Warriors unblemished league record — A mark which coincidently came entirely from crossover action —-with the Warriors boasting a perfect 4-0 record against Section 1 opponents. And while there were be no Section 1 foes from which to feast upon in this year’s holiday tournament, there was in fact a Section 3 squad that was entered into the mix.
And what a squad it was.
While Warwick may have been stealing the headlines the last week given with their simply stellar play, there was another ball club residing out in New Holland that was very quietly going about their business, riding a current three game winning streak heading into this week. That team? None other than the Garden Spot Spartans.
Now sure, the three game winning streak might sound impressive on the surface, but an even deeper dive into the numbers shows just how dominating the Spartans have been. And if you’re looking for proof, just consider the number 80. Why 80? Well, that just so happens to be the total number of points separating Garden Spot from their competition the last three times out against Octorara, Northern Lebanon, and Donegal respectively.
So, with two of the hottest teams in the L-L ready to square off in a battle that seemed worthy of being a championship fight in its own right, the Warriors and Spartans were set to dual for the right to play on and tangle with Bishop McDevitt, a winner over Lancaster Catholic in the first game Wednesday night, in a Thursday night championship rumble.
Whether it be rust or a just a pure hangover from the holiday just one day before, both squads started out Wednesday night’s affair with cold shooting from the field with neither team truly able to separate from one another up on the scoreboard. In fact, the earliest form of separation during the evening came thanks to a Trysten George lay-in for the Warriors, making it a 6-2 affair in favor the hosts with nearly half the first quarter already expired off the game clock.
However, this Garden Spot team is not one that goes down without swinging. Sure enough, Warwick was about to find that out first-hand.
After the George finish at the tin, the black-clad Spartans proceeded to rattle off a run of their own over the next two minutes — a rally of the 7-0 variety to be more exact —- giving Garden Spot their first cushion of the night as the Spartans jumped out in front of Warwick, 9-6.
But while Warwick was finding out about Garden Spot’s heady resolve, the Spartans too were about to become indoctrinated to Warwick’s mental makeup, as the Warriors were able to right the ship and come back with a 3-0 blitz of their own, tying the score up at 9-9 at the conclusion of the first period following a put-back by Warwick 6’1 junior forward, Broden Price.
Speaking of runs, the second quarter was largely one authored by Warwick. Well, Ryan Shirk to be more specific.
After a sweet baby hook inside by Garden Spot 5’11 senior big man Austin Skowood which knotted the score up at 13-13 in the early going of the second, Shirk retaliated with a 7-0 flurry all by himself, putting the Warriors up by seven at 20-13 with 5:30 left to go in the first half.
However, in a way that seemed only fitting given the way in which Garden Spot had been playing over the last week or so, the Spartans started to slowly but surely to start whittle away at the Warwick advantage. In fact, over the next three minutes and change, Garden Spot was able to climb back to within three at 25-22 following an Andrew Zentner follow at the tin with 1:15 left to play before the intermission. And while three was a heck of a lot better than seven as it had been just moments earlier, Garden Spot’s own Mr. Excitement, senior guard Keontae Nunn, was able to close the half out in his typical dazzling-like style, stealing a Warwick inbounds pass and connecting on a last-second shot just before the buzzer, sending the Spartans into the halftime recess down by just a deuce at 27-25.
Once the teams returned to the floor to start the second half, Warwick was able to keep Garden Spot at arm’s length for a majority of the third quarter, typically keeping the Spartans’ deficit somewhere between a four to two point bubble.
Yet the key word above all else would prove to be “majority” because as Garden Spot was about to demonstrate in the waning stages of the third frame, they would be up for the fight all night long.
With just 30 seconds left to go in the third stanza, Garden Spot was able to reclaim their first lead of the night since the game’s opening quarter after a 5-0 run spearheaded by Matt Sharp. And when all was said and done, the Spartans’ senior guard was able to kiss one off the glass just before the third quarter horn, putting the visitors from New Holland up by the slimmest of margins at 34-33 with the game heading into the final quarter.
The thing was though, this group of Spartans weren’t satisfied with simply taking the lead. They were looking to build upon it.
Right on cue, that is precisely what took place the first time Garden Spot went down the floor on the offensive attack to start the fourth quarter as Andrew Zentner stepped outside and promptly showed off his offensive repertoire by firing in a trifecta, putting Garden Spot up 37-33 before Ryan Shirk would counter with a triple of his own, closing the Warwick deficit down to just one point at 37-36 with 6:36 left to go.
And while 3-balls are clearly worth more points in regards to what a scoreboard will say, a dunk on the other hand may be worth even more in terms of pure, unfiltered energy and enthusiasm. In that regard, put a big check mark to Garden Spot’s name in the next few minutes as Keontae Nunn dropped a dime to his streaking big man running behind the play, Andrew Zentner, as the 6’6 junior center immediately flushed it home with two hands, putting the Spartans back up by four at 41-37 with 4:45 left to go.
But yet again, Warwick was able to answer right back with one of their trademark triples, slicing the Garden Spot lead down to just a point at 41-40 on the Warriors’ next offensive trip down the floor.
On this night however, Andrew Zentner would prove to be a force which the Warriors could not really reckon with, particularity down the stretch, as Zentner again stepped outside and drained another enormous triple, this one upping the Garden Spot cushion back to four at 44-40.
And while the Zentner triple was in fact big in its own right, Warwick would proceed to answer the dinner bell by going on a 4-0 flurry of their own, tying things back up at 44-44 following a Joey McCracken drive to the cup with 2:36 left to go as Garden Spot decided to burn a timeout and regroup.
Coming out of the timeout, the Warriors were able to keep their right foot pressed firmly down to the floorboard as a Ryan Shirk steal and finish at the cup out of the timeout put the hosts up by a deuce at 46-44 with 2:10 left to play.
In fact, things had to certainly look advantageous for the Warriors immediately following the Shirk bucket as the Spartans proceeded to turn the ball over on their ensuing offensive possession. But unfortunately for those that had wished to witness Warwick quench their decade-plus holiday tourney drought, the task only grew more arduous in the immediate aftermath as the Warriors too would turn it over on their ensuing offensive possession as well.
This time down however, Garden Spot would be able to tack on some points, as a hard Keontae Nunn drive to the cup was rewarded with two free throws as the 5’7 senior point guard connected on one of them, closing the Warwick lead down to just one at 47-46 with under one minute left to go.
But just as they had done just moments earlier, Warwick would again fall victim to a fatal bite from the turnover bug, giving the ball back to Garden Spot with a chance to earn a walk-off win with 31.6 left to tick off the clock.
And while it may not have been the exact definition of walk-off, the finer details did not matter to the Garden Spot faithful as an offensive rebound and put-back by Andrew Zentner with 10 seconds left, good for the two biggest of his team-high 17 point performance, gave the Spartans the lead for good as the ensuing Warwick shot at the horn bounced off the glass, sending Garden Spot into the Thursday night title fight opposite of Bishop McDevitt.
Now, with the win over a white-hot Warwick team now sitting firmly fitting inside their back-pocket, it is simply too hard, nay impossible, to overlook and not appreciate the recent success that Garden Spot has been able to put together here of late. And if talk to the head man, it was all a matter of time.
“We are sophomore-laden,” first-year Garden Spot head coach Nate Musselman said after his team’s triumph late Wednesday night. “We have a good core group of sophomores along with Tae Nunn, Matt Sharp, and other some other seniors out there, but once you get past them, we’re very young.”
“It took us four or five games just for them to believe our system and what we’re doing,” said Musselman. “Once they (his players) get rolling, we’re going to press you and see if you can handle it. If we’re not going to do it fullcourt, then we’ll do it in in the halfcourt…It seems like with our young guys if we can get easy hoops off of turnovers, it helps them get confidence. In our last four games, that’s what has happened.”
“Our team feeds off our defense,” the new head Spartan went on to add. “I preach to them all year, ‘You may not always shoot the ball well, but we can play defense.’ Every night we can play defense. Holding teams in the 40’s? That’s our team goal.”
In that regard, mission accomplished on Wednesday night.
NEXT UP: As mentioned, Garden Spot will now begin work for a quick one-day prep scenario before facing off against one of the biggest heavyweights in all of District 3, the Bishop McDevitt Crusaders. But rest assured, it’s an assignment that Coach Musselman and his Spartans are eagerly looking forward to.
“It would mean a heck of a lot for our kids,” Musselman stated when asked if the Spartans could make it a 2-0 trip to Lititz this week. “We work hard in practice. I work them hard. We preach that hard work will pay off. Something like that tomorrow, winning that, I think would show them that the results are there if they work hard. Everybody can talk about it, but when you start to get results from it, people start to believe in it. That’s what gets you dangerous.”
On the other side, Warwick too will have a one-day prep to get ready for as the Warriors will prepare to do battle against Lancaster Catholic in the 6:30 consolation match Thursday night at Warwick.