(Roman Ali Helped Lead The Charge For Lancaster Mennonite On Saturday Afternoon Against Richland By Chipping In A Team Best 18 Points)
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers once sang about the topic nearly 40 years ago. And for the duration of this past week, the Lancaster Mennonite Blazers learned about it firsthand: The fact that waiting is indeed the hardest part.
Yes, after their incredible double overtime quarterfinal victory over Greenville by way of Mercer County last Saturday in Altoona, the Blazers were able to extend their stay in the PIAA Class 3A state tournament bracket just a little while longer.
The thing is, no one really knew for sure just how long the wait would end up being.
With an unquestionable bounce in their step, Mennonite bounded out of the Altoona site last Saturday afternoon thinking that their next test would come just a few days later against Richland on Tuesday night.
Until Mother Nature decided to intervene that is.
With the threat of a Winter Storm Toby looming in the distance and already dumping snow in some parts of the state that very same evening, those who sit in the PIAA power chairs decided to make the move to postpone Tuesday night’s semifinal round contests, slating them instead for Thursday night.
As fate would have it, Thursday night also came and went without any action taking place on hardwood floors across the commonwealth, setting up a weekend of semifinal matchups held at various outposts, subsequently postponing the originally published schedule which had this weekend signified as the three day festival with the state descending upon Hershey to celebrate the crowning of 12 new state champions for both the boys and girls.
So, after all was said and done following the logistical nightmare that will be always be remembered by Pennsylvania high school hoops fans as the week that extended the season just a little while longer, teams eventually got back into the swing of things by once again lacing the sneakers up with the glory of being forever remembered as a state champion so agonizingly close for all those who still had the privilege of being left standing.
And as already mentioned, Lancaster Mennonite was no exception.
It may seem odd when you think about it. A school from quaint Lancaster County in the western state bracket after all. Yet, after the various consolation brackets were finally played out from all around the 3A subdivision of District 3, the Blazers from Lancaster Mennonite were able to claim the very last spot in the state playoff field that is awarded to District 3 combatants, sending the Black and Yellow far, far away from their familiar confines.
Hours away to be more exact.
It’s true. After trekking off to Johnstown for the first weekend of the state tournament, the Blazers appeared at Altoona High School twice in one week as Mennonite passed their second and third tests of the PIAA tournament by turning away Westinghouse and Greenville respectively in their previous two contests leading into Saturday afternoon’s semifinal tilt.
And in an interesting twist of fate, Mennonite’s last stand before a possible trip to Hershey would see their westward journey come full circle as the Blazers prepared for battle with District 6 silver medalist Richland.
Ironically, Mennonite had already taken care of Ligonier Valley in the opening round of states—The same Ram squad that was able to get the better of Richland in the District 6 title fight by virtue of a 58-54 decision three weeks ago to the day.
And while this trip would not be nearly as long for Mennonite with LMH getting somewhat of a reprieve by being able to play inside District 3 once again, albeit at one of the furthest points within the massive District 3 footprint, the Blazers set sail for Chambersburg to tangle with the Rams of Richland for the right to see who would live on and make it to Wednesday afternoon and the Giant Center for opportunity to compete in the prestigious PIAA 3A State Championship game.
As nearly anyone could have guessed in a battle between two teams that had been able to succeed and make it all the way to this late stage of the state tournament bracket, the first quarter on Saturday afternoon between Lancaster Mennonite and Richland would show just how even and excellent both these squads truly were.
Case in point, an Elijah Bynum follow which capped off a 4-0 Mennonite run to give the Blazers their first lead of the day by the slimmest of margins at 4-3 just 1:20 into the contest.
But yet in fact, the game’s opening eight minutes would go on to witness another 4-0 march by LMH as this time a personal 4-0 rally sparked by senior guard Carter Hurst put Mennonite back into the lead at 10-8 just past the halfway point of the first period as both teams were unable to garner any sort of separation from one another in the game’s opening stages.
However just that like, Richland would be able to find some late first quarter answers from there as a nice bucket inside by the Rams’ 6’3” junior forward Collin Instone, coupled with a corner trey splashed in by sophomore Jake Felton saw Richland gain control of the scoreboard once again at 13-12 with two minutes and change left to go.
And once the first quarter clock finally did run out, it would continue to show Richland in front, 16-13, capping a marvelous display of hoops put forth by both squads with 24 more minutes of pulsating action left to go.
When the second period of the 3A Western State Final did finally commence, it would give way to a sensational performance authored by Collin Instone of Richland as the bruising, talented junior forward was simply unstoppable in the paint through the first few minutes of the second stanza as a handful of Instone bunnies saw the Rams increase their lead to seven at 22-15 before Lancaster Mennonite was forced to call timeout and regroup with the Blazers now staring at an early deficit.
Fortunately for Mennonite, they too would find their answer from the front line as 6’3” senior big man Roman Ali began to ignite a Blazer charge with four straight to help bring Mennonite back to within shouting distance while also taking the wind out of the proverbial Richland sails at that juncture which were clearly backed by a stiff breeze to say the least.
In fact, an Ali hoop plus the harm with one minute left in the half saw Mennonite stay within a touchdown at 28-21 before the first sixteen minutes would conclude with that same identical count still holding firm on the scoreboard’s neon lights.
By and large, the first half felt like it was ruled by Richland, especially thanks to the early second quarter start that knocked Mennonite back on their heels somewhat. And once the teams reentered the gorgeous Chambersburg Gymnasium to resume play for the second half of action, it seemed that little would be able to stop the Rams in their quest to reach Hershey for a Wednesday afternoon title fight as a steal and finish by 6’0” guard Tyler Paul in the opening stages proved that Richland still had their foot planted firmly on the gas pedal as the Ram advantage suddenly grew to nine within a flash.
Yet just as they had all tournament long to that point, Mennonite proved why backing down is a trait simply not found anywhere in their collective DNA.
And sure enough, after a 4-0 rally by Mennonite star senior guard John Gillespie, held scoreless to that point in the contest, the Blazers started to regain their mojo by steadily chipping away at the Richland lead with the score now standing at 34-29 in the Rams’ favor with 4:30 left in the third.
But the Blazer blitz wasn’t done there.
No, the Mennonite troops only continued to fight on much to the chagrin of those partisans decked out in Red and Blue colors inside the packed fieldhouse.
In fact, after a Cole Forte old-fashioned three point play, the Blazers had suddenly gotten to within a deuce at 34-32 before a Gillespie floater in the lane tied things up at 34-34 with Mennonite now clearly having seized the momentum.
Thankfully for the aforementioned Richland contingent that had traveled to Chambersburg from their home base in Johnstown, Joe Hauser was there to stop the Mennonite onslaught as the 6’1” junior guard was able to put the Rams back in front with a much-needed bucket inside as the back and forth affair only continued to rage on from there as an Elijah Terry corner triple gave the lead back to the Blazers at 37-36 which was where things would end up staying after the third quarter of play with the visions of playing for a state championship being just within reach for a deserving group of Blazers or Rams.
Flash back to last weekend in Altoona for a moment and it could easily be argued that without Elijah Terry’s gigantic plays down the final stretch, Lancaster Mennonite may very well have been sitting at home rather than playing in Saturday’s 3A Western State Final as the diminutive but courageous 5’9” sophomore guard continued to make big play after big play, helping his team turn away a very scrappy and talented Greenville bunch last Saturday afternoon.
And just like he was able to do his last time out, Terry helped lead the charge once again as a strong take to the cup was followed up shortly by a knock down jumper which helped push Mennonite’s lead out to 41-38 with the Blazers coming dangerously close to finally finding their rhythm while Richland’s season now stood delicately on the brink.
However just as Mennonite likely knew and then quickly soon discovered, Richland would refuse to go away without a fight with absolutely everything riding on the line.
And right on cue, the Rams were able to lean on two separate successful 2-2 trips to the charity stripe by Collin Instone and Tyler Zimmerman respectively which saw Richland surge back in front 46-43 with 4:20 left to play.
From there, Richland was able to keep Mennonite at bay over the course of the next several minutes with the Rams holding serve by way of the 49-46 advantage with the game clock now rapidly approaching one final minute left to play.
Needless to say, someone for Lancaster Mennonite needed to step to the forefront if the Blazers’ postseason run were to stay alive for a few more days.
Sure enough, you guessed it, none other than Elijah Terry was able to take the reins at that moment as a timely theft and Eurostep finish at the other end sliced the Richland lead down to the slimmest of margins at 49-48 with 1:30 still left to tick off the clock.
And after a critical defensive stand which the ball go back to Mennonite after a loose ball scrum by way of the possession arrow, the Blazers’ Roman Ali would be fouled at the conclusion of the next LMH possession as the undersized but always tough-as-nails “5” man was able to sink both of his attempts at the foul line for 2 of his team-high 18 points on the afternoon, to swing the lead back over to the Blazers’ favor at 50-49 with now just 31.4 left to go.
However once again, Lancaster Mennonite would find the task of putting Richland away once and for all to be an extremely tall and downright impossible task as the Rams were able to counter back with the biggest of answers both as Richland’s Trevy Hardison was able to drive along the baseline for his only field goal of the ballgame, as the 6’4” senior big man was able to put Richland back on top with the game now under 30 seconds.
From there, Mennonite would be able to offer a response of their own as a tip in follow by Roman Ali gave the lead back to the Blazers at 52-51 with just 3.2 left standing on the clock as the Black and Yellow backers from the Red Rose city roared their approval following what felt like the game winning shot.
Felt being the key word.
With Richland now having called timeout and being forced to call without question their best play of the season 94 feet away from both the literal and figurative goal, the ball found it’s way into the hands of the Rams’ Tyler Zimmerman who was able to become a decorated Richland Ram legend within a matter of moments as the 6’2” senior guard was able to turn the corner off the screen in front of the scorer’s table with a full head of steam, launching a 35 foot double-clutch shot into the air before the ball eventually danced through the bottom of net, sending the Richland fans onto the floor, and their team into the state championship, after a legendary 54-52 battle and subsequent triumph—A victory which by the way will see the Rams prepare to hurl their best stone at Goliath. Goliath of course being four time defending state champion Neumann Goretti, as the Rams will prepare for a Wednesday afternoon title tilt inside the palatial Giant Center to see who truly is the best in the commonwealth at the 3A level.
After such a gut-wrenching loss, much akin the one endured by Lancaster Mennonite on Saturday afternoon, it would certainly be understandable if the words, any words for that matter, would be nothing if not tough to utter.
Yet even still, Lancaster Mennonite head coach Geoff Groff continued to exude that same level of class as he always does, even while dealing with the most bitter of defeats.
“It was a great run,” Coach Groff said harkening back on his team’s incredible state playoff ride just moments after it ended while standing outside the team locker room. “It was an amazing group of guys that somehow found a way to overcome some of the different obstacles as far as no one picking us to really do anything, to travel like we did, and finding ways to battle,” the Blazer head man stated with pride.
“Every game was a possession here, a possession there,” Groff went on to detail regarding Mennonite’s trek to Saturday’s Western State Final. “I couldn’t be prouder of a group of guys,” Groff added. “We don’t have any sayings that we do, but we talk all the time about ‘You have to be ready.’ You might not be in this rotation, but you never know how things can change. You get opportunities in life and the guys who make it work are the ones who are ready when their opportunities come.”
So, when looking back on the 2017-18 Lancaster Mennonite season as a whole, whether it be in the immediate future or years from now way on down the line, it will and should always be remembered as a group of young men that did indeed take advantage of the opportunities presented to them by coming together and refusing to let extraneous factors such as seed lines or physical distances on a map to be obstacles in their way when it came to achieving their dreams of playing for the school’s first ever state championship. Yet unfortunately in the end however, the waiting will continue to be the hardest part.