A league championship and a district championship. For most programs, those two accomplishments rarely ever come together as a package deal. But sure enough, they did last year for Lancaster Catholic.
In fact, the Crusaders have seemed to make a habit of literally putting the two together considering Catholic was able to capture both L-L and District 3 gold along the way before winning the ultimate prize, the PIAA championship in 2003. And although last year’s Crusader team would fall short of matching their former brethren after dropping an opening round state game against a dramatically under-seeded West Philadelphia Speedboys outfit, the questions had swirled throughout the offseason as to how the Crusaders would be able to pick up the pieces after losing such a talented and valuable senior class. A senior class which led them to heights the program had not seen in over a decade. But if this year’s Lancaster Catholic team is any indication, “reload” is simply not a term that exists in the Crusaders’ vocabulary.
Sure, things might not have gotten to the quickest of starts given the fact that the Crusaders dropped their third game of the season on the road at L-S. But as we have seen throughout the duration of the season to this point, Lampeter-Strasburg can make as strong a case as anyone as to why they are the best team in the L-L League. And based on Lancaster Catholic’s response since the early season loss in Lampeter, it appears to be a matchup that we may very well see again in just a few weeks as both teams are on a beeline toward the league playoffs.
Coming into Tuesday’s night matchup against Annville Cleona, the Crusaders had been playing like they were on a mission. How’s this for a resume? Unbeaten in L-L Section 3 and sitting atop of the District 3 4A standings with a 16-2 overall record. So yeah, it hasn’t been so much of a rebuild. Try reload this year in Lancaster city.
Ironically, their opponent on this night would look up into the rafters at Lancaster Catholic and not be intimidated in the least by a certain banner that read “State Champions.” No, because Annville Cleona need only go back to their own gym to look up see one that reads the same. And although this year’s A-C team may not resemble that infamous 1999 squad, the Dutchmen have been anything but an easy out for anyone who matches up with them on the schedule.
In fact, Annville’s season started off in similar fashion as Lancaster Catholic’s, if not better. Following an early season championship that was earned in the Hamburg Tip Off Tournament, the Dutchmen continued their scintillating start by besting Tulpehocken to jump out a quick 3-0 start. From there, A-C went on to claim victories over fellow Section 3 combatants Pequea Valley, Lebanon Catholic, and Columbia, a state tournament team from last year with a lot of talent returning, before heading into Tuesday night’s scrap with Lancaster Catholic with a 7-9 overall record. Yet even though A-C was sitting below the .500 mark, the Dutchmen were still hanging right around the cutline of the District 3 3A standings, making the Tuesday roadtrip into Lancaster of the upmost importance if the Dutchmen were to return home with a signature win.
However it quickly became apparent that Lancaster Catholic would have none of that.
With both teams starting off ice cold from the field, any sort of initial run to start the contest would likely do wonders for either one of the two squads. Well, check and mate to the Crusaders.
After a pair of free throws got Lancaster Catholic on the board, the first field goal of the game was put home by Catholic’s Johnny Besecker as the 5’11” junior guard was able to finish through contact while adding the free throw on top of it to put the Crusaders in front 5-0 with 1:30 gone by in the first quarter.
However the shooting must have been contagious in the gym from there as evidenced by Annville’s Ryan Mathews quickly answering back with a traditional three pointer of his own to close the gap down to two and get A-C on the board. From there on out however, it quickly became a Lancaster Catholic firestorm.
After Besecker was able to counter back with a triple of his own, an RJ Van Tash run out pushed the Crusader lead up to 10-3, forcing Annville Cleona to burn their first timeout of the ballgame with 5:42 left in the first. But things did not get much better for the Dutchmen following the timeout.
In fact, the 5-0 run following the Mathews triple ballooned itself into a 10-0 run with A-C being forced to call yet another timeout, now looking up and staring at a big hole to the tune of 15-3 with now 4:01 left in the first period.
Fortunately for Annville Cleona, this timeout would yield more positive results. After the quick break, A-C’s Roarke Miller was finally able to put a stop the Lancaster Catholic flurry as the 6’0” senior guard drilled a step in jumper along the baseline which preceded a Dashaun Archer trifecta as the Dutchmen had suddenly closed the gap to within single digits at 18-7. But that would turn out to be all the closer Annville would get for the remainder of the first quarter and even the game.
Over the course of the next several minutes, Lancaster Catholic began to create their separation with buckets on the offensive end which were undeniably driven by stellar work turned in on the defensive end. With A-C being besmirched by the turnover bug thanks to the frantic style of defense employed by Lancaster Catholic in the opening stanza, the Crusader lead would swell to a dozen following an old fashioned three point play authored by Andrew Miklos as the sophomore guard put Catholic on top 22-10 which was the score when the first quarter clock finally expired with the Dutchmen being held to just four first quarter field goals in the opening eight minutes.
The second quarter only proved to be more the same for Lancaster Catholic. Stellar defense to compliment an offense which appeared to be humming along nicely. In fact, the Crusaders were able to have both work hand in hand as LC jumped out to a 6-0 run to start the second stanza as a Denzel Kabasele dunk fittingly put a bow on the quick Catholic surge.
And just like in the first quarter, Annville would have a hard time going against the stingy Catholic D. Although it took longer than originally anticipated, a Donald Friday 3 ball finally quenched A-C’s thirst by closing the books on the Lancaster Catholic run albeit with the Crusaders firmly in command as evidenced by the 28-13 score in their favor at the 4:40 mark of the second quarter.
And although it was a totally team effort defensively for Lancaster Catholic, one cannot simply overlook the presence that David Kamwanga played in all of it. If Kamwanga was not rising up to block a Dutchmen shot, he was certainly altering them as countless A-C bunnies from close range went begging in the face of Catholic’s imposing 6’6 sophomore rim-protector. But Kamwanga wasn’t just a one-trick pony on this night. Down on the offensive end, Kamwanga was seen doing damage there too as his spot up jumper in the lane at the 2:30 mark made it a 32-13 Lancaster Catholic lead.
From there, his front court partner in crime was able to unleash his own wrath as a spot jumper by 6’4” junior forward Dwayne Caine followed suit as the Crusader lead had suddenly exploded to a mystifying 20 point gap by virtue of the 34-14 count. But Catholic wasn’t satisfied just there. No, the Crusader lead would eventually expand to 24 at the halftime break as a Denzel Kabasele baseline drive just before the horn sent Catholic into the dressing room in possession of the 40-16 advantage.
However to their credit, Annville Cleona came out and began to show everyone the same types of signs that have made them a serious threat to those that have lined up against them all season. Although Noah Myers was held scoreless during the first half, the 6’5 senior center wasted no time in showing why he is one the best big men in the entire L-L League by stepping out from behind the arc to bury an early trey to cut into the Lancaster Catholic lead down somewhat at 42-21 two minutes into the third.
Following the Myers 3 ball, Annville was then able to take their game inside as a determined drive to the cup was finished off nicely through contact by sophomore guard Andrew Long before Ben Miller would go on to have the final honors with the ensuing free throw with Long being forced to exit due to a cut on his arm earned during the fray.
Annville Cleona only continued to keep playing hard from there as a nice floater was put up and in by A-C’s Donald Friday, cutting the Catholic lead down to 20 at 46-26 at the three minute in the third. On the night, Friday had indeed come early for Annville Cleona as the 6’ senior guard was able to wrap up team-high scoring honors with a 13 point outing.
However Dwayne Caine wasn’t about to let A-C have all the fun in the third quarter. With the third quarter clock now ticking under one minute, the junior forward took off in transition and suddenly looked he had found a trampoline amongst the floor as the talented junior quickly exploded into midair before throwing down a thunderous one-handed tomahawk jam to put a bow on the third quarter of play. A quarter which saw the Crusaders head into the fourth leading 48-28.
And just like they were able to do at the onset of the second quarter, a quick Lancaster Catholic charge defined the early going of the final period. Although Catholic’s second quarter flurry would be to the tune of a half dozen, this early surge was of the 5-0 variety as a Connor Engle runout in transition got the Crusaders off and running. Literally.
Now the nice part of about playing with such a big lead, aside from the fact that it aides coaches from avoiding a few extra gray hairs, is the fact that those who sacrifice for your team day in and day out that may not necessarily get the headlines are rewarded with their opportunity to step on the floor and show what they can do. And as far as Lancaster Catholic is concerned, there appears to be anything but a drop off all the way throughout the supporting cast.
The first to make his imprint on the game would be Brendan Bowen as the 6’ senior guard became the beneficiary of a nice inbounds play under the basket for the easy deuce before Bowen would go on to finish the evening with another bucket, tallying 4 points the victorious Crusader effort when all was said and done.
Next, the spotlight shined bright for 5’10” junior guard Andy Santiago. Santiago checked into the game and promptly sank a nice floater in the lane to push the Crusader lead up to 64-37 with three minutes and change remaining in the contest. On the night, Santiago too would go on to finish with a 4 point night at the office to finish alongside Bowen in the scoring column.
And just like Bowen and Santiago before him, Trey Wells checked in and got his name in the scorebook as well as the sophomore center played physical under the rim before getting fouled and going to stripe where he would knock one down to join an eye-popping 13 Crusaders in the scoring column who all chipped in something to the victorious Crusader effort. The very definition of a true team outing.
And although Lancaster Catholic would go on to finish this one out, Annville Cleona still had time for one last highlight as senior guard Christian Hernandez entered the contest and proved to be money from behind the arc by drilling a trifecta down the stretch before the Crusaders went on to close this one out over their guests from Annville-Cleona, 69-42.
NEXT UP: As far as Lancaster Catholic is concerned, just continue rowing the boat in the same direction. With their win on Tuesday night over Annville, the Crusaders continue to remain unblemished in section play as they begin to see the finish line in sight amidst their second tour through Section 3 this season. From here, the Lancaster Catholic will begin preparations for Columbia on Friday night atop the Hill for one the L-L’s best rivalries inside arguably the league’s best setting. Rest assured, the records can surely be tossed out for the hour or so that the Crusaders and Crimson Tide do battle at Columbia. After their Friday night slugfest, Catholic will look off onto the horizon and see other top dogs in Section 3 waiting for them on the other side in Northern Lebanon and Lancaster Mennonite respectively with a matchup against Lebanon Catholic squeezed in the middle. Get ready Crusader Nation. It appears that another lengthy postseason run could again be in the works.
As mentioned, Annville Cleona came in with high hopes of possibly stealing a landmark victory to help bolster their district playoff resume. And although those chances took a significant hit on Tuesday night, all is not lost for the Dutchmen. Starting on Friday night, Annville will begin their final push against a dangerous ELCO team before finishing off with Mennonite, Pequea Valley, and Lebanon Catholic in that order. If they can finish strong, the Dutchmen can be assured of two things. A fighting chance to sneak into the postseason party, but more importantly, sending this veteran crop of senior Dutchmen out the right way. As winners.