Just three weeks ago, it could have easily been argued that the Lampeter-Strasburg Pioneers were playing the best basketball out of anyone in the mid-state. And deservedly so.
After all, the Pios were in the midst of one of their best seasons in school history. And on that Friday night just three short weeks ago, the L-S Boys’ Basketball team was able to officially make a historically great season as the Pioneers advanced all the way to the L-L title game where they would upend Lancaster Catholic, knocking the mighty Crusaders off their championship level perch, for the first ever league title claimed by the Pioneer program.
Yet although L-S was clearly enjoying the ride of a historic high, the District 3 tournament would prove to be not nearly as kind to the Blue and White.
Entering the district brackets, L-S had rightfully claimed the #1 slot in the loaded for bear 5A field by virtue of their spectacular regular season. A regular season campaign that could only be described as a two month romp through L-L competition which saw the Pioneers rattle off an incredible 23-2 overall mark in the process.
Over the course of the next two weeks however, the Pioneers’ journey took a somewhat unexpected detour with L-S dropping the same number of the games over the span of a handful of days as they had over an entire two month span.
Their first roadblock would see L-S dropping their first game of the postseason to a wildly under-seeded #8 Lower Dauphin squad in the second round of the District 3 tournament. It would be a defeat which steered the Pios away from playing in the palatial confines of Hershey’s Giant Center, an undoubtedly bitter pill to swallow as the trip seemed all but a certain prior to their defeat at the hands of the Falcons from LD.
From there, L-S would proceed to knock off fellow Section 2 rival Garden Spot their next time out, only to come up short once more in the District 3 5th place game as the Pioneers succumbed to their second Mid-Penn foe in the D3 tournament, dropping a 54-42 decision to the Trojans of Hershey.
Yet through it all, L-S’ sparkling body of work was worthy enough for the Pioneers to garner a spot in the illustrious state tournament for a third straight year—An accomplishment that for whatever the reason always seems to slip under the radar when talking about great achievements that have taken place in L-L basketball over the last half decade.
And with the state tournament being the epitome of the “one and done” scenario, the Pioneers were assured of nothing but seeing a quality opponent. As it related to their opening round opposition on Friday night at Easton, that truly was a definitive fact as L-S embarked on their state playoff journey against the Slaters hailing from Bangor.
When talking about great eastern-based Pennsylvania high school hoops programs, one would be nothing short of foolish to leave Bangor out of the discussion. And while those on the outside of the mountainous communities that straddle the New Jersey state line may be somewhat unfamiliar with the Slaters’ accomplishments over the last few seasons, they certainly have been able to produce a resume that is worthy of recognition.
Just try this on for size, over the last five years alone, there is simply is no denying that there is no better program in the Colonial League than that of the Slaters. After all, Bangor has gone on to claim the league title the last four consecutive seasons and five out of the last six years overall.
But their dominance doesn’t end just there.
Once they move on to the bigger stages of playoff basketball, the Slaters have proven themselves to be a program worthy of playing beyond the league tournament as Bangor has advanced to the District XI Final two of the last three years, including having the unique distinction of being one of the last 16 teams left standing in the “big school” AAAA ranks in the final year of the now outdated classification system back in 2016.
And so with another state tournament bid in their possession yet again this season, the Slaters loaded up the bus and made the trek down to Pennsylvania’s eastern-most outpost to embark on yet another journey that they hoped ends far further than just the Sweet 16 in 2018 as the Lancaster-Lebanon League Champion and Colonial League Champion were set to do battle in Easton.
Whether it be a case of the week-long in between games or purely just state tourney game nerves, it took awhile for both the Slaters and Pioneers to get into a rhythm offensively.
So much so in fact that L-S was not able to tally their first field goal until the 3:50 mark of the opening quarter when stellar senior guard Isaac Beers was able to rise and fire from behind the arc in the face of the Slaters’ 2-3 zone for the early triple which gave the Pioneers the 4-2 advantage with the first quarter now past it’s halfway point.
Bangor on the other hand would have to continue to wait their turn.
Yes, the Slaters’ first bucket from the field would come after that thanks to crafty junior point guard Ben Holland who was able to knock down the spot up jumper after snatching an errant L-S pass just moments before, trimming the L-S lead to 6-4 with 2:15 left to go in the opening stanza.
And although both teams would be able to get their offenses going with a handful of buckets near the conclusion of the opening frame, it prove to be foul shots which would close the opening quarter as Isaac Beers was fouled in the act of shooting another trademark triple just before the horn, going 2-3 on his trip to the charity stripe to put L-S on top 10-8 at the finale of the game’s first eight minutes.
Ironically for as much as both teams struggled from the field to begin the contest, both the Pioneers and Slaters seemed to show no ill-effects or resulting scar tissue afterwards as both L-S and Bangor came out firing to begin the second frame.
In fact, Bangor was able to snatch possession of the lead at 11-10 following a trifecta knocked down by Ben Holland at the 6:30 mark of the opening quarter as the 5’9 junior was able to pump in 3 of his team-high 16 points on the evening.
But from that point on however, L-S would have all the answers.
Knowing how their bread is best buttered, the Pioneers went back to a tried and true formula. Feeding the ball inside.
And right on cue, the gameplan seemed to work like a charm as L-S proceeded to outscore Bangor 10-3 over the course of the next several minutes as a Zach Kingsley bucket from you guessed it, point blank range, put the Pioneers up by a touchdown at 20-13 with the game heading toward halftime.
But before L-S would be able to race off the floor into the nearby locker room to celebrate an outstanding second quarter of play, Bangor’s Bernard Davis had other ideas.
With his team needing to find some sort of spark and the game dangerously close to slipping out of their grasp, the Slaters turned to their junior big man to help turn the tide.
And fortunately for those who made the roughly half hour drive south to Easton, Mr. Davis was able to deliver the goods as the physically imposing 6’3” force inside proceeded to rattle off his own personal 5-0 run to close the half as the Slaters were to claw back to within four at the break with L-S holding serve with the 22-18 advantage.
Once both teams returned to floor to start the second half, it was apparent that the initial few minutes would go a long in defining who would be able to leave Easton with an opening round victory in the state tournament.
It just so happened that it would be Bangor who would author the first haymaker of the third quarter.
Without question, the Slaters had clearly been inspired by the conclusion of the first half, thanks in large part to Bernard Davis’ performance in the paint. And right on cue, the Slaters were able to knock the well-traveled Pioneers back on their heels with a quick 4-0 spurt to knot things back up at 22-22 after a Ben Holland layup in transition with just two minutes having run off the third quarter clock.
Over the course of the next few minutes of the third quarter however, neither squad would be able to gain much in terms of separation from one another on the large scoreboards hanging in the corners.
In fact, while it had appeared that L-S was able to find some much-needed momentum following a trey from sophomore guard Seth Beers which gave the Pios the 29-26 lead, the Slaters were able to come right back to meet L-S at 31-31 following a beautiful three point play by Nate Owens as the 6’2” sophomore guard was able to successfully execute the perfect backdoor cut along the baseline, finishing through contact and converting the freebie at the foul line to make things all square with the third quarter winding down.
But Owens wasn’t done there. Not even close.
Yes, even though L-S was able to counter back with a Ryan Smith bucket inside, stop me if you’ve read that phrase before, Owens was able to offer a rebuttal of his own in the form of a trifecta which gave the lead back to the Slaters at 34-33 at the conclusion of the third quarter with momentum clearly residing on the Bangor bench.
However Nate Owens’ offensive fireworks were not solely limited to the third quarter alone.
Once again, Bangor’s heady sophomore guard was able to continue delivering big time minutes for his ballclub in their time of need as Owens was able to fire in another triple, this one returning the lead back in the favor of the Slaters as Bangor went back in front 37-35 with 6:45 left to play.
But just as they had for the vast majority of this season, L-S proceeded to put their foot down and exert their will right then and there.
Not many teams in the area and not many teams in general are able to send out a 6’10” center—Let alone one that can hurt you in a multitude of ways. And as Bangor soon discovered, Ryan Smith is not just one of the best big men in the mid-state, but the entire eastern half of Pennsylvania as well.
And so, with their team needing to answer back with time of the upmost importance, L-S started to find their big and talented star.
Simply put, Bangor had no answer for which to contend with Ryan Smith over the course of 32 minutes on Friday night. And right on cue, L-S started to work the ball repeatedly inside to Smith where he would ultimately continue to get fouled, earning subsequent trips to the free throw line as a result.
And sure enough, Smith was able to step up in his team’s time of need as the 6’10” prized East Stroudsburg recruit proceeded to go a perfect 4-4 from the line to start the final quarter, giving the lead back to L-S at 39-37.
With Smith’s offensive game clicking, the rest of the Pioneers followed right in line just as they had done all season long as the Isaac Beers promptly pumped in back to back triples which gave the lead back to L-S at 45-37 with Bangor now staring at a harsh reality that their season may soon be coming to an end.
It certainly did not help matters for the Slaters that Ryan Smith was able to continue displaying his sheer dominance as the current L-S Pioneer, soon-to-be East Stroudsburg Warrior, was able to tally another bucket inside, good for 2 more en route to his game-high 26 point performance.
Yet even though Bangor would continue to fight all the way to the finish as evidenced by a Ben Holland triple which made it a 51-40 contest with 57.2 to go, it was simply too little too late as L-S was able to ride their emphatic 21-8 fourth quarter performance into the next round of the state tournament, advancing past Bangor 54-42.
Without question, the state tournament is a unique deal in and of itself for a variety of reasons. However when you add in the mandatory week off in between district and state playoff games, the challenge of keeping a team in a groove can be nothing short of an added speedbump along the way while preparing to make a run for the state’s ultimate prize.
“It’s hard,” L-S head coach Ed Berryman admitted regarding the layoff in between games. “That’s the hard part is keeping (the team) motivated,” the Pioneer boss went on to explain. But fortunately for the Pioneers and the tight-knit bond that the program has now long-since established, they were able to call upon an old friend to help them in their time of need.
“Actually John Achille helped me out yesterday,” Coach Berryman said eluding to the former L-S head coach. “I went up to his classroom, took the whole team up too and we watched some motivational stuff on the whiteboard to help change the mindset and get them to start thinking about what we need to do,” Coach Berryman said revealing his plans on the eve before the start of the state playoffs. “I just figured we needed to give these guys something different to try and change it up a little bit.”
And for whatever it was that the team watched, the idea certainly proved to worth its weight in gold as the Pioneers were able to advance on to their second Sweet 16 appearance in three seasons after taking down the Slaters of Bangor.
NEXT UP: With their triumph on Friday night, the Pioneers know they will face off with Archbishop Carroll of the esteemed Philadelphia Catholic League on Tuesday night at a site and time to be determined but Coatesville likely serving as a possible landing spot given it’s near-perfect geographically-centered location along Route 30 in between both schools.
And not that L-S will need any sort of reminders as they prepare to sit down the watch film of the Patriots, but the Pioneers know that they will have the unique task of going up against one of the best teams in the entire state on Tuesday night. After all, it’s an Archbishop Carroll program that advanced to last season’s Elite Eight round and state final round back in 2015. But rest assured, this group of Pioneers will be out to make history, just as they have all season long, when they take to the floor against the mighty Patriots early next week.
With their defeat on Friday night, Bangor must now close the books on yet another special season in the annals of the Slater program. Their accomplishments alone this season serve as a checklist that most schools would love to have over the course of an entire decade or longer– A league championship, a runner-up spot in districts and not to mention yet another state tournament bid. And with a whole bunch of Slaters expected to return against next season, there’s no reason to think that Bangor won’t be able to find itself back in the same familiar place once again next year. This time though, looking to check off a couple of more boxes of that To-Do List, along with advancing further along in the state tournament, perhaps even surpassing their esteemed 2016 brethren.