The saying goes that the deeper the run through the state playoffs, the more arduous the journey grows. Well, aside from the fact that Lancaster Mennonite likely thought that they had needed to apply for passports as it related to their first three state tournament games-excursions that took them to the likes of Johnstown coupled with back to back trips to the center of the state in Altoona, the competition itself waiting there at those sites was no less daunting.
Yes, after being shipped to extreme western outposts given their school’s location which is nestled amongst countless outlet stores along Route 30 to the east of the Lancaster city limits, Lancaster Mennonite’s challenges were compounded even further as the Blazers were assigned the task of having to take down District 6 champion Ligonier Valley right out of the chute, a test that Mennonite was ultimately able to pass by virtue of their nail-biting 65-60 triumph.
Their reward? Another similar trip out west to square off with yet another District champion in Westinghouse, hailing from the District 8 ranks. And yet once again, Lancaster Mennonite’s propensity to remain unphased by whatever chore was asked of them was on full display as the Blazers were able to advance yet again, moving into the Elite Eight round of states after eking out another whiteknuckle affair, tripping up the Bulldogs from the Pittsburgh city school 52-50.
Their reward this time? A tiny bit of respite as the Blazers loaded up the coach bus to set sail for Altoona for the second time this week as the Blazers were set to do battle with District 10 second-place finisher Greenville who hails from the greater Erie area.
Without question, one of Mennonite’s biggest calling cards is their ability to ‘get up in your grill’ and make life miserable with their stifling defensive pressure. And from the outset on Saturday afternoon, Greenville would soon discover that it was an assignment that they too would have to deal with as the Blazers kept the scoring to a minimum throughout the first portion of the first quarter as both the Trojans and Blazers found scoring to be a difficult duty.
In fact, the score heading into the first media timeout saw the Blazers and Trojans deadlocked at 4-4 following an Elijah Bynum bucket in transition before a Carter Hurst trifecta shortly thereafter gave Mennonite the 7-4 lead at the three minute mark of the first.
But from there on out however, Greenville would be able to rally the troops and then some.
Sparked by a nice drive inside by fearless 6’2” senior guard Joe Batt, the Trojans had quickly rallied back to tie the Blazers up at 7-7.
However they weren’t done there.
Following the Batt take to the tin, the remainder of the first period would bear witness to the Trojans going on to rattle off the game’s next five points as Greenville went on to the conclude the first frame with an 8-0 run, bolstering the Trojan lead to a 12-7 count following the game’s first eight minutes.
Ironically, the start of the second quarter would go on to show the game take a massive seismic shift in Mennonite’s direction as the Blazers were able to battle back to meet the Trojans on the scoreboard at 12-12 following a theft and lay in by Mennonite’s diminutive but fearless point guard John Gillespie as the 6’1” senior floor general was able to knot things back up with his bucket in transition.
However the Blazers themselves weren’t done there.
In fact, the Blazers were able to continue their stellar second quarter play as Mennonite quickly saw their lead jump up to a half dozen at 18-12 following buckets from Carter Hurst and John Gillespie respectively before a much-needed deuce by Joe Batt stopped the bleeding for Greenville, which made it a 18-14 contest in favor of the Blazers.
However as the Batt hoop would later prove, the Trojans were once again in the midst of authoring a rally of their own as a Trap Wentling floater in the lane quickly tied things back up at 20-20 with one minute left in the first half.
And once the first half did finally draw to a close, it showed the Blazers surviving two first half Trojan blitzkriegs, carrying a 23-22 lead with them into the intermission.
Ironically, for a first half which saw so many wild momentum swings in either direction, the third was relatively tame as the Trojans were able to keep a lid on the Blazers’ run and gun attack, holding the Blazers to just three third quarter points as the third frame concluded with Greenville on top 29-26.
And after the first few minutes of the game’s final stanza, things only continued to look more precarious for the Blazers given the fact that the Trojans were able to grow their lead to a 33-26 count at the 6:30 mark following a personal 4-0 rally authored by Greenville’s sensational senior guard Joe Batt who went on to finish with game-high scoring honors for the Trojans by netting a 20 point effort.
Needless to say, someone for Lancaster Mennonite needed to step up and make a play with their season delicately dancing on the razor’s edge.
Enter Elijah Terry stage right.
With his team facing the very real possibility of having an extra-long and solemn bus ride back to Lancaster, the fearless 5’9” sophomore played well beyond his years in the game’s most critical moments.
What does ‘fearless’ look like you may ask? How about a personal 5-0 charge to get your team back within three at 33-30 with under five minutes left to play in a state quarterfinal.
And yet even though Greenville’s Trap Wentling was able to counter right back with a badly-needed steal and finish to push the Trojan lead up to 35-30 with three minutes left to play, Mr. Terry stepped up to the plate once again by nailing a cold-blooded trifecta which made it a 35-33 affair with 1:21 left to play.
And with their defensive intensity magnified ten-fold following their late fourth quarter push, it had appeared that Lancaster Mennonite’s snowball was about to officially finish rolling downhill following a steal on ensuing defensive possession which gave possession back to LMH with 1:06 left to tick off the clock.
However the subsequent offensive trip was simply not to be as a block down on the defensive end by Greenville’s Trap Wentling, took some of the wind out of the Mennonite sails with the game now inside the epitome of crunch time.
To add insult to injury, Wentling ended up being fouled during the chaotic scene which the sent the crafty the 5’8” senior guard to the line with just 30.4 left to play. And just as most seniors are able to do, he too was able to deliver the goods in his team’s time of need by knocking down an enormous pair of freebies from the charity stripe which saw the Trojans increase their advantage to 37-33 with time quickly running out on the Blazers’ chances.
And with that old saying of seniors stepping up in the biggest moments still on the forefront of everyone’s minds, Lancaster Mennonite’s Carter Hurst was able to come through with an equally big play as the 5’10” senior guard drove fearlessly to the cup, finishing through contact, and converting the free throw afterwards to make it now just a one point game at 37-36 with 24.9 left to go.
From there, Greenville’s Joe Batt ended up being fouled on the ensuing inbounds play as the 6’2” senior walked to other end to toe the stripe where he would go on to make it a 1-2 trip, bolstering the Trojan lead to 38-36 with roughly 20 seconds remaining in regulation.
However just as he had earlier in the final stanza, Elijah Terry continued to rise to the occasion one more time as the Blazers’ gutsy guard drove hard to the rack, converting the lay in which made things all square at 38-38 with the last few seconds quickly melting off the clock.
And as it turned out, it nearly, very nearly to be more precise, appeared to be just enough time as Greenville’s last gasp half-court heave rattled halfway down before cruelly bounding back out, sending this already great affair into a deserving period of extra time with the Blazers and Trojans deadlocked at 38-38.
Once inside the extra session, the Blazers showed no-ill effects of an early Joe Batt take to the cup on the Trojans’ first possession of overtime by immediately responding with the next game’s next five points thanks to a trifecta splashed home by John Gillespie before a Carter Hurst steal which ended in a coast to coast layup down on the other end as Mennonite quickly took control of the scoreboard with it reading 43-40 in their favor with 2:30 left to go.
However as Mennonite quickly found out, teams that have their backs against the ropes with their season riding on the line do anything but go away quietly into the night.
And right on cue, a timely take to the hoop by Greenville’s Connor Gilfoyle made it a one point ballgame at 43-42 with 1:21 to go.
From there, a John Gillespie free throw would later improve the Lancaster Mennonite advantage to 44-42 with 35.6 left to go.
Now faced with the challenge of having to play their best defensive series of the entire season, those who had the made roughly 3 hour drive from the Red Rose city were able to see their Blazers do exactly that as the Mennonite’s relentless pressure finally gave way to a Greenville turnover as the Trojans were then whistled for stepping along the sideline thanks to the chaotic scene painted by the LMH defenders, giving the ball back to Lancaster Mennonite with just 14.8 left from an appearance in the state semifinal round.
However the game giveth and the game taketh away as the Blazers quickly found out as a turnover on the ensuing inbounds play saw the ball bounce into the hands of Greenville’s Tyler Kincaid as the 6’5” senior forward was able to dash to the hole for the lay in which tied things back up at 44-44.
From there, Mennonite raced down to the other end in the ball in their hands with the chance to claim a walkoff-style victory.
And while the magic was somewhat tempered following a block which sent the ball out of bounds, possession was awarded to the Blazers underneath their own goal with just 1.7 left to tick off the clock.
Yet just as he had all game long on the offensive end, Greenville’s Joe Batt was able to be a 6’2” thorn in the Blazers’ side defensively as well by rising up to swat away Lancaster Mennonite’s last second 3 point attempt, sending the game into an additional four minute period.
Without a doubt, both teams had already emptied the tank to this point, laying absolutely everything on the line with the ultimate goal of state championship glory tantalizingly oh so close.
Yet even still, both the Trojans and Blazers would have to rise to the challenge one more time.
And speaking of rising to the challenge, that was precisely what Lancaster Mennonite was able to do once the second overtime got underway as a Roman Ali bucket got things started for the Blazers before John Gillespie was able split the Trojans’ defensive zone like a hot knife through butter as the tough-as-nails senior Blazer guard tallied 2 of his team-high 14 points. More importantly however, the Gillespie hoop increased the Mennonite lead to 48-44 with the game heading into it’s 40th and final minute.
But the Blazers were not out of the woods just yet. Not by a long shot.
Although they had seen things slip away somewhat having spotted Mennonite a four point lead with time evaporating like that of a hot summer’s rain, the Trojans simply refused to rise the white flag as evidenced by a Tyler Kincaid take to the rim which came on the heels of the Gillespie bucket, trimming Mennonite’s lead back down to just two at 48-46 with 50 seconds to go.
Down on the offensive end, Lancaster Mennonite began to milk away precious seconds away from the Greenville cause with a diligent offensive set before the Trojans were eventually forced to foul which sent the Blazers into the bonus.
Once the Trojans did indeed collect enough fouls, they would send 5’9” junior guard Elijah Bynum to the charity stripe with 17.7 left to go.
And right on cue, Bynum displayed the poise of a grizzled, battle-tested savvy veteran by calmly toeing the line and cashing in both attempts to make it a 50-46 Blazer advantage with time quickly running out on Greenville’s hopes of advancing.
However just as they had all game long, the Trojans continued to battle back in the face of adversity, pushing the Blazers to the ultimate limit as evidenced by a timely take to the rack by Joe Batt with just 4.8 left to play.
From there, Mennonite was fouled on the ensuing inbounds with just three seconds standing between them and another dose of state playoff euphoria.
And even though the front end of the 1-1 danced off the rim, this Greenville halfcourt heave was not nearly as nerve-wracking, falling short, prompting a Blazer dogpile celebration at midcourt as Lancaster Mennonite had come out on top with a 50-48 state quarterfinal triumph, making the Blazers just one of four 3A ballclubs left standing in entire state of Pennsylvania.
After the game, it was obvious that absolutely nothing was going to wipe the smile off longtime Lancaster Mennonite coach Geoff Groff’s face.
“It’s all kind of a blur,” an excited Coach Groff admitted in the immediate aftermath on Saturday afternoon. “They made the plays they needed to make,” Groff went to add regarding his squad. “It’s a tough group of kids.”
“I enjoy the process,” Groff went on to say while still reflecting in the glow of the Blazers’ state quarterfinal victory. “I enjoy being able to do what we need to do. The wins particularly when you win in this stage, when there’s a lot of pressure, yeah, this is big…It’s nice to still be playing. When you can play at this time of year and keep playing, it’s a good win.”
NEXT UP: With their win on Saturday, Lancaster Mennonite now preps for another trip out west at a site and time to be made official later this weekend by the PIAA offices as the Blazers will tangle with Richland on Tuesday night, a silver medalist from District 6 who also emerged victorious in their Saturday afternoon quarterfinal contest, besting Fairview 48-26.
However if one were to ask Coach Groff, chances are that he isn’t exactly upset about another long bus ride if it means playing at this late stage of the game. After all, even the 25th year head coach has seen a whole new side of his talented ballclub shine through during these last few westbound excursions.
“I always knew they were very resilient group,” the Blazer boss said again while illuminating his team’s mental makeup. “They’re having fun with some of the things and letting their guard down. I’m seeing more interaction with each other as a team. I’m seeing good things,” Groff went on to explain.
“The guys genuinely seem like they’re enjoying this time together. Our booster group is doing a tremendous job of making them feel special too. We have the parents come along on the bus and it’s nice. It’s nice because the parents can see their kids there and see their interactions,” Groff continued before summing it all up point blank by saying, “It’d be nice to be a little closer to our area but these guys are pretty amazing.”
And when they take to the court next, no matter where the state tournament brackets may take them, the Blazers will be making their first appearance in a state semifinal game since a 2002 game which saw the Blazers drop a tough 55-48 decision to Kennett who would later go on to claim state gold.
Should they come away victorious on Tuesday night, there will be no more long, lengthy road trips at hand. Instead, Lancaster Mennonite will have the opportunity to finally be back in their own backyard of sorts as the Blazers would then play their next game at Hershey’s Giant Center. And if that motivation wasn’t nearly enough, the Blazers would have also have the opportunity to play for the shiniest of medals and a large gold trophy to boot by achieving the game’s ultimate prize, state immortality.