Ask any coach in any sport at any level and they’re bound to tell you that there are certain places where they just don’t like to play. Talk to the head men patrolling the sidelines in Lancaster Lebanon Section 1 Boys’ Basketball and there’s one answer you may get back that could catch you by surprise. Warwick.
It has nothing to do with the facilities themselves mind you. No, pound for pound, the gym on West Orange Street in Lititz is arguably one of the nicest and most spacious around. Look no further than it’s ability to host league, district, and state playoff contests for proof of that. But in between the white lines inside the gymnasium, the Warriors’ home court has proven to be a snake pit over the last handful of years where some of the top teams in District 3 come up short after 32 minutes. Or more.
If you’re fan of white-knuckle games that have the potential to end in big time upsets, Warwick has been the place for you over the last decade. Consider this, last year Warwick pushed Hempfield to the limit and then some before the Warriors ultimately succumbed to the Black Knights 90-85 in a crazy five overtime affair that was one for the ages. That just so happened to be the same Black Knight team that would go on to finish in the Elite 8 in the 6A field of last year’s PIAA State Playoffs. And even this year Hempfield flirted with the razor’s edge yet again in Lititz as a Ryan Moffatt buzzer beater gave Hempfield a dramatic 38-36 victory. Oh by the way if you’re keeping track at home, this year’s Hempfield squad entered Friday night at the #2 line in the District 3 6A standings just behind the defending state champion, Reading.
Even the best program in Section 1 historically, the McCaskey Red Tornado, have not been immune to Warwick’s house of horrors. In 2015, the Red Tornado traveled up to Lititz only to come away on the short end of the stick, 44-43. The resume on that 2015 McCaskey team would go on to read as a state semifinalist as the Red Tornado were eventually turned away by Roman Catholic in the Final Four, a mere three points shy of a state title game appearance.
But that’s not all. There is still one other great program in that resides in Section 1 that Warwick has been able to put on their home hit list in recent years. That being the Cedar Crest Falcons.
In 2008, an 11-1 Cedar Crest team rolled into “The Coolest Small Town,” only to be sent back home to Cornwall shocked following a Chris Neidermyer buzzer beater that gave Warwick one of it’s five wins of the season, 50-48. And just like McCaskey in 2015, Cedar Crest’s trip to Lititz that same year not be fun either as the #1 ranked team in District 3 fell to Warwick as the Warriors’ posted a jaw-dropping upset on senior night over the visiting Falcons. And just for record keeping, that same 2015 Cedar Crest team would go on to finish with a 27-5 overall record and advance to the District 3 final before eventually falling to the same Roman Catholic team that upended McCaskey in the 2015 state playoffs.
Fast forward to January 19, 2018 and the stage felt eerily similar. Warwick, playing their best ball of the season was sitting there waiting in the weeds to spring another headline-stealing upset as the #4 ranked team in District 3 6A came calling fresh off a disappointing loss to rival McCaskey just 24 hours before. But with so much riding on the line, Cedar Crest head coach Tommy Smith knew better than to just sweep the Falcons’ previous Warwick experiences under the rug heading into Friday night. “We talked about it. We said that this is one of the most difficult places to play. Flat out, the most difficult place I’ve had to play as a coach,” the head Falcon said when bringing up previous Lititz road trips to this year’s Falcon squad. “(Warwick) brings a great atmosphere. I think Warwick feels great here and it’s just a tough place to play.”
And just like so many great teams before them, Cedar Crest too would be pushed to the limit Friday night. The key difference being that this group of Falcons had the moxie and mental makeup to stand tall in the face of a Warwick upset bid and return home victorious with a badly-needed victory to keep their dreams of a Section 1 championship alive and well. A victory that may very well turn out to be a defining moment in their season.
One thing became very apparent when the game got underway. Warwick would push all their chips to the center of the table by planning to hit it big from behind the 3 point line. And sure enough, the Warriors were able to do exactly that. Just 50 seconds into the contest, Warwick star freshman guard Joey McCracken knocked down a triple to give the home-standing Warriors the quick 3-0 lead. Although Cedar Crest senior forward Cole Laney would eventually answer back with a 3 ball of his own, Warwick continued to shoot it well from behind the arc as a Clayton Mohler trifecta with 5:30 to go in the first quarter made it an 8-5 Warwick lead in the early going.
To their credit however, Cedar Crest did not flinch as the Falcons promptly answered back with a 4-0 run of their own to take their first lead of the ballgame at 9-8 following a pair of free throws from all-star senior guard Blake Thomson before a pair of freebies converted by Cole Laney followed suit, eventually increasing the Falcon lead to 11-8 with 3:40 left to play in the first period.
But that just so happened to be the time when Warwick would begin to really heat up. Following the Laney free throws, Warwick answered back with two consecutive triples, one from Clayton Mohler, and another from Ryan Shirk as the Warriors retook the lead 14-11. From then on, Shirk continued to have the touch from beyond the arc as the 6’2” junior guard pumped in another trifecta to make it a 19-13 Warwick lead with just one minute remaining in the opening stanza. But there were still time for more heroics from bonus distance by Clayton Mohler as the senior guard knocked down his third triple of the opening quarter to make it a 22-14 Warwick lead when the first frame eventually expired.
As it would turn out, the brief break in between quarters did nothing to cool down Warwick’s hot shooting. Case in point, Ryan Shirk rising up and knocking down yet another triple which saw the Warwick lead swell to double digits at 25-14 just 1:30 into the second stanza.
And even though Warwick was setting the nylon nets ablaze, Coach Smith remained calm and collected knowing his Falcons could weather the storm. “(Warwick) shot great the first quarter,” Smith said of the Warriors’ early punch. “I didn’t think we needed to change anything. Now if they shoot like that in the second quarter, maybe at halftime we have to make some adjustments, but a few tweaks here and there just understanding personnel. I thought in the second quarter we did a better job of getting out and getting after them and that’s really what turned the tide.”
Foul shooting. Foul shooting. Foul shooting. So often it can make or break games. Well in Cedar Crest’s case in the second quarter against Warwick on Friday night, free throw shooting is what helped keep the Falcons afloat amidst Warwick’s early surge.
After a pair of freebies knocked down by Falcon senior guard Jaiden Melendez made it a 26-16 ballgame with over five minutes to go in the second quarter, the Falcons quietly plodded about their business, sneaking back into the game while Warwick was hit by a cold snap in regards to their outside shooting prowess.
Sure enough, Cedar Crest stuck to their gameplan. And after a steal and finish that culminated in an old-fashioned three point play by senior guard Dylan Miller, the Falcons were back within a half dozen at 26-20 with four minutes remaining in the half. Flash forward to the conclusion of the second quarter and practice made perfect for Blake Thomson as Cedar Crest’s senior guard closed the half with four straight free throws from the stripe which brought the Falcons to within five at the intermission, 30-25.
For as much as Warwick had enjoyed prolific outside shooting at the outset of the contest, it would be Cedar Crest who would have the same type of success once the second half got underway as a 3 ball canned by junior guard Logan Horn brought the Falcons to within four at 36-32 with 4:30 left in the third.
But from there, Warwick’s bruising forward Bryan Rottkamp had the answer as the 6’1” senior forward rattled off his own personal 4-0 run to push the Warrior lead up to eight at 40-32 shortly thereafter. And although Cedar Crest would close the gap down to five at 40-35 following a trifecta by way of Dylan Miller, Warwick answered back with a 4-0 flurry to extend the lead back out to 44-35 with 2:20 left in the third.
With the game on the line, Cedar Crest needed their senior leaders to step up. And right on cue, the two-headed monster of Blake Thomson and Cole Laney arrived with bad intentions as Laney promptly ripped off a 4-0 run to close the gap back down to five before Thomson splashed a triple to cut the Warrior lead to two at 44-42 with the quarter winding down.
Fortunately for Warwick, Ryan Shirk was there with the answer to stop the Cedar Crest run as his put back, good for 2 of his team-high 17 points on the night, sent things to the fourth quarter with Warwick clinging to the 46-42 lead.
After Cole Laney put home a stick back that got Cedar Crest to within a deuce on the Falcons’ first trip down the floor to start the final quarter, it seemed like a Falcon tie or lead was all but a certain. But after several trips down the floor that came up empty, Warwick was able to withstand the early quarter pressure before eventually going up by four following a pair of free throws nailed by Ryan Shirk to make it a 48-44 ballgame midway through the final quarter.
But for all the hard luck that Cedar Crest experienced over the previous few minutes, Blake Thomson was there to make that a thing of the past as the senior guard knocked down two enormous triples down the home stretch to give the lead back to Cedar Crest, 50-48, with two and a half minutes to go. A lead the Falcons would never relinquish.
In fact, the Cedar Crest lead would balloon to four right after the Thomson 3 point aerial display as a Logan Horn tough reverse finish at the cup increased the Falcon lead to 52-48 with 1:45 to go, prompting Warwick to call a timeout.
Although the Warriors would come up empty on their ensuing possession coming out of the timeout, their defense was able to come up with a timely stop as a Ryan Shirk steal eventually culminated in a foul and a trip to the charity stripe where the junior guard calmly knocked down the pair to bring Warwick back within a bucket at 52-50 with one minute left to go.
But the dreams for Warwick to draw even or perhaps retake the lead were dashed by Logan Horn as the junior stepped in front of a pass on the ensuing Warrior possession as the Cedar Crest starting quarterback ironically got the chance to play the role of a defensive back on the hardwood, thwarting one of the final Warwick chances down the stretch.
And from there, a pair of Blake Thomson free throws, good for 2 of his game-high 19 points, fittingly closed things out as Cedar Crest came out on top, surviving an upset scare from Warwick, 54-50.
Although it will go down as just one win in record book, it was a big win for Cedar Crest on Friday night for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the Falcons showed off their resolve by putting Thursday night’s disappointing loss to McCaskey behind them, dodging the bullet of having that loss possibly manifest itself into two or more. Secondly, Cedar Crest did not play their best ball, yet it was still good enough to pull out a road victory within the section. Wins that you take no matter how they are presented to you.
Yet even though the Falcons may have appeared off their game somewhat, Coach Smith was quick to acknowledge that their opponent had a lot to do with that. “I think their shooting, knocking down six 3’s early, that’s tough,” Smith regarding the challenge Warwick posed on Friday night. “The way (Warwick) shot, they built that lead and we just tried to play one possession at a time. Grind back, grind back, grind back and eventually I think we did, holding them to four foul shots in the fourth quarter which was inevitably the difference in the game. Give Warwick credit. They fight.”
NEXT UP: With the much-needed win over Warwick now in their back pocket, Cedar Crest gets back to the grind in just a few hours as the Falcons are faced with the unenviable task of playing three games in as many days thanks to the clipper system that rolled through the area earlier this week dumping snow and ice behind in its wake. And for as much as the average person may say they hate the snow, let’s just say that coaches aren’t exactly fans of the havoc the winter season can play regarding scheduling snafus that are just part of the nature of the beast. “It’s difficult to get gameplans together,” Coach Smith admitted Friday night regarding the challenge of facing two section foes in back to back nights before matching up with one Pennsylvania’s best programs in Williamsport on the third day on such a condensed schedule. “Luckily we have a group of seniors that have been through it before so we can gameplan tomorrow morning for Williamsport, but it’s hard playing three games in a row with no practice in between.”
As far as Warwick is concerned, the Warriors will back in action on Saturday as well, loading the bus to head over to York County to take on Red Lion. Following Saturday’s tussle across the river, Warwick returns back to Section 1 action next week with roadtrips to Lebanon and Hempfield before finally returning home for a date with McCaskey on January 30th.